Objective Clarity in Our Visions of Each Other

In an essay from 1988 called “The Joy of Marginality” Piper made explicit the scope and purpose of her own political and socially-critical art. “My work is an act of communication that politically catalyzes its viewers into reflecting on their own deep impulses and responses to racism and xenophobia, relative to a target or stance that I depict,” she wrote. To achieve this goal (or any goal of effecting psychological change through art), Piper thought it was essential to engage the viewer in what she called the “indexical present” of the work of art: a here-and-now created in the transaction between artist and audience. (Conversely, she expressed skepticism about the efficacy of “global political art” that attempts to educate or persuade the viewer concerning a situation represented as being external to the viewer’s own experience). In another text, “Performance: The Problematic Solution,” Piper championed the didactic and the confrontational as central aspects, or modes, of this form of artist–viewer engagement.

On Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper, What It's Like, What It Is #3, 1991.

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016. The Museum of Modern Art, March 31, 2018–July 22, 2018.

In 1987, the art critic Donald Kuspit gave a broad psychoanalytic interpretation of the work of the conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, who was then returning to visibility in the art world after a hiatus spent primarily in academia. His essay featured such alleged insights as “Piper is self-consciously a ‘split personality,’ at once woman/man, black/white, body/mind, artist/philosopher;” and “Piper’s intellectual apologetics seem to exist to buttress a self that seems on the verge of dissolving, a self so insecure it barely coheres.” Piper responded with a point-by-point counter-reading of Kuspit’s text and an annotation of their correspondence which was published in Real Life magazine along with some related drawings. In one, An Open Letter to Donald Kuspit (Kuspit Extermination Fantasy), a cartoony humanoid cockroach with the unflattering likeness of the critic flees a cloud of insecticide emerging from an old-fashioned pump sprayer; in another, An Open Letter to Donald Kuspit (Kuspit Strangulation Fantasy), an enormous hand, presumably Kuspit’s, writes on a sheet of lined paper about the “noose of anxious ambiguity” he sees in Piper’s work while a portrait of the artist, eyes bulging and tongue lolling, is strangled by black tendrils dripping down from the words on the page. The cockroach drawing is a bit harsh—but again, “Piper cannot escape the labyrinth of her spoiled self” isn’t the kind of critical feedback one ever hopes to receive as an artist. 

The drawings are by no means the most important works in Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, the monumental retrospective that occupies the sixth floor at the Museum of Modern Art, but they do make a few useful points about her art in general: that it frequently addresses conflicts by way of interpersonal relationships; that it ranges over the traditional distinction between art and criticism, usually combining images and text; that though it is (sometimes) funny, it’s really deadly serious. The retrospective charts the evolution of one of our era’s best artistic thinkers, and it’s full of wonderful, painful, and surprising moments. It also couldn’t come at a worse-and-better time: worse in the sense that the social pathologies of xenophobia and racism Piper has analyzed over the course of her long career look, in 2018 America, like cornerstones of the social and political order; and better because there is an opening now to think hard about how art can or cannot change the situation. As a whole, Piper’s work sets out a compelling model for one kind of effective political art.

A quick sampling of a dozen Adrian Piper artworks, chosen at random from the retrospective, might yield the impression of a practice with three separate stages, or of three basic types of art. There would be the philosophical work, which concerns abstract topics like spatial perception and linguistic representation using the materials and methods of minimal and conceptual art. Next would come the political work, rooted in performance, in which the artist directly addresses the dynamics of xenophobia and racism. A third and more recent kind of work might be called poetic, or synthetic: it revisits themes and strategies from types one and two and transposes them into a different register, something alternately elegiac and elated, seemingly less concerned with methodological rigor or immediate visceral impact than with open-ended speculation.

One virtue of the exhibition is to draw a through-line between these aspects of Piper’s work, and to show the inter-animation of philosophical, political, and poetic concerns within all of her art—to the extent that a distinction between the modes comes to seem conventional rather than substantive. There is, however, a chronology to all of this, and it begins in the mid-1960s with conceptual art. While a student in New York (first studying art at SVA and then philosophy at City College), Piper made significant contributions to the brief but influential movement, and the first rooms of the exhibition are packed with the kinds of infographic exercises exemplifying the art of the period: typescript proposals for durational performances, projects around urban space and cartographic systems, permutations of geometrical figures in the spirit of her friend, mentor, and then-upstairs Hester Street loftmate, Sol LeWitt. Much of Piper’s early work focused on questions about proprioception and apperception: what is it to move around in space and time and encounter other objects, and to possess a consciousness capable of representing it? And how can words and pictures represent these processes of representation? The works are rigorous, algorithmic, and exhaustive. In Here and Now (1968), a loose-leafed, mimeographed book, each of sixty-four pages is subdivided into a grid of sixty-four squares; on each page, one of these squares is marked with a typewritten legend giving its position in the grid system and the word HERE. Hypothesis Situation #5 (1968–69) gives a second-by-second account of the experience of simply sitting around inside an apartment, using photographs and an elegant graphic notation system. Attention and location would persist as central ideas throughout Piper’s career: how to pay attention to one’s location, and how to locate (the viewer’s) attention.

A tenet of conceptual art held that any aspect of everyday life, no matter how trivial, could become the subject matter of a work of art; corollary to this was the idea that a creative methodology could transform the quotidian. It’s significant that among the first works you encounter at the beginning of the retrospective are a suite of the “LSD Paintings” that Piper made in 1965 and 1966, fragmenting portraits in a palette and style unfailingly reminiscent of Fillmore Auditorium posters. Psychedelia and revolution were as crucial to the art of the later 1960s as were Duchamp and analytic philosophy.

Transformation became a significant goal and motif for Piper in the 1970s, if not in the utopian sense espoused by early enthusiasts of conceptualism or the counterculture. When the geopolitical traumas inaugurating the decade cracked the bell jar of the downtown New York art world, Piper responded by withdrawing her work from the context of art (galleries, museums, performance venues, magazines) in order to pursue more direct experiments in the real world.

Piper’s work from this time took the form of unannounced public performances executed before an unsuspecting, unspecified audience. In her Catalysis series (1970), she made a variety of “artificial and nonfunctional plastic alterations [to her] own bodily presence” and went about her business in the streets of New York. She stuffed her mouth with a white bath towel and rode a city bus; filled her purse with ketchup and then conspicuously rooted around in it for keys, comb, or change; browsed a newsstand with her palms coated in rubber cement.

As indicated by the collective title of these works, Piper wanted the experience of her art to change her viewers in some concrete, if not entirely determined way. Performance was key in this regard, in that it minimized the mediating effects of art objects and maximized the capacity for interpersonal exchange between artist and audience. She wrote: “The strongest impact that can be received . . . is the impact of human confrontation (within oneself or between people). It is the most aggressive and the most threatening, possibly because the least predictable and the least controllable in its consequences.”

The “self” represented by Piper in earlier works like Here and Now or Hypothesis Situation #5 was a rudimentary stick-figure of a thing: it possessed self-awareness, and it could register its relation to other bodies, but that was about it. In the Catalysis project, selfhood became a more complex proposition; the outré modifications of Piper’s performing personae—their strange appearances and inexplicable behaviors—marked them, in absurdist code, as racial or sexual others. Time and space were similarly transformed, from abstract conceptual categories occupied by a singular, nearly solipsistic, subject, to historical and cultural arenas populated by social beings.

Piper’s subsequent project, a series of performances, drawings, photographs, and media interventions known collectively as The Mythic Being (1973–1975), extended her twinned exploration of subjecthood and transformation. The Mythic Being, played by the artist with an Afro wig, false mustache, cigarette, and mirrored sunglasses, began life as an unnamed alter-ego: “a masculine version of myself; myself in drag.” In a series of seventeen small ads placed monthly in the Village Voice, he prints excerpts from the artist’s diaries, both intimate and banal (“I’m afraid of the day when I’ll really lose control I’ll cry for help and get no answer and plunge both of us into a hell we’ve created for each other,” “. . . sometimes I think I have better ideas than anyone else around, with the exception of Sol LeWitt and possibly Bob Smithson, whose ideas I really respect”). In performances, he walked the streets repeating these and other mantras.

Piper first described her double as a kind of blank slate, a man without qualities. He was “someone without a personal history,” or “a pure spectator,” whose purpose within the logic of the work of art was to be a recognizable inversion of the physical characteristics of the artist— “my opposite in every conceivable respect.” However, the abstract, counterfactual self gradually took on an inner life. “He is more than an outer shell, surprisingly,” she wrote, and: “I find myself getting very involved in his mental framework.” Field notes from performances indicated unexpected effects: “Felt really horny. If I’d had a cock I would’ve surely had an erection.” By the end of the project, Piper described The Mythic Being in quite different terms than at its outset, not as a cipher but as an archetype or “iconographic surface”—his function was to represent for the viewer, not for the artist. The Mythic Being was “a third-world, working-class, overtly hostile male” and “a catalyst for the violences of our world—an alien presence in the art world, but a familiar presence in the rest of the world.” This presence signaled the arrival, by the middle of the 1970s, of a fully specified political dimension of Piper’s art.

Piper seems to have always been an avid note-taker: consider the diaristic material that supplied The Mythic Being with his linguistic content, or works like Concrete Infinity Documentation Piece (1970), in which the artist wrote down all daily events pertaining to changes in her physical state for a period of months (“Got up at 6am. Weighed 99 lbs. Ate three teaspoons of soya lecithin . . . ”). Her inclination to record neatly dovetailed with the expanded role of language in art under conceptualism, where artists’ writings could be primary to, or identical with, the works they accompanied. This interplay between tendency and context generated one of the strongest bodies of artists’ writing of the past half-century. Piper divides her art-related writing into explanatory, project-based texts (or, to use one of her terms, “meta-art”) and criticism proper. In the former, we get to see the step-by-step evolution of her thinking around different bodies of work, and the extent to which even the most airtight, logical pieces of art are sometimes achieved by intuitive leaps. The latter shows us Piper’s varied positions with respect to general situations in art: speculative enthusiasm about performance vis-à-vis her sense of the economic impasse of the art object in the 1970s, withering disdain for what she saw as the vapidity of ’80s postmodernism, wary support for the multicultural turn in the art of the ’90s. Both aspects of her art writing are informed by Piper’s parallel career in analytic philosophy—she completed a doctorate at Harvard under John Rawls in 1981 and works in the field of metaethics with a focus on Kant—and the argumentation is usually sharp enough to draw some blood.

Piper’s art writing often takes aim at the enduring racism and sexism of “the contemporary Euroethnic art world” and the mechanisms of appropriation and exclusion by which it reproduces itself. The critique is grounded in first-person experiences gotten in the course of being a woman of color in the art world. A collection of Piper’s letters to the editors of various arts publications—in which she critiques what she considers to be erroneous, belittling, or outrightly bigoted readings of her work, with varying levels of sangfroid—would make a compelling addition to her published writings.

At the same time, Piper’s critical (and artistic) project isn’t to dismantle the Western art tradition; instead, she’s interested in retrieving some of its better ideas from recent misuse. European art, she wrote in 1992, has historically been concerned with the vigorous presentation of political and social content—look at David, Goya, or Picasso. Therefore, instead of marking the apotheosis of art, Clement Greenberg’s ideologically non-committal characterization of modern art (as autonomous and abstract) masked a retreat from political efficacy and responsibility; it was a minor aberration from the greater trajectory, conceived largely in response to cold war pressures.  As such, the emergence (during the waning years of modernist art and criticism) of political and socially-critical art constituted a return to, not a deviation from, core tenets of the Western art tradition.

In an essay from 1988 called “The Joy of Marginality” Piper made explicit the scope and purpose of her own political and socially-critical art. “My work is an act of communication that politically catalyzes its viewers into reflecting on their own deep impulses and responses to racism and xenophobia, relative to a target or stance that I depict,” she wrote. To achieve this goal (or any goal of effecting psychological change through art), Piper thought it was essential to engage the viewer in what she called the “indexical present” of the work of art: a here-and-now created in the transaction between artist and audience. (Conversely, she expressed skepticism about the efficacy of “global political art” that attempts to educate or persuade the viewer concerning a situation represented as being external to the viewer’s own experience). In another text, “Performance: The Problematic Solution,” Piper championed the didactic and the confrontational as central aspects, or modes, of this form of artist–viewer engagement.

With the exception of Joseph Beuys, the figure of the artist-as-didact had been out of style since around the time of Schiller. Piper rehabilitated it in Funk Lessons (1983–1984), where, in the spirit of dispelling xenophobia and furthering cross-cultural understanding, she convened small groups of mainly white artistic or academic types and tried to teach them to dance to funk and soul music. Any sense that Piper herself was less than totally earnest in the effort, that it might have been an elaborate, Andy Kaufman-esque put-on, is belied by Piper’s endearingly nerdy on-screen enthusiasm during a session filmed in Berkeley in 1983. At the same time, the pedagogical situation of Funk Lessons is overcoded by the racial politics of music: Piper as a presumed native informant on black cultural practices, funk as an art form both anathema to white middlebrow pop culture and ripe for appropriation.

A loose trilogy of architectural installations, Art for the Art World Surface Pattern (1976), Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (1978), and Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems (1980), explored the more confrontational side of things. Each work pairs an innocuous image or group of images with recorded monologues, voiced by the artist, giving negative interpretations of the supposed intention of the work of art. In Pattern, the narrator objects to the “political editorializing” and “moralistic bullshit” of the collaged newspaper clippings lining the walls of the installation; Intruders presents different responses to four backlit photographs of black men, ranging from genteel dismissal (“it’s an interesting attempt to disrupt my composure as an art viewer”) to huffy indignation (“I’m simply antagonized by the hostility of this piece”) to overt racism (“I’ve found that blacks are angry, they’re difficult to get along with”). The viewer’s only credible option, within the logic of the work of art, is to avoid identifying with the range of attitudes lampooned in the recordings. In contrast to the generally easygoing feel of Funk Lessons, these installations are among Piper’s most challenging works—they interpret their audience rather than the other way around.

The dynamic of installations like Intruders, of an unstable relationship between images and their possible textual interpretations, recurs through much of Piper’s work in the 1980s and 1990s. In prints and drawings, videos and installations, she dissects the symbolic order of white supremacy—its systemic blindness to the contradictions of racialized thinking, its prurient, neurotic concern with the specter of miscegenation, the way it projects its own hostility onto the figure of the racial other. Paradigmatic is Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady (1995), where a black-and-white photograph of Piper in turtleneck sweater, expression unreadable, sprouts drawn-on thought-bubble reading WHUT CHOO LOOKIN AT, MOFO—but whose thought is that, actually? What emerges in this phase of Piper’s work is an idea of racism as a disorder, or a willful corruption, of representation—one that does interpretive violence to its victims as a prelude to other forms of violence. 

The idea of the “indexical present,” through which art has the potential to affect the viewer’s consciousness, is central to Piper’s analysis of her own artistic work—so it’s worth asking what kind of a thing it is. “Present” would seem to be clear enough, fixing my attention on the here-and-now in which I am currently viewing a work of art; “indexical” reminds me that “here” and “now” are empty of content unless considered in relation to a speaker: my invocation of “here” and “now” will differ from moment to moment, and will most likely differ from yours, too.

The term recalls art historian Michael Fried’s distinction in Art and Objecthood between the “presentness” of the modernist artwork and the “theatrical presence” of the minimalist art object. For Fried, minimalist sculpture fundamentally erred in rendering aesthetic experience, properly concerned with instantaneously suspending the distinction between viewing subject and art object, into a kind of stagy psychological exercise—in which the purpose of the work of art was simply to direct the viewer’s attention to the workings of her own perceptual field, by being a big, heavy, and otherwise flagrantly nondescript object right in the middle of it. Piper’s version of “presence” is more closely aligned with this latter sort; in a work like Intruders, where the viewer enters a darkened space and encounters photographic images of people at or near life-size and installed at eye level, along with a soundtrack, she seems to embrace and extend a version of the “theatricality” to which Fried objected. The key development of Piper’s art is that she intended to populate the viewer’s perceptual field with more complex objects than the geometric primitives and abstract gestalts of minimalist sculpture; instead of cubes and planks we get visual and linguistic representations of other perceiving subjects.

The notion of the indexical present is connected to another core Piper idea, that of methodological individualism: she holds that institutional or structural manifestations of racism and xenophobia are analyzable down to relationships between individuals—and hence are most effectively addressed on the interpersonal level. (We might anachronistically call this stratum of experience the microaggression). “Racism begins with you and me, here and now, and consists in our tendency to try to eradicate each other’s singularity through stereotyped conceptualization,” she wrote in 1988. Elsewhere, she describes the function of the work of art as one of producing “a concrete, immediate, and personal relationship between me and the viewer that locates us within the network of political cause and effect.”

Here, it’s worth noting that the pursuit of “empathy and objective clarity in our visions of each other” (as Piper once described her artistic goal) requires, at times, the establishment of a deeply conflictual relationship between artist and viewer. The language of “you and me, here and now” may conjure the image of a cozy chat in the gallery about the problems of society; the relationship Piper seems to be going for is a lot more dynamic, and this dynamism often involves a kind of benevolent antagonism. Neither does her work provide us with ideal models for an intersubjectivity freed from the distortions of xenophobia and racism—it is more likely to confront us head-on with the effects of those distortions. In other words, though Piper the philosopher engages us in impeccably rational argumentation, Piper the artist doesn’t: her work is emphatically not about reasoning people out of being racists, sexists, or xenophobes. Rather, it functions more like a shock to our interpretive system, through which damaging and maladaptive relationships between images, words, and the beings they represent might be jostled apart, and rational and beneficial ones reconstituted.

In the span of years covered by the retrospective, our general sense of the goals and contents of art have changed considerably; it can be difficult to reconstruct the interpretive context against which Piper had to argue in favor of a different kind of art. Rather than existing for itself and being concerned only with its own processes, as high modern art supposedly did, contemporary art is an art that does things to the world: it’s written into the name that, at the very least, this art is going to tell us something about life in present-day society. Our assumptions about the agency of the work of art are evident in the actions we figuratively ascribe to it: consider the painting that interrogates, deconstructs, or reveals; or the installation that blurs the boundaries between some pair of ideas or practices. 

So in one sense, a generalized version of the kind of critical art that Piper championed has become the norm rather than the exception. But it’s frequently unclear how this art does what we say it does, except via the semi-magical decrees of press releases and artist statements, and it can be an article of faith that works of art succeed in their efforts to examine, interrogate, and so on. An inflated rhetoric of art’s social or political efficacy can have an opposite effect, leading us towards skepticism or outright cynicism about any such claims, period. What counts as success in the effort to effect change through art?

One recent work in the retrospective, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3 (2013), suggests an answer. To experience the piece, the viewer is given the chance to enter into a formal contract with the artist and the museum, in which she agrees to follow one of three Kantian maxims: “I will always be too expensive to buy,” “I will always mean what I say,” or “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” Gallery attendants are positioned behind one of three corporate-looking kiosks in order to digitally record the transaction, collect contact information, and present printed copies of the terms of the contract; names of signatories are entered into a database and distributed to the group via email. The work sends up the authority of artist, art, and art institution (Piper refers to the latter as “silly authority”), and gestures towards the personal data dystopia of our present moment. But it also takes seriously the ways we engage with works of art and the changes these engagements might produce in us. One is under no obligation to participate in Registry and the penalties for breach of contract are also nonexistent. However, the effects of undertaking a commitment (even one as nonbinding as these) are real: who doesn’t try, at least a little bit, to keep a promise?

At her most pointedly political, Piper is under no illusions that the success of her interventions is in anyway guaranteed—and perhaps the modest gains of a work like the Registry are, in fact, the kinds we should be focusing on when we think about art’s political potential.

As the artist wrote in 1990,

Political artists are often reproached with arrogance for trying to “change the world”—as if any single individual could—and then ridiculed when immediate revolution fails to occur. But no one is obligated to try to change the world, and it is unlikely that any artist tries to. All anyone needs to aspire to politically is to do what he can, and to do his best. To change an opinion, or an attitude, to modify a knee-jerk response, or to catalyze an ongoing process of personal transformation, would be plenty. Undertaken collectively, it would be all we needed.

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