For the creative faculty
is higher than the critical.
There is really no comparison
The antithesis between
them is entirely arbitrary.
Without the critical faculty,
there is no artistic creation
at all worthy of the name.
One of the simplest ways to characterize the period of Conceptual Art that emerged in the United States in the late 1960s is to say that artists tried to show that their ideas were, on the one hand, valid as, and on the other, as valid as, their art works. Embedded in this thrust was the double assumption that, previously, artists had no ideas, and even if they had, they were not encouraged to voice them. Many Modernist critics and artists celebrated Henri Matisse’s suggestion that a painter “ought to have his own tongue cut out”.[Flam, 2] But the stereotype of “stupid as a painter,”[Kosuth, 25] in contrast to the intelligent writer; or of the artist as a “kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic,”[Alberro, 12] rang in the ears of many Conceptual artists.
Curiously, those same artists and critics who celebrated (and continue to celebrate today) Matisse’s sentiment, conveniently overlooked Matisse’s inadequacies as a surgeon when he chose to use his own tongue as the instrument with which to cut out his own tongue. The sharp articulation of his statement, in addition to his volumes of writing on his own work and on the subject of Art, demonstrated both the weakness of Matisse’s theory and his lack of will to practice it. In the 1960s as an act which one could see as double-edged in both rejecting and celebrating Matisse, some artists, like Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt, turned toward the medium which has traditionally served as the envelop of ideas – written and verbal language – in order to execute the program of art-as-idea over art-as-“shapes, forms, and colors”. Conceptual artists, as they were later called, used words and text in and as their work, and many chose to write and speak about their work and that of others. Other artists chose to express their ideas through new means of communication, relying on innovative forms, materials, and processes. Yet all shared the common drive to show that the artist was a producer of ideas, and not, primarily, of objects.
For artists, this motivation posed two related but distinct challenges. The first was to struggle for a voice. The second was to have something worth saying. In some cases, the content of the first was, in part but not solely, filled by the success of the second: acquiring a position to speak over the critic-as-middleman was saying something. Concurrently, the political and social climate centered on the events of May 1968 witnessed other struggles for a voice. Outside the art world, as well as inside, previously silenced voices rose to be heard over the political power establishment — namely those of women, homosexuals, non-whites, and white left-wing activists. Paralleling the challenges posed to artists, in these struggles too, the first challenge generally entailed securing a ‘seat at the table’, in this case the table of human rights. The second challenge, that of having something worth saying, was satisfied by sitting down there: having been denied a seat for so long, the new acquisition in itself was worthy content.1
Following the acquisition of seats though (if they were ever acquired) was a stricter demand for ideas and content, beyond saying, “I am here.” Michel Foucault characterized this next step, the one he and other primarily white male European intellectuals were ready to take in 1969, when he asked the question, “What matter who is speaking?” In What is an Author? Foucault argues to deemphasize the ‘who’ that is speaking in favor of ‘what’ is being said: the primacy of the idea or discourse annexes the place of the author. Understandably, who was speaking still mattered a great deal for people who had been previously denied a voice, so naturally they felt stepped over again. Many artists and writers misinterpreted this essay, along with Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, as another means by which the critic and theorist would maintain a position of superiority. But as conceptual art sought to nominate the primacy of the idea over that of objects, this wave of theory offered more to support it than to attack it.
Although Conceptual Artists in the US of the 1960s have since been co-opted under the same name, they dealt with the issues surrounding them in diverse ways. Some artists and critics (like Joseph Kosuth and Donald Kuspit) read Barthes’ essay as debilitating for authors and vindicating for critics and responded with battle axes drawn in a competitive fight for power over the authority of meaning; while others (like Adrian Piper and Lucy Lippard) recognized the liberating quality of the new roles of authorship and readership and celebrated the cooperative spirit of interpretation all for the sake of founding new definitions of art. If we agree with Adrian Piper, through Michael Brenson, that “aesthetic emotion is what gets most artists, critics, and curators involved with art in the first place”[Piper, V2, 191] then what eventually pushes them so far apart? Both Joseph Kosuth and Adrian Piper answered the call to transform the role of the artist, and they did so in direct response to the assumed role of the critic. Through examples of their work and writing I will explore these issues.
SETTING THE SCENE
Joseph Kosuth and Adrian Piper hold Clement Greenberg and his school responsible for setting pre-1968 the terms of discourse. Both argue that Greenberg deprived artists of their voices and that artists did their part in willingly giving them up. Kosuth characterized the climate by saying: “...Noland, Olitski, et al. would never need to leave their studios; just paint’em, and ship’em out, and let Clement Greenberg and his minions provide the meaning. For them, art and politics were separate, and their practice reflected that.”[Alberro, 462] Adrian Piper characterizes the Greenbergian scheme in this way:
“...the artist’s role was to ‘engage’ or ‘grapple’ wordlessly with the formal material properties of his (almost always a “his”) medium, and the critic’s role was to articulate the aesthetic rationale of the work thereby created. In abandoning content and abdicating the self-conscious stance to the critic, artists abandoned the responsibilities of conscious control over their creative efforts and their meaning.” [Piper, V2, 212]
But Piper goes one step further, by stepping back into history, and frames the situation more broadly in the American political climate. She contrasts the new American paradigm against a long-standing European tradition of social engagement in the arts.
“Greenbergian formalism gained currency as an opportunistic ideological evasion of the threat of cold war McCarthyite censorship and Red-baiting in the 1950s. To the extent that this ideological repudiation of political subject matter has prevailed in the international art context, American imperialism has succeeded in supplanting the long-standing European tradition of art as a medium of social engagement with a peculiarly pharmaceutical conception of art as soporific and analgesic.”[Piper, V2, 209]
Senator McCarthy’s campaign of the “intimidation of left-wing artists and intellectuals as communist sympathizers,”2 combined with the Greenbergian imposition that “political content was incompatible with the ‘higher purpose’ of art,” Piper says, “functioned as a form of self-censorship [that] gave art professionals in the 1950s a ready-made reason not to become politically engaged.”[Piper, V2, 212]3 In effect, this pharmaceutical conception of art induced a state in which artists preemptively prescribed for themselves and their public these sleeping pills and pain killers such that their art would not be socially or politically engaged. This pressure encouraged art that concerned itself with nothing but art. The solution Greenberg and then the artists that he supported came up with was a specific brand of formalism which concerned itself only with art’s supposed “essence” and created an art that only artists could make and only critics could interpret. Joseph Kosuth characterized this art as being about, “shapes, colors, and materials.” [Alberro, 461]
In reaction to this, Kosuth conceived his brand of Conceptual Art as advocating art-as-idea, and he fought for artists interpreting its meaning and pushing the work “into the world.” But at the same time as his ideas were and are still progressive – both because they broke with artistic tradition and because they came from the voice of an artist – they also contributed, despite his better intentions, to the spirit of censorship and self-censorship that Senator McCarthy and Greenberg created. Even though he came at it from a different angle – that of an artist speaking through the history of philosophy – by forcing the issue that art can only speak about art and that all else should be passed over in silence, he created comparable consequences. His position also left social and political engagement outside the corral of art.
Kosuth took Ad Reinhardt’s concept of Art-As-Art, as his jumping off point. Reinhardt, while not completely eliminating the possibility of social and political engagement, divided the labor such that art could remain pure. His position had more in common with Sartre’s which clearly distinguished poetry from prose by saying that prose must be socially and politically committed to one’s time and place, while poetry, as the empire of signs, should be free from communication. Reinhardt demonstrated a uniquely ambidextrous position by expressing his political views (about art politics and world politics) in his cartoons for PM magazine and by “purifying” his art of all that was not Art. Through the publicly audible voice of his cartoons and through the pure silence of his paintings, Reinhardt rallied against the possibility that the two could be merged: “there’s no need to bring a "painting-reason" and a "picture-purpose" together – I will do one or the other for completely different aims."[Reinhardt, 49].
All-tolled, artists from the 1950s to the 1970s who found themselves with the desire to express their social and political ideas were encouraged by Greenberg to not express them in their art; by Reinhardt and Sartre to express them but not at the expense of corrupting their art; and by Kosuth to limit them in their art only to those that dealt with art propositions. If an artist took any of these as prescription for art production (as many of Greenberg’s artists apparently did), by way of the pressure of building a career, participating in a current scene, or as anything less than having founded these ideals within themselves, then they faced this kind of self-censorship, even if it were volunteered. This is not to say that these positions were apolitical. Clearly Reinhardt’s paintings were political, even if only within the internal politics of the art world. The fact that Greenberg was not a supporter of Reinhardt’s work further testifies to this. 4 Much later, Felix Gonzalez-Torres stressed that the notion of apoliticality was impossible. Practiced in the art of “dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools”, Gonzalez-Torres applied leftist spin to the notion of political art when he called Helen Frankenthaler – over Barbara Kruger, Leon Golub, and Nancy Spero – the most successful political artist because she didn’t look political. As such “she serves a very clear agenda of the right.”[Storr, Etre Un Espion, 2] For artists like Adrian Piper, Ed Kienholz, and Duane Hanson, to name a few, who at the time made art about non-art ideas, the perception – at least from this other side of the art world – was that they were not making Art (with a capital A), and that their work should rather be expressed in a newspaper and not in the sacred space of an art gallery or museum. Just as Frankenthaler’s art was political even though it didn’t look it, so too was Piper’s, Kienholz’s, and Hanson’s art Art even if it also had the characteristics of politics or journalism.
For Piper who was at the same time an artist growing up in the period reacting against Greenbergian Formalism, with and as the Minimal and Conceptual artists, and as a black woman in the middle of the civil rights movement, the responsibility of the artist and the critic has always included political and social engagement. “An important benefit,” she says, “of utilizing art objects to combat higher-order political discrimination…is that they enable the viewer to discriminate cognitively between what he sees and what he is.”[Piper, V2, 258] Her conviction that art objects can do something useful sharply contrasts with Kosuth’s which argued against them having any practical use value. If Conceptual Art ushered in the struggle for the artist’s voice and also pressured that voice to have something worth saying, both Kosuth and Piper have much to say. Considering first Kosuth who has earned his seat at the table (by some accounts at the head), once there what does he have to say and with what credibility does he say it?
JOSEPH KOSUTH CATALYSIS I
“The ‘purest’ definition of conceptual art would be that it is an inquiry into the foundations of the concept ‘art’.”[Kosuth, 25] This tautology, as defined in Art After Philosophy, forms the base of Kosuth’s content. He follows Ad Reinhardt’s conception that “Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what art is not.”[Kosuth, 15] While Greenbergian Formalism answered the call for art-for-art’s-sake by concerning itself with shapes, forms, and colors, Kosuth answered the call by concerning art with only definitions of art, such that “shapes, forms, and colors” belong to “everything else”. Art’s ability to exist, for him, depends on its inability to perform a service (entertainment, experience, or decoration), and its inability to assume a philosophical stance: “It is in this context that art shares similarities with logic, mathematics, and…science. But whereas the other endeavors are useful, art is not. Art indeed exists for its own sake.”[Kosuth, 24]
In order to articulate his point, Kosuth turns to the analytic philosophy of Ayer, Kant, and Wittgenstein. His foundation rests on Ayers’ evaluation of Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. “A proposition is analytic when its validity depends solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains, and synthetic when its validity is determined by the facets of experience.”[Kosuth, 20] His definition makes conceptual art an analytical proposition while other forms of art are synthetic propositions.
“Forms of art that can be considered synthetic propositions are verifiable by the world, that is to say, to understand these propositions one must leave the tautological-like framework of art and consider ‘outside’ information. But to consider it as art it is necessary to ignore this same outside information, because outside information...has its own intrinsic worth.”[Kosuth, 22]
Kosuth makes clear his distinctions: that which is art, and that which is not; that which is outside of art, and that which is inside; and art cannot speak about that which is outside. He marks the last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, “That which we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” as the point at which conceptual art begins.
This is also the point at which philosophy ends. Traditional philosophy dealt with the unsaid, Kosuth argues, while the twentieth-century analytic linguistic philosophers “shared the contention that the unsaid was unsaid because it is unsayable.”[Kosuth, 13] Kosuth essentially agrees with J.O. Urmson, whom he cites, who thought that once one understood Wittgenstein’s Tractatus he could, like Wittgenstein in 1918, abandon philosophy because it was traditionally rooted in confusion.[Kosuth, 13] Art After Philosophy (and Conceptual Art after Traditional Philosophy) is not a signal for art to pick up the reigns where philosophy dropped them but is instead an attempt to redefine Art — an art — as it can exist in the space and time after philosophy’s passing. In order to do that, it too, like post-Tractatus analytic philosophy (which now has the reigns), must only speak of what can be said and pass over all else in silence.
Whether it is ironic, contradictory, or something else, Kosuth can only defend his definition of conceptual art by using the logic, language, and citation of analytic philosophy. In effect, he reaches for this ‘outside information’ in order to say that art must pass over ‘outside information’ in silence. Like other conceptual artists of the period, Kosuth is no exception: when they were faced with finding ‘something to say’ or ‘good ideas,’ and the means to articulate them, they looked to philosophy (Kosuth, Piper), language and linguistics (Art & Language, Weiner), mathematics (LeWitt, Bochner, Darboven), politics (Piper, Haacke) and other fields outside of art. Kosuth, though, is unique in that he theoretically contradicted his act of doing so.
JOSEPH KOSUTH CATALYSIS II
Adrian Piper who also came into her own as an artist in the midst of the political turmoil of the 1960s and in these debates between art-for-art’s-sake and art-as-social-engagement, like many of her fellow artists, also took an interest in analytic philosophy. This curiosity led her, as an artist, to become a professional analytic philosopher and professor. During the course of her study, she began to observe some of the lapses in the logic of her artist contemporaries.
“As I began to study analytic philosophy more seriously and carve my own path into the academy, I recognized that the linguistic practices of some of these “analytic” artists were dismissed by the academic philosophers from whom they claimed to derive inspiration. And I saw that they would have needed to acquire a great deal more advanced training in technical skills of logic and semantics in order to pursue their artistic investigation in the philosophy of language.”[Piper, V2, xxxi]
If Kosuth’s analytic philosophy was premature, as Piper suggests, might his interpretation of European Literary theory also be?
Kosuth’s suggestion that the birth of Art coincides with the death of Philosophy brings us to another cause and effect phenomenon brought up by Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author. Brian O’Doherty, as editor, commissioned Barthes to write this essay for what Alexander Alberro names the first exhibition of Conceptual Art, Aspen 5+6 (1969).[October Roundtable, 144] This exhibition in a box also contained works by Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, John Cage, Samuel Beckett, and many others. Even if Kosuth had not read Barthes’ essay then, and from this source, the ideas were in circulation at the time. Along with Barthes, the wave of European Literary Theory entering the US that included Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Eco, and others (the post-philosophy philosophers) essentially operated in the same post-Tractatus space that interested Kosuth, but it took a different route.
As Kosuth’s hope had been for artists’ writings to eliminate the critic as the middleman, we can see how Barthes’ idea, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author,”5 might be read as a challenge to his position. He makes it clear that he did read along these lines — and still did in 1996 — in his essay Intention(s).
“A rather ironic development, considering that the “death of the author” discussed by Barthes and Foucault decades ago hasn’t prevented the stylish use of French theory otherwise. Such theory, although making claims as art-historical text, betrays a hope that their production will gain status itself as a cultural object.”[Alberro, 464]
Not only is he threatened that the Author has been killed and the critic lives on, but he also feels that the critic has now taken over the role of the author.
“Maybe I am partly to blame, writing as I did in Art-Language in 1970 that “This art both annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middlemen unnecessary.” I didn’t realize at the time that the art historians might join our ranks under cover.”[Alberro, 464]
His use of military metaphors is telling of his competitive view of these positions.
His reading, though, is based on a skewed understanding. In the same way that Kosuth’s ‘beginning of Art’ is that of Conceptual Art which replaces Greenbergian-conceived Formalist Art, and ‘end of philosophy’ is that of Traditional Philosophy which is replaced by Analytic Philosophy, so too must we read Barthes’ ‘death of the Author’ as the death of the ideology of ‘author as genius’ and the ‘birth of the reader’ as the birth of the interpreter, who, by interpreting, becomes an author. In both cases, the death and birth cycle does not put an end to Philosophy or Authorship. These points only mark the end of one episteme (in Foucault’s sense) and the beginning of the next. What Kosuth reads as a power struggle is for Barthes a development of the semiotic chain.
Barthes never names Kosuth as an author, Kosuth interpellates6 himself there; and just because Barthes does not name Kosuth as reader, it doesn’t mean that he should not interpellate himself there, too. In Barthes’ conception, and Foucault’s, the author and reader are not persons, they are positions (Foucault calls them ‘functions’). In much the same way as a person walking to his/her car can be a pedestrian in one instant and a passenger or driver in the next, so too can the positions of author, reader, and interpreter be interchanged.
Reading the development of the semiotic chain of interpretation as a power struggle, and thus thinking that art historians, and these European theorists, alike, secretly hope to ‘join the ranks under cover,’ betrays the fact that Kosuth still clings to the privileged role of authorship and cultural production.7 “One of the greatest lessons,” he argues, “defending the primacy of the intention of the artist, and the increasing importance of writing by artists on their works, is provided by this period of the sixties.”[Alberro, 462] On the contrary, instead of valorizing the intentions of the author, what Barthes, Foucault, and many artists and art-historians since have come to know, especially at this late date, is that the idea holds primacy over “shapes, forms, colors,” and the author, too.
Kosuth wonders against the foreground of the Greenbergian Formalism he faced in 1969, and the foreground of the European Literary Theory he faced in 1996, if artists are still portrayed as “bewildered children playing with lumps of clay, in dire need of the paternal art-historical and critical presence to swoop down and make sense of it all...if artists’ production is really only nature while the production of critics and historians is culture.”[Alberro, 465] Although these stereotypes and portrayals may still exist, it is not the fault of these theorists. Along with the professions and institutions that fight to keep these portrayals in play in order to survive (divisions of labor and economics are marked more clearly with these stereotypes in effect), it is also in part the fault of those art students, artists, art historians, and critics, who have chosen to stop thinking at the first threat of extinction rather than read beyond the title to appreciate the nuance of the thoughts of these theorists.
Kosuth starts out Intention(s) by saying “When art historians...write about intention there seems to be a presumption that you have two things: the work of art and the artist’s intentions...I find this...to be the major division...between how artists understand their work and how art historians see them.”[Alberro, 460] From this start, he confuses theories of poetics with theories of interpretation. Shortly after, he argues, “When you approach the work you are approaching the idea (and therefore the intention) of the artist directly.”[Alberro, 461] He equates idea=authorial intention=work. If this were the case, why then does he argue with such vigilance that art historians are misreading his intentions? Instead, shouldn’t he say they are misreading his work?
To argue that they are misreading his intentions by looking only at the work suggests two things: either he failed in his responsibility as an artist to make his intentions and the work equal such that a responsible critic can read them or his writings satisfy the requirement of appending ideas to his work. He defends the second when he explains,
“The...process of putting a proposition...“into play” is only one of the responsibilities of the artist. This information framing of the proposition itself increasingly becomes part of the artistic process. Thus, a key to the changed role of intention and the artist’s self-perception of his or her practice, is the role of writing by artists”[Alberro, 463]
Essentially, the argument suggests that an artist’s work is never done and that the interpreter is never facing a ‘work’ as such. If the work doesn’t frame itself but instead requires the artist’s presence, then one could also argue that the work has never left the studio. Under these circumstances the author will never die and the critic can never be born. Since when has an idea been such a sacred possession that it cannot withstand a little prodding?
In discussing a graduate art historian’s writing about his work, Kosuth quotes her: “…‘even if we can know what the artist intended, it isn’t that important. What is important is the work of art and how it generates meaning.’” Again he displays his threatened sensibility by suggesting that “the art-historical process is a kind of conspiracy...to politically disenfranchise my activity as an artist.”[Alberro, 461-2] Although this graduate student in art history has been “trained well” in poststructuralist theory, if she had the artist’s intentions before her, then her mistake, as a responsible critic, was in not using them to demonstrate how they fail to coincide with the work itself. Instead of stating the issue as a matter of theory, she missed her chance to show the case in practice. An artist is justified in feeling his work has been misrepresented when a critic only parrots learned theories. By trusting the ‘masters’ the art student takes a lackadaisical approach to interpretation and only finds what she is told will be there.
As a matter of clarity: I wholeheartedly agree that it is an artist’s responsibility to write about his/her work and to challenge a lackadaisical approach by a critic. But to do so from the point of view of the artist — to treat oneself as master of the subject — is just as irresponsible and lackadaisical as the case mentioned above. Instead, the artist must write from the position of a reader, whether of his own work or that of his critics, and not from the point of view of an author with privileged knowledge. This is not to say there are not interesting cases when an artist can write about his/her intentions or when an interpreter can ask the artist about his/her intentions. But these instances pertain mainly to personal choices that concern individual poetics. At an artist’s lecture, for example, an artist can speak about the creative process so others can see the personal choices s/he made along the way. Also, to ask an artist about his/her intentions can demonstrate both cases where the intentions align with the work and where they don’t. In the first case, this alignment can show that the artist effectively achieved the goals s/he set for him or herself. In the second case, the gap between interpretation and work can demonstrate that regardless of the artist’s intentions, the work can withstand and support other interpretations beyond his/her intentions. The theory of the death of the author does not eliminate the possibility of, say, writing an autobiography. It only acknowledges the fact that once the book is interpreted, the author is no longer the authority of it. The book, the work of art, is the authority of both the author and the reader. Explanations of the creative process, while they can be useful, fun, and inspiring to the reader or viewer, only further emphasize the independence of the work. The author, too, just like any other reader, can delight in these as a reader of his/her own work.8
ADRIAN PIPER: CATALYST
Since her conceptual roots in the 1960s, Adrian Piper, like Joseph Kosuth has also been working for both a ‘seat at the table’ and for idea content. But as an artist she took a radically different approach by getting a PhD in analytic philosophy and becoming a professional philosopher. In spite of these achievements, she still has to fight for her seat — as a black/female/artist/philosopher (each category has its own challenges), many seats of which Kosuth, as a white male, already occupied. She too advocates artists’ writings and considers it the artist’s responsibility to take critics to task when they misrepresent her work, but she has remained true to her nomination of the primacy of ideas. We see this in her artwork, her writings in Meta-Art — texts which make explicit the thought processes, procedures, and presuppositions of her art — and her art criticism. Although she strictly distinguishes one form of expression from another, the ideas expressed in each may coincide. We see this most clearly by way of the example of an artwork, My Calling (Card) 1986-1990, and a piece of criticism, Open Letter to Donald Kuspit, 1987.
We can extract, at least partially, what she considers her calling from the last line of her volume of writings in Meta-Art: “... no matter what I do or do not do about my... identity, someone is bound to feel uncomfortable. But I have resolved that it is no longer going to be me.” [Piper, V1, 306] Whether her identity is limited racially, gendered, as an artist, as a philosopher, or otherwise, she displaces the discomfort of those limitations in all of her art and writing. 9
My Calling (Card) #1 is the title of a project she performed when she found herself in exclusively white company at a dinner or cocktail party in which the guests didn’t realize she was black. If a guest made a racist comment, assuming s/he were in sympathetic company, she would present him/her with a card.10 She writes about the effects in this way:
“What is nice about the card is that the only people whose evenings are ruined are mine and the person who made the remarks. Everyone else gets to carry on as usual, and if that person then wants to initiate a dialogue with me that is fine, but then the responsibility of ruining the evening is on them, it is not on me. Actually no one who got this card ever initiated dialogue with me. They just read the card, did a double take, and withdrew.” [Piper, V1, 271].
Her Open Letter to Donald Kuspit produces many of the same effects. Just as the guest at the cocktail party assumes that Piper is white and that a racist comment will be “passed over in silence,” so too does Donald Kuspit assume that Piper, as an artist, will pass over his criticism in silence. The surprise of the party guest and the surprise of Kuspit exist on an equal plane when the voice speaks from the assumed silent position.
Although their confrontation appears in public it only does so by Kuspit’s hand. He phoned her to say he was sending the essay and that she should call back in a few days with her thoughts. She read his essay as making assumptions about her identity and returned criticism by quoting from his text and adding commentary detailing his intellectual presumptions and personal attacks. By sending him a personal response — a letter (basically, a more specific card) — Piper gave her discomfort back to Kuspit, who had created it in the first place, without going public and ‘ruining the party’. Kuspit could have accepted the letter privately but instead made the confrontation public by publishing the essay, virtually unchanged, in Art Criticism.11 In relation to My Calling (Card) #1, he might be the first who didn’t do a double-take and withdraw. But like the others also, he didn’t initiate a dialogue, at least not one with Piper. By going public he tried to elicit the sympathy of others in the art world who might share his assumptions about both Piper and artists’ writings in general.
Only after Kuspit went public did Piper initiate a dialogue, again to send this new discomfort that he created back to him. She published an Open Letter in Real Life.12 Since Kuspit opened the discussion to the whole ‘party,’ she could now address the issue. Kuspit therefore allowed her to express her criticism of him publicly but also to demonstrate her voice as that of an artist speaking back to a critic. The issue for her is not (but maybe for Kuspit is) ‘me vs. him’, ‘artist against critic’, but is instead grounded in the ideas — both those that are assumed in the essay and letter and those that are not.
This is one example of how a piece of art criticism and an artwork can be about the same idea. That Piper is both an artist and a critic under the same name reflects off of this example. This conflation of art and criticism shows how – as the epigraph by Oscar Wilde that heads this essay expresses – without the critical faculty there is no aesthetic creation worthy of the name, and vice versa. The primacy of ideas, for Piper, stands above objects, the text, and the individual authors involved, making both art and criticism purely conceptual.
ART AS CATALYST: CHANGING CONSCIOUSNESS
Although critics like Donald Kuspit have accused Piper of administering interpretive control, on the contrary, she is open to interpretations of her work, both art and writing, as long as it is done responsibly. And she tells us how this can be done.
“I admire clear, intelligent, intellectually honest and self-reflective art criticism. These qualities are much more important...than how politically correct a critic thinks he or she is. Ideally I would like such criticism to situate my work at the interior boundary of consciousness between the self and the other, and at the intersection of the political and the aesthetic avant-garde.”[Piper, V1, 236]
She also tells us what irresponsible criticism would look like.
“I have no patience with criticism that relies on obfuscating jargon or esoteric references that obscure rather than illuminate the aesthetic and political realities it purports to address; nor with criticism that fails to take art at least as seriously as its own theoretical underpinnings; nor with criticism that flinches in the face of the realities my work represents. A piece of criticism that does not respect its readership enough to render difficult or loaded ideas intelligibly does not deserve the respect expressed by reading it.” [Piper, V1, 236]
We see how she expects this of herself, just as she expects this of others, in her criticism of Kuspit’s essay. She makes her critical position as reader, not as author, explicit: “My comments were directed at your work, not mine. And they were intended to improve that work in accordance with intellectual standards I assumed we both shared, quite irrespective of my view of my own work.”[Piper, V2, 107] Unlike Kosuth, she does not confuse a theory of poetics with a theory of interpretation. By her example, we see how an artist can celebrate the ‘death of the Author’ and continue to write about one’s own work. Her motivation is cooperative, not competitive.[Piper, V2,173]
There is no getting around the fact that writing about Piper’s work poses some difficult challenges. In addition to these guidelines, and the potential that she will retaliate, she recognizes that supporters of her work have often been “punished by losing their funding, their professional status, their jobs, or their voice in the community.”[Piper, V2, xxviii] Despite these challenges, Robert Storr doesn’t shy away from supporting, writing about, or differing from her work, and yet he manages to come out of it unscathed. The reason for this, besides Storr’s “intellectually honest self-reflective criticism”, is that Storr’s difference of opinion, unlike Kuspit’s, is substantive rather than personal. And for my purposes, it contributes to the debate over art-for-art’s-sake and art-as-social-engagement that artists and critics have been having for centuries.
In his Foreword to Out of Order, Out Sight, Storr recognizes that,
“Excluding the debater’s points and rhetorical questions that might be raised against Piper’s arguments in an effort to deflect its focus on our most painful national reality, there are many ways to differ with parts of what she says. It is possible to join in her dismay at the present state of affairs without believing, as she does, that artistic probity is so intimately connected to the personal morality of the artist — good art “happens” to bad people — or without sharing her faith in art as a tool for change. Modernism incorporates a long roster of reactionaries and boasts a short list of direct progressive achievements.”[Piper, V2, xviii]
Although I agree that we can disagree with and criticize Piper’s art and writing, there are consequences if we do so along these lines. First of all, if we don’t “believe as she does,” that artistic probity is connected to the morality of the artist, or “share her faith” in art as a tool for change then we challenge her experience and training as a rational philosopher. Earlier in his essay, Storr calls Piper’s collection of writings “a mid-life memoir of a mind at work on the hopeful prospect that reason will prevail over prejudice.”[Piper, V2, xi] And a little later he adds: “…to have a passion for reason like Piper’s, therefore, is to have a passionate need for reason to show the way out of an impasse.”[Piper, V2, xxii] Clearly she’s not turning to faith and belief for a way out but is relying on her abilities of reason, as a Kantian philosopher, to inspire the rationality of her viewers and readers.
Second, if we choose not to share her faith in art as a tool for change – or her chosen role as “an agent for social change”[Piper, V2, xiii] – then we posit her as an idealist forgivable for the shortcomings that we can see but that she cannot. Just as Storr knows that “Despite her extensive proofs and polemics…, Piper does not demand or expect complete agreement,” he also knows that she does not “propose a cure-all for our collective ills.”[Piper, V2, xviii] What she does instead is “identify well-known, knee-jerk unacceptable responses – not prescribe the politically correct one.”[Piper, V2, xviii-xix] In Piper’s saying this, and in Storr’s recognition of it, we can see that her position toward change does not come from the idealism of universal truth: “…there is no universal conversation about Art to get on with. There are only particular conversations in particular idiolects, some of which pretend to universality, some of which do not…”[Piper, V2, 145] At best, her sights are set on reaching an understanding between two people within the moment such that they can move to the next step.
“I have no idea what the right response is to the problem of racism in America. I guess my sense is that it has to be…based on the specifics of the particular, concrete situation that is occurring between two people who are interacting in the indexical present. One cannot prescribe such things as general policy.”[Piper, V1, 267]
Rather than seeking the universal, or the ideal oneness of human experience, whether it is in Truth, consensus, or experience, Piper’s ambition, as she describes it, is to be a “card-carrying member of as many ghettoes as possible.”[Piper, V2, 146n17] While she may entertain some idealistic notions like the rest of us, she knows that diversity and the incorporation of difference in the particular instance are far more practical and effective. For us to say that a particular work fails to inspire social change or to show how it fails through its execution to communicate or raise consciousness, or to demonstrate how it contradicts its apparent intention is one way to differ with Piper’s work – one particular work at a time. But to differ with her as a matter of philosophy, to say that art in general cannot be a tool for change, is to propose an equally idealistic position.
The fact that “Modernism incorporates a long roster of reactionaries and boasts a short list of direct progressive achievements” should not preclude Piper’s efforts or our willingness to watch her try. If we assume based on past failures that she is operating under false pretenses or that she is destined to crash, then we also assume that she is trying what has already been tried in exactly the same way. Ultimately, to prejudge her intentions as good but her dream as flawed begs the question, if not through Art, in what medium is social change possible? Journalism, Politics, Law? The question has a familiar ring to those from the early 1960s like the one Barbara Rose asked about Ed Kienholz’s work: “Kienholz obviously has something to say, but why has he chosen to express himself visually and not verbally?”[Pincus, xvi] The imagination has failed when we conclude that only words can or should communicate ideas and, in turn, change the world.
Finally, if we do not share her faith in art’s ability to be a tool for change but can still “join in her dismay” (a soft phrase considering the hardness of her experience) at the present state of affairs, then we have only found a way to avoid putting full stake in her work. By positing her inevitable failure we give ourselves another excuse with which to deflect the focus of her work away from our most painful national reality.
In the end, Storr is somewhat playing the devil’s advocate, as I am. In his discussion of The Mythic Being, he cites Piper as knowing that in taking on the alter ego of a white, heterosexual, WASP, upper-middle class male she also takes on the sense of entitlement which has “no bounded sense of self” such that “one’s subjective tastes, prejudices, and impulses are equated with objective truth.” She recognizes, as does Storr, that the assumption of the universal position of everyman is a false privilege.
“Refusing to relinquish the privileges of the dominant culture into which she was educated, Piper speaks in universals precisely in order to reveal the intrinsic partiality of any claim to that perspective.”[Piper, V2, xvi]
Possibly Storr is speaking in universals too as a means to direct us out of the trees of the debater’s points and rhetorical questions to draw our attention back to the work itself. Regardless of his position beyond the scope of this essay, his conclusion shows that he is not willing to go as far as Kosuth who said that art cannot do anything useful. “If it is not entirely within the grasp of logic to change the world,” Storr says, “changing consciousness, which is the locus and origin of our crippling misperceptions, is.” [Piper, V2, xxii] How changing consciousness differs from social change is the next question to consider.
BETWEEN A TREE AND A REVOLUTION
As it turns out, we don’t have to look too far to find the beginnings of an answer to this question. In “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, written close to the same time as his foreword to Out of Order, Out of Sight, Robert Storr lends further insight through the example of Piper’s work. Since all art is political, as Felix Gonzalez-Torres made clear, the presence or absence of active politics begins to illuminate the gray area between what can’t simply be described as a black and white issue. The dialectical balance or imbalance between art-for-art’s-sake and art-as-social-engagement is not new since Kosuth and Piper. This debate forms the foundation of the poetics of contradiction that emerged as one of Modernism’s projects.
Umberto Eco introduced a comparison between Joyce and Brecht which coincides with this seemingly two-pronged dilemma as it emerged for Modernists.
“Bertold Brecht decided that one could no longer “speak about trees” but must engage in pedagogic and revolutionary activity. Brecht realized that his decision did not eliminate the other horn of the dilemma but forced the issue into a situation of crisis and tension from which it could not escape. He knew that the trees do, in fact, matter to us and that the day may come when humanity might once again contemplate them.”[Eco, AC, 85-6]
Joyce represents the other horn of the dilemma.
“[Joyce’s] response to those who spoke of the war and the political events that were erupting in Europe (“Don’t talk to me about politics, I’m only interested in style.”) leaves us perplexed concerning his human character, but it represents an example of an aesthetic and austere choice without half measure, that arouses in us, if not admiration, fright.”[Eco, AC, 85-6]
Storr echoes this difference when he marks out two concepts of the imagination, one which – paralleling Joyce – says that true artists have the luxury of removing themselves from mundane circumstances and struggles to compose disinterested thoughts and images, and the other which – paralleling Brecht – says that there are artists whose subject is the impossibility of taking refuge in their thoughts or existing comfortably in the world as they find it.[Storr, BRHP, 13] Piper, as “avowedly didactic,” seems, at first, to clearly occupy the side of Brecht. She too realized that her decision did not eliminate the other horn of the dilemma. She knows also that the trees do matter to us. But instead of “reiterating…the argument that we cannot afford artificial beauty until moral ugliness is defeated”, as Storr puts it,
“Piper fused her dialectical opposites into a visual and spatial oxymoron. She thus made viewers conscious of the cognitive dissonance created by the confrontation of the two forms of idealism she invoked – the dream of aesthetic harmony and the demand for social justice.”[Storr, BRHP, 16]
Although Storr is talking specifically about her work, What It’s Like, What It Is, No. 3, the process described here is characteristic of other aspects and examples of her work.
Maturing as an artist into a Postmodern condition allowed her to do this. Emerging out of the Modernist poetics of contradiction, aided along by the work of artists like Piper and Gonzalez-Torres, as well as theorists like Deleuze and Guattari, Julia Kristeva, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler, the diversification of the dialectic and of dualism emerged as one of Postmodernism’s projects. The move from the Enlightenment quest for universal oneness moved into the dualism of the Hegelian and Marxist, and later Saussurian, dialectic. Even though a side step came through C.S. Peirce, into thirdness and a theory of threes, it was the next generation of theorists, like Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, and Eco that introduced the splintering of these structures into the rhizome, the labyrinth, and, ultimately, the internet. This purely theoretical (analytical) move into diversity from rigid structural and functional systematic dualisms to structureless, deconstructed, unlimited or open systems fostered a sensibility for the diversification of cultural (synthetic) structures such as race, gender, and religion. The color line between black and white, the gender line between male and female, and the religious claim toward one and only one God dissolved showing the macrocosmic spectrum that existed behind the shadow cast by the microcosm of these dualistic structures. The intersection of these purely theoretical concerns with social and political concerns mirrors the intersection at which Piper wants critics to situate her art, at the intersection of the aesthetic and political avant-garde.
Taking into consideration both her emergence in Postmodern philosophy and her philosophical foundation in Kantian philosophy, Storr shows Piper’s breadth by connecting both to her contemporary aesthetic practice.
“The contemplation of absolutes – in which Piper, a Kantian philosopher, firmly believes – requires a trust that the detachment required will not be violated. Like other African-Americans, Piper knows by experience that access to the ivory tower is extremely limited and that living in your head can be very risky. Nevertheless, evoking without irony exactly the sort of transcendence that has been a goal of art in every era, Piper asserts her equal claim to such transcendence – refusing, in effect, to cede her rights to the “White Cube” of high modernism simply because she is black but also refusing to permit others to continue to enjoy its sanctuary without constant thought of what lies outside.”[Storr, BRHP, 16]
Using the same theoretical strategies as her more austere contemporaries like LeWitt and Michael Asher, Piper takes the step into the world and introduces personal and political experience into the White Cube (the name Brian O’Doherty gave to the art gallery). She does this not only as a means to stimulate the consciousness of the viewer such that in their conscience they could reconceive their racial prejudices, but also so they could reconceive their apriori prejudices of the White Cube. Just as Reinhardt would never have condoned linking the blackness of his squares to the African-American experience, Piper, too, does not condone overlooking the White Cube by using it simply as an empty canvas on which to paint the colors of social injustice or as a vacant venue for protest.
Storr’s interpretive writing makes a compelling case for her admiration of austere Minimalists like LeWitt and Reinhardt13 by situating her work right where she wants it. He describes her as caught between “aesthetic dreams deferred and wide-awake nightmares” and shows how she incorporates both into her production as an artist.
“Piper takes a minimalist adaptation of mathematical Set Theory and applies it to social classifications, in this case diagramming the permutations of a racial paradigm the way Sol LeWitt dismantled and displayed all the structural subdivisions of a standard geometric cube. And like LeWitt’s piece, it makes one fundamentally reconceive the object of one’s attention where beforehand one looked only in order to confirm a prior definition of that object.”[Storr, BRHP, 13-4]
By framing Piper’s project in this way, Storr not only makes a case for Piper’s art as leaning toward the austere and aesthetic choice of style, but he also makes a case for the political dimensions of LeWitt’s cube, and by extension, Reinhardt’s black square, and Joyce’s style, too. Opposing Kosuth, who we remember said that Art – unlike logic, math, and science – can do nothing, Storr shows how LeWitt’s non-didactic and austere art and Piper’s didactic and pedagogic art both, in the end, do something. By reconceiving the object of one’s attention such that when we look on it our prior definitions are thrown into states of disrepair, what art ultimately does is alter consciousness, which is the power Storr granted Piper’s work in his foreword to Out of Order, Out of Sight. “Piper’s practice,” he says, “follows the principle that consciousness must be stimulated before the conscience can be addressed.”[Storr, BRHP, 15] If when we look on a LeWitt cube our preconceptions of cubes are reconceived, and we can call this a change of consciousness, then what do we call it when we are presented with a calling card that points out an oversight in our racial prejudices? If we reconceive our hidden prejudices by being made aware of them, the resultant change that that consciousness inspires in our conscience and, possibly, our behavior must not be all that different from social change.
Just as the White Cube was never thought of, or operated behind the scenes as a “universal” apolitical space, as “objective truth”, so too did the white male before the 1960s. Storr suggested that “The great privilege whites in this society widely enjoy is seldom having to think about their color; the abiding burden of blacks is never being allowed to forget theirs.”[Piper, V2, xxii]. Although blacks are still never allowed to forget theirs, possibly one example of social change that Piper’s work can be attributed to – along with the wave of cultural theory, television programming, hiphop, rap, and the debates over equal opportunity and affirmative action – is that today, much more so than before, whites have become more conscious of the privileges of their color. Courses and even departments in Whiteness Studies found in some American universities today were unthinkable in the 1960s. And the fact that many white male academics trying to get positions in American universities today complain that they are being discriminated against because colleges want to diversify also shows how white males can no longer behave as disembodied selves assuming the universal position of Everyman. In addition, the presence of a female and an African-American presidential candidate, and gay marriage as a debatable topic, on the 2007 political campaign trail is also due in part to this push from within art, literature, television, journalism, and cultural theory. Though not single-handedly, Piper’s and Gonzalez-Torres’ part in all of this must lend some support to their art’s and Art’s potential as a tool for social change.
Like the American legal system that adheres to a policy of social cooperation when inflicting punishment on a criminal by assigning everyone – the victim, the police, two lawyers, a grand jury, twelve jurors, a judge, the warden, the guards – a specific role in the process such that no one and everyone who participated can be blamed or credited with having delivered the final blow,14 a parallel dispersion of attribution can said of the workings of positive social change: no one and everyone who participated can be accredited with bringing it about since its causes are dispersed across cultural, political, and legal axes. This may lend an explanation to the short list of direct progressive achievements that Storr remarked on. Tracing back to Piper’s role would be impossible except in the specific one-on-one case with, for example, a recipient of one of her calling cards, a viewer of her art, or Donald Kuspit. These kinds of statistics never appear in polls or on network news, but since she was an active cultural producer at the time dealing with these issues, I think we can credit her, without being too idealistic, with being a participating contributor.
THAT WHICH WE CANNOT SPEAK ABOUT...
In contrast to Piper’s self-conscious and art historical incorporation of the White Cube, we can shine the light back on Kosuth. When Kosuth was looking for a way in which to strip his art of shapes, forms, and colors, and refine it as pure ideas, he turned to philosophy and found written and verbal language as a pre-made structural device for the expression of ideas. By using language in and as his visual objects, he hoped to link and bridge the gap from philosophical expression to artistic expression. But in doing so, just as traditional philosophy before Wittgenstein and Derrida had overlooked the structural necessity of written language as the vehicle of expression – the envelop – of their ideas, so too did he overlook his substitution for the white pages of a book with the white pages of the gallery walls. By using the white walls as his envelop to deliver his protest against Greenbergian formalism, he suspended his disbelief of the role that the ivory walls themselves play or the ease at which, in regards to race and gender, he could occupy them.
By contrast, Adrian Piper took on this project from both a theoretical and a personal perspective, an aesthetic and political perspective, and with an integration of art world politics and outer world politics. Ultimately her art-as-social-engagement becomes an art-for-our-sake by forcing us to consider our place in relation to Art and to consider the place of Art in the world without allowing us to lose sight of the world around us whether it is contained within the gallery walls or within the nebulous of global, social, or personal politics. By showing us the gallery walls, the content that hangs on them, and the conflicts of the world outside, she reminds us that the gallery and Art are part of the outside world and as such the expression of politics and social injustice has a place in them.
With support lent from Gonzalez-Torres’ aphoristic clarity, which can also be seen in his work, we can see by the example of Piper’s work and Storr’s even-handed assessment of it, and Joseph Kosuth’s writings and art, how the line between art-for-art’s-sake and art-as-social-engagement is neither so straight nor so clear. The presence and absence of active politics does not define a work as political or not, just as the presence or absence of the active purification of style does not define a work as aesthetic. Aesthetic idealism is infused with political motives and active politics will seek any means necessary to make its point. Just as Piper’s work contributes to the aesthetic avant-garde, so too does Kosuth’s contribute to the political, and as such it can likewise be attributed to social change. Although I may have positioned Kosuth in a darker light by suggesting that the project of separating analytic propositions from synthetic propositions, despite its convenient dialectical order, is also a form of idealism; or by illuminating his failure to divorce himself and his intentions from his work; or by suggesting that despite his intentions, consensus in the art world considers his artistic production (which includes his shapes, forms, colors, and materials) not as disembodied ideas but as aesthetic objects, too; I do not mean to diminish his importance as one of the most significant and influential artists and art theorists in the late twentieth century. What he did not say is just important to the future of art as what he did say. Kosuth’s ideas and art inspired generations of artists, and Contemporary Art, as we now call it, would not be what it is today had it not been for Joseph Kosuth. The same can be said for Adrian Piper. Speaking for myself, this essay and my art stand as products of the social and personal change that their work has inspired.
In the end, we realize, echoing Storr, that “These days very few artists publicly take powerful commentators to task for their hidden agendas or blatant errors. Being a “difficult” artist can ruin one’s chances at success; being marginalized with nothing to lose frees the mind and the tongue.”[Piper, V2, xiv] Joseph Kosuth and Adrian Piper have proven themselves to be two of these few, who from the 1960s through to today, continue to take critics to task. And both of them have been vilified for doing so. Although there are many differences in their approaches, one must remember that on the flipside of Kosuth and Piper stand a majority of artists who choose to never read, or write back to, their critics under the counter assumption that either “they are all idiots,” or that it will ruin their careers. Regardless of whether an artist claims that his/her work is socially or politically committed, or whether s/he claims that it proceeds for its own sake, an artist not only has a responsibility to him/herself and to the work to read and criticize its critics, but s/he also has a responsibility to the critic if the work or the ideas are worth the time either of them invested. These responsibilities we cannot pass over in silence.
1 For a three-step process of the ‘right to speak,’ see Jean-Francois Lyotard. “The Other’s Rights.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, ed. Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley (NY: Basic Books, 1993), 135-147.
2 See Herbert Mitgang’s Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America’s Greatest Authors, which, in addition to documenting FBI files on literary authors, includes a chapter on the files kept on Alexander Calder, Ben Shahn, Georgia O’Keefe, and Stuart Davis.
3 Piper’s discussion draws parallels to the climate of 1992 and Jesse Helms’ influence. See Piper, V2, 209-14.
4 "Reinhardt has a genuine if small gift for color, but none at all for design or placing. I can see why he let Newman, Rothko and Still influence him towards close and dark values, but he lost more than he gained by the desperate extreme to which he went, changing from a nice into a trite artist."[Greenberg, 254-5]
5 This is Richard Howard’s translation of the last line as it appeared in Aspen 5+6. In The Rustle of Language, Howard’s translation reads, “…the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the author.” Stephen Heath’s translation of the last line from Image-Music-Text reads, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”
6 This word follows Louis Althusser’s usage.
7 A good early example of Kosuth’s imperative to secure authorship can be found in footnote 9 of Art After Philosophy. He writes, “I would like to make it clear, however, that I intend to speak for no one else. I arrived at these conclusions alone, and indeed, it is from this thinking that my art since 1966 (if not before) evolved. Only recently did I realize after meeting Terry Atkinson that he and Michael Baldwin share similar, though certainly not identical, opinions to mine.”[Kosuth, 31n9] This disclaimer is double-bound. While he is trying to “…enable others to understand the reasoning…” of his own art and, make no claims for the art of others, he is also “by extension,” [Kosuth, 15] suggesting that his reasoning could help to understand the work of other artists. In the midst of this disclaimer though, he also stakes out his ground, against Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson, that he came up with his ideas alone, and therefore claims independent credit.
8 My position is in agreement with Umberto Eco’s as he explains it in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, throughout but in particular in pages 65-66, 73, 84-5. It also parallels Piper’s definition of “writings in meta-art.”
10 The card reads: “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably caused them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me. Sincerely yours, Adrian Margaret Smith Piper.”[Piper, V1, 220]
11 Issue 3 no. 3 [Sept. 1987], pp. 9-16.
12 (Issue)17-18, Winter ‘87- Spring ‘88, and later in Piper, V2.
13 It is important to note that Piper singles out Reinhardt as an artist that she disagrees with ideologically, but whose work she really likes, particularly for his “rules concerning the elimination of rules in art.”[Piper, V1, 3n1]
14 See Cover, Robert. “Narrative, Violence, and the Law: The Essay of Robert Cover, ed. Martha Minow, Michael Ryan, and Austin Sarat (Michigan 1993), 203-238 (227).