TRUST SURVEY 2018
What can we learn from Adrian Piper's search for ethical ways of being?
THE VIDEO CONCLUDED “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016,” Adrian Piper’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Two friends had recommended it in high terms, and so I went, on a Tuesday in late May of 2018, and was treating it—the video, that is—incorrectly, as the beginning of the show.
In Adrian Moves to Berlin, Piper dances to “selected Berlin house music of the early 2000s.” She’s in Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s storied central pedestrian zone, site of a weird, squat world time clock and the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft (Fountain of Friendship among Peoples), along with the former GDR’s prize television tower. The square’s Stalinist desolation has been updated since reunification—notably with a shopping mall. However, save for the clock, the shot is too tight for us to make out these monuments to globalized space and time. We hear house music and see Piper in motion in jeans, blazer, pink scarf, sunglasses. It’s possible that Piper, dancing, is not listening to a recording—though from time to time we see her touch her ear, as if adjusting small headphones. She may have memorized the composition, as she did for her 1971–72 performance, Aretha Franklin Catalysis, in which she danced to Franklin’s “Respect” without playing a (publicly) audible track.
Adrian Moves to Berlin, as I later learned by reading a text on Piper’s website, was shot on a Monday in late March 2007 at lunchtime. The video’s title points up a related logistical matter: Piper has relocated to Berlin from the United States, and Piper is “moving to the beat of Berlin,” if we can suffer that expression. She’s at once displaced and attentive to location and time. Piper’s lack of constraint regarding passersby, some of whom seem to shift to acknowledge and even stiffly celebrate her, is a demonstration of autonomy—in particular, freedom of movement—even as we understand that this is an artwork about interpersonal relations in public space.
On MoMA’s sixth floor, meanwhile, in spring of 2018, there were at least two popular ways of engaging with the video, which was projected onto a wall beside the exhibition’s exit. Some people would come up to it and begin dancing along, sometimes so that their friends could photograph them or make a video. Others would assume an attitude similar to those passing through Alexanderplatz on March 26, 2007: they drifted by, commenting on the anomaly of the spectacle. Look at her, they said, sometimes appreciatively, sometimes with an air of confusion. I studied these responses, enjoying them as if they were works of art in themselves—an echo that seemed part of the point. I wanted to dance too, and maybe I did, shyly, standing off to the side. I began to be subject to fantasies about personal agency and started walking through the exhibition in reverse.
“A Synthesis of Intuitions” (now at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as “Concepts and Intuitions”) is a comprehensive show, painstakingly organized in strict chronological order. It was also, as size-conscious individuals noted at the time, the largest exhibition of work by a living artist held at MoMA, filling the entire floor. Traveling backward thus had consequences. I experienced trepidation before The Humming Room (2012), a small room I had to pass through in order to access the rest of the exhibition. Above the entrance was a sign: in order to enter the room, you must hum a tune. any tune will do. OK, I thought. Within the room stood a security guard, who, although currently distracted, was probably empowered to enforce the imperative. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to hum recognizably in public and was concerned, however ridiculously, that if I did not manifest the correct behavior I would be asked to leave. Some of my disorientation probably had to do with the fact that I was coming early, as far as the show’s narrative was concerned, to The Humming Room. Piper explains in an interview, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, that this space is intended as a “kind of pressure valve that allows viewers to let off steam, to release [their] anger and tension and anxiety” after they have passed through the “Corridor of Pain,” her works of the 1990s treating racism and misogyny, trauma, and America’s history of violence and police brutality. But the “Corridor of Pain” was still on the other side of the room for me. I procrastinated, hovering at what was properly the exit of The Humming Room, studying Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, a self-portrait from September 2012 that combines text in white typewriter font with a photographic image of Piper’s smiling face that has been printed in an artificial gray. The text announces her decision to “change my racial and nationality designations” to “6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage” and “Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry.” I lingered on the exclamation point at the end of the declaration: “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” Nearby was a photolithograph, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013), with Martin’s face on a white field printed in an extremely faint, pale gray overlaid with prominent red crosshairs. Beneath Martin’s chin, a sentence rendered in purple typewriter font reads, “Imagine what it was like to be me.” There is no punctuation. With this ellipsis in mind, I ducked into The Humming Room. My humming was literal. It went, “Hum, hum, hum.” The guard had a non-reaction and I stepped to the other side.
I reflected that before entering The Humming Room, speaking of “institutional control,” I had failed, in an important sense. I had been so focused on the directive (you must hum a tune) and, relatedly, on the task of acquitting myself faultlessly as a normal museumgoer, that I had lost track of what was at stake. I had perceived the letter of the law (you must hum) without intuiting its spirit, its ironies, its will to distinguish. I’d striven, ludicrously, to behave correctly, to enter into the law’s good graces, even as Piper’s recent works had already impressed upon me the incontrovertible historical and contemporary fact that the letter of American law is infernal and subtle, its clarity a dissimulation.
Though I had focused on Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment and Imagine [Trayvon Martin], there were other works—and other words—to read on the subject of institutional control. howdy says an unapologetic no-entry symbol Piper projects onto a locked door, for example, in her 2015 Howdy #6 [Second Series]. And Never Forget (2016) appropriates the nationalist slogan of September 11, 2001, as the title of a graphic exploration of Piper’s family tree. The genealogical diagram at the lower left of the print montage reveals that her white, formerly slave-holding great-great-grandfather became “colored” in his legal death record, through his marriage to Piper’s great-great-grandmother, who, “[paid him] a thousand dollars in order to obtain her freedom and the freedom of her four children.” Piper couples this detailed elaboration of the administrative workings of America’s racial caste system with another archival revelation and appropriation, an image of the official 2008 letter she received, summarily revoking her appointment as a professor of philosophy and dismissing her from Wellesley College.
Piper’s 2015 Golden Lion–winning Venice Biennale installation, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, on the other hand, allows visitors entrée into an apparently more livable bureaucratically managed community, under the auspices of which, at a series of three reception desks staffed by attentive young people, they may pledge always to “be too expensive to buy,” “say what I mean,” and “do what I say I am going to do.” The plain language associated with these and other artworks gave me opportunity to contemplate my own decision-making process, along with the sorts of prompts I was most receptive to. I noted that sometimes I wanted to be independent and sometimes to imitate or join. Sometimes I was thrown back into the problem of not knowing what to do or how to understand the environment, and sometimes problems beyond my own individual actions or experience loomed larger, pointing me out as a subject of history. Overall, I found that the present—present time, present action, present thought—was getting thicker, more specific, more challenging in its detail.
As I continued my walk backward, back into Piper’s work of the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, and late ’60s, I considered her recent imperatives (“Please join,” “Imagine,” “Never forget,” etc.), along with my own inability to trust either the contract offered by The Humming Room or my own actions within that room, though I had decided to enter. I reflected that—no great epiphany this—contracts, social and otherwise, are tricky. Subject to spontaneous revision, reinterpretation, and disintegration, among other forms of unwanted variance, they tend to function one way in theory and another in practice. I reflected, too, that the author of these works was a professor of meta-ethics and, therefore, in some non-negligible sense, an expert on trust.
BEING AN ANALYTIC philosopher isn’t easy. I know because I made brief attempts at the close of the last century, as an eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old. Most memorable was a course on Kant’s ethics taught by Christine Korsgaard. The Harvard University lecture hall was packed, largely with young men who wore shorts in winter and claimed math courses were a leisure activity. It provoked in me a feeling of extreme discomfort. Though I was at the time unaware that anything related to my identity could determine which disciplines I could and could not pursue, and though Korsgaard herself was female, there was a definite chill. I chose to believe that the chill was mostly due to the way in which the discipline treated language. The notion that a paragraph could be converted—clarified—into a formal grammar, a raft of specific propositions, felt artificial and alien, at least to me, who was unused to words being valued for the stability of their meanings. I was otherwise spending most of my time being a comparative literature major who had just discovered German poetry (Celan, Novalis) and, in a stroke of genius and desperation, had convinced my teaching assistant to let me write a final paper for Korsgaard on a single word in The Metaphysics of Morals. I said nothing all semester, save in the T.A.’s office hours, where I struggled to put in a relevant (to the field, at least) thought.
Thus, it may not be specific enough, particularly in the context of contemporary visual art, to say that Adrian Piper is “a philosopher.” The everyday valence of this term, given the existence, for example, of Slavoj Žižek, who is also, yes, “a philosopher,” can obscure the rigor and technical specificity of what those who work in the analytic tradition do, particularly since it is a method that embraces not just conceptual clarity but empiricism. Given the tendency on the part of art institutions to casually solicit the tidings of adjacent disciplines, particularly those concerned with language, we are accustomed to encountering professional philosophers in galleries and museums. Usually these philosophers, phenomenologists and ideologues (I use the latter term without pejorative intent), offer broad humanistic themes, not unambiguous logical forms. Piper, in her role as an analytic philosopher, works with logic, deploying specific techniques to address discrete problems with identifiable results, though more popular notions such as value(s) and history also come in for consideration.
Piper has taken care to explain that her work in philosophy, her “day job,” as she writes, is not a mirror image, in another guise, of her work in visual art—or, for that matter, an uncomplicated extension of her study and practice of yoga—and vice versa. Though there was a craze among Conceptual artists and others for the analytic tradition’s linguistic turn during the heyday of the so-called dematerialization of the art object, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (“All philosophy is a ‘critique of language.’”) has persisted as a figure of fascination in the American humanities, there has been little cross-pollination between the fields of visual art and analytic philosophy, generally speaking.
I am not proposing to initiate the process of cross-pollination here. I don’t have the skills necessary to the task; moreover, I’m not sure that one career need be deployed to interpret another. But it does seem worth clarifying that Piper is a distinguished philosopher. She is the first woman of African descent to receive academic tenure in a field notoriously lacking in diversity in the United States, and among her many achievements is the inclusion of her 1984 paper, “Two Conceptions of the Self,” in the Philosophers’ Annual, a selection of the top ten papers from a given year, among the highest honors a paper can receive. This paper in turn forms the basis for Rationality and the Structure of the Self, Piper’s two-volume magnum opus, a work some three decades in the making, which Piper describes as the fullest expression of her engagement with Kant, ongoing since the 1960s.
As a philosopher, Piper points up her interest in employing means and ends that are congruent. As she writes in the first chapter of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, philosophers do philosophy in no small part because philosophy requires the exercise of the “buoyant device” of reason, and exercising reason suggests a respect for the rational capacity of others, as well as the existence of something called “transpersonal rationality,” i.e., “principled rational dispositions—to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection, and self-control—that enable us to transcend the overwhelming attractions of comfort, convenience, profit, gratification . . . and self-deception.” Most if not all of Rationality and the Structure of the Self is about showing how this account of the self, a Kantian account, is not only superior to David Hume’s account of the self as primarily egocentric, but in fact the account of the self that already undergirds Humean descriptions. According to Piper, it’s essentially a revision of the entire contemporary analytic field, which she suggests is necessary on practical as well as empirical grounds, as:
When teachers fail to impart a love of philosophy to their undergraduate students, or drive graduate students, traumatized, out of their classes and out of the field, it is often because these elemental guidelines for conducting the enterprise—guidelines that express the simple truth that a love of philosophy is incompatible with feeling humiliated or trounced or arrogant or self-congratulatory for one’s contributions to it—have been ignored.
I can’t judge whether Piper is entirely successful in her enterprise in this book, but I was interested enough to read its thousand-plus pages in PDF form, having downloaded it from her website. A technical work to be sure, it is also beautifully written, full of humor and broadly applicable wisdom. I found, in reading it, that I wished that as a graduate student I had had such a professor. Indeed, my reaction and Piper’s own references to the state of the academy in this text and elsewhere, along with her accounts of her professional and personal experiences there, indicate another wrinkle in the circulation and reception of her work: She repeatedly maintains that the field of analytic philosophy is beset by unethical, prejudicial practices; that it can no longer reproduce itself with integrity. Rationality and the Structure of the Self is launched as a theoretical and practical corrective.
If I go to adrianpiper.com, I can view a video and other materials that explain why Piper elected to publish her masterwork with her own nonprofit, the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation (APRA) in Berlin, even though it was accepted by Cambridge University Press. Piper rejected the prestigious press’s offer, in part because its publicity department asked for cuts to her text. Her refusal to alter her work in any way in order that it might appear with a certifying imprint is an example of a decision to think of images and texts as more than “mere” representations of reality, to reconcile ends and means. Piper has taken care to treat Rationality and the Structure of the Self as an act with practical and ethical consequences, as well as an object or series of messages.
WE MIGHT SAY something similar of the publications that accompany “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Though we have the predictable oversize catalogue, with its luscious full-color reproductions, there are two additional hefty tomes, Adrian Piper: A Reader, published by MoMA, and Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, published by the APRA Foundation. These two publications serve, if differently, as useful gestures in relation to the show. Cornelia Butler and David Platzker write, in their introductory “Adrian Piper: Reading the Work,” in the MoMA reader, that they “encourage readers to consider this book as a kind of communal interpretive mural project.” Though the collection has the standard exegetical function of a grouping of catalogue essays, it also functions like a Festschrift and consolidates, deepens, and expands previous accounts of Piper’s career; it likely replaces earlier tomes as the definitive critical compendium, given the various writers’ wide-ranging research interests and areas of expertise. Escape to Berlin, meanwhile, is at once a more and less complex story.
Readers of Piper’s writings in what she has termed “meta-art,” know that she is capable of trenchant analysis and rigorous style. But Escape to Berlin is a different sort of writing, tonally distinct: it is concerned with autobiography, and although Piper repeatedly states that she cannot be concerned with what the reader thinks, the book sounds and feels intimate. It is a first-person narrative about Piper’s childhood, her experiences with family, and her professional life as a philosopher. The book mentions Piper’s career as an artist, but it is not primarily about this aspect of her work. Rather, the memoir focuses on Piper’s loving relationship with her parents and extended family, how she came to have awareness of the world, the ways in which “the American caste system, based on the imagined binary opposition between ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘races’” affected Piper’s family and Piper herself—particularly through her father’s abandonment by his own white father—and the ways in which Piper’s experience of familial love and societal corruption played out in her work as a professor of analytic philosophy, a field from which she would eventually need, as the title suggests, to escape.
Piper describes a dangerous “dissociation of theory from practice” in contemporary analytic philosophy and throughout the academy, the reign of the “popular rule derived from Socrates’ [sic] execution.” Her adviser, the moral and political philosopher John Rawls, was supportive only when it was convenient for him to be so and, as Piper maintains, effectively wrote her out of the canon by neglecting to cite her work in his own. Others were devious and competitive, when not openly racist and sexist: There is, and this is a beautiful string of descriptors, the “most subterranean, efficient, and easily angered among [Piper’s] colleagues,” who at her first job contrived to create a climate that made it impossible for Piper to receive tenure. I’m giving just one example, but what is clear in this account is the hostility of the academy in general to those who are not male and white and who speak their minds, as well as the particularly closed and conformist nature of the field of philosophy. These are not new complaints, but what is unusual is to see someone lay out the sequence of events in such detail, how it is possible to progress from the happy moment at which one is a desirable prospective graduate student, courted by faculty, to the state of being a threat and serious inconvenience, in spite of, or perhaps because of, one’s achievements. As we have recently seen powerful tenured academics publicly attribute “malicious” intent to a student, it is quite illuminating to see an individual with tenure—who was in theory in a protected position in the academy—describe an environment in which viciousness and paranoia reign, to the detriment of thoughtful pedagogy. And, in this case, it is Piper’s description—which is to say, a description offered by someone whose embrace of the Socratic imperative to align theory and practice, word and deed, means and ends, has given her not just a logical rationale to protest but a professional obligation to do so.
A metaphorical image appears throughout the account, of “a sprout, a tiny sapling slowly and laboriously pushing its way above ground and emerging into the air.” For Piper, this sprout is an analogy for “the self you really are.” Now a doctor of comparative literature and definitely not an analytic philosopher, I find it striking, for literary reasons, that this sounds a lot like a central metaphor of Platonic and Aristotelian poetics, in which personal action (including artistic creation) is thought through using the coming-into-being of nature as a model. Presumably, this sprout also has to do with Kant’s epigenetic conception of pure reason, in which innate mental capacities, Erkenntnisvermögen, or “faculties of cognition,” synthesize external experiential data, along with representational processes that are fundamentally prior to experience. However, and perhaps most importantly, the image of this sprout is a place in Piper’s writing in which her “three hats” come together for a moment, and we can understand the larger project; the kind of self and cultivation of self that is at stake.
Commentators have been perplexed by Piper’s narrative of her clashes with philosophy departments and with Wellesley College, in particular. Can it be true that a smallish women’s liberal arts institution aggressively attacked an artist and scholar of Piper’s standing, who—and this is perhaps the kicker—stands for the sorts of values of inclusion, reasoned critique, and historical reflection that the college is presumably desirous of fostering? Can it be accurate that Piper’s complaints feel only vaguely substantiated (as Piper maintains, she was able to fully identify and address many harmful actions only years after the fact)? Is it reasonable for Piper to have left the United States, to have claimed she did so under mortal threat? And, why didn’t she come to the opening of her own show? Is there not something missing here, some part of the story withheld from us, some simple written fact or other piece of evidence that might drop from the sky to clarify what has gone on? Yet it is also the case that Piper’s protest does not begin with Escape to Berlin or the opening of “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Piper has been writing about these matters for years. The renewed exploration of the truth status of her claims in Escape to Berlin feels like an extension of considerations that have long been a feature of critics’ and others’ responses: We are not analytic philosophers; can we “trust” Piper’s philosophical texts? We are not appreciators of art (in fact, we are analytic philosophers); can we “trust” Piper’s celebrated art? And there is the matter of art criticism itself: can critics be trusted not to misrepresent Piper’s work? And, conversely, can critics trust Piper not to dismantle their assertions in public, or, rather, trust that she will do exactly that?
TO RETURN TO THAT past version of me, the one who was walking backward through “A Synthesis of Intuitions” on a Tuesday afternoon in May of 2018, I reflected that the present now frequently takes the form of an online survey or option to “like” or re-blog some chad of content, and Piper’s long-standing practice of employing, altering, and criticizing news media in her work feels particularly compelling and relevant. I considered the “Vanilla Nightmares” series of the late 1980s, in which Piper annotated the New York Times with muscular dark-skinned figures, some of whom are equipped with sleek erect penises, along with the ambiguous Mythic Being’s meme-like iteration in the early 1970s as a series of ads in the Village Voice. These works speak to the state of media in our time, and, notably, to the isolating condition of digitally born “bubbles” of sentiment and resentment, under the discursive regime of which we now suffer. Piper’s works from her 1990s “Corridor of Pain” identify a hunger for sameness, depicting how the insecurity of white identity expresses itself through a combination of spectacular pity and fear, alongside tacit acquiescence to the ongoing reproduction of a discriminatory system. The “Vanilla Nightmares” series, just previous to this period, suggests that blank passages in newspaper advertisements and fields of article text are surfaces onto which readers project illusory images generated by racist anxiety and desire. Piper’s illustrations make these fantasies visible—revealing the New York Times as a locus of violent, divisive, and irrational feeling, in spite of its ambition to deal in fairness and trustworthy information. Meanwhile, the Mythic Being is a means of inserting a complex persona—a face and accompanying speech bubble that inspire sustained and careful examination—into the everyday circulatory space of an advertising section. Rescuing text and images of the public sphere of the news from a fate as mere representations, Piper turns them into sites for action, discursively “reflective” surfaces that can’t be fully stabilized, stilled, or assimilated to preexisting categories.
“A Synthesis of Intuitions” asks what role the faculty of reason has to play in an increasingly, if you will forgive the clichés, mediated and automated world: what are we doing with our capacity to represent, and what is it that our representations do? If soon it will be possible to employ artificial intelligence to counterfeit a unique voice, appearance, movement, email style, and so forth, what will it mean for us to consistently or believably “be ourselves,” and what sorts of expressions of identity will come to challenge algorithmic sorting and machine learning, among other increasingly pervasive acts of choice and mimicry accomplished on our behalf by software?
One answer to these questions is to be found in Piper’s emphasis in her philosophy on the crucial importance of transpersonal rationality, the exercise of reason with the presupposition of the rational capacity of others, along with the conviction that the flourishing of others’ reason, their logical perspicacity and ability to argue, is fundamental to one’s own flourishing. Transpersonal rationality renders disingenuous manipulation of others undesirable, from both objective and subjective points of view, as one’s own ability to exercise reason is dependent on the existence of undeceived others who seek to do the same.
Yet what are we to make of the apparently disingenuous Mythic Being, a male version of Piper in Afro wig and mustache, accessorized with mirrored sunglasses and cigarillo, who appeared as both a performance persona and in a series of images? The Mythic Being was, on the one hand, a disguise and, on the other, a tool for exploring interpersonal perception and behavior, along with the functioning of categories related to identity. Though a work of mimicry, the perfection of the Mythic Being’s drag/counterfeit was curiously limited by Piper’s use of passages from her childhood diary to supply much of his language, which appears most often as speech bubbles drawn on photographs. In one filmed performance from 1973, the Mythic Being strolls down a Manhattan street while reciting a fastidious mantra: “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying crackers, cookies, and things, she does anyway and says they’re for her, even if I always eat them, so I’ve decided to fast.” Though it’s not clear to me what phrases would be properly congruent with the Mythic Being’s appearance, this sentence about aggressive self-control in relation to a solicitous mother seems stereotypically girlish to me. Thus, I don’t think that the point of the Mythic Being was to fool people into thinking that they were seeing a man, at least, not exclusively—I think that the point was to create an entity that did not physically resemble Piper but had Piper’s history, “an alternative of myself,” as Piper explains in her preparatory notes for the project. “A mythic being is timeless with reference to the actual history of the world. His own narrated personal history is either prior to the history of the world or unspecified in relation to that history,” she writes.
In another image series, of 1974, The Mythic Being: I/You (Her), his characteristics progressively take over a photograph of Piper with a female friend from school who had betrayed Piper by secretly dating Piper’s boyfriend. Here the Mythic Being delivers an account of Piper’s pain at her friend’s deception and offers a warning: not to expect emotional closeness or mutual acknowledgment, that Piper will no longer be subject to this young woman’s predations. By 1975, the Mythic Being had become “a static emblem of alien confrontation . . . the personification of our subliminal hatreds and dissatisfactions,” present not just in Manhattan or in print, but also making embodied appearances in Harvard Square, sometimes to cruise white women and sometimes to mug Piper’s white male friend. “I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear” reads his speech bubble in The Mythic Being: I Embody (1975).
THE VERSION OF me who was walking backward through the MoMA show in May 2018, and who therefore saw the 1975 Mythic Being image before the images from 1974 or 1973, had the experience of gazing at the full metamorphosis before the early stages. However, even before this, I saw the Mythic Being’s farewell tour, the vestiges of his visage in the form of a pencil mustache and sunglasses on Piper’s face made up in white makeup, 1975–76, when she performed Some Reflective Surfaces at the Whitney Museum. Some Reflective Surfaces was an exploration of her work as a go-go dancer and seems to have been the Mythic Being’s last public appearance, although by this time he was already a shadow of his former self. The Mythic Being was shifting, contingent; in other words, he was not the static image of a man, not a counterfeit person or false identity, but rather (“being”) a real verb.
Date: December 1, 2018
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, December 2018.