Letters Editor 26 October 2001
Art in America
New York, N.Y. 10012
To the Editor:
I'm writing to correct some of the factual mistakes in Eleanor Hartney's review of my work ("Blacks, Whites, and Other Mythic Beings," November 2001).
(1) I do not "point out," either in Cornered or in My Calling (Cards), that I "could easily pass for white." That is Heartney's judgment, and it is not to be found in or implied by the texts of either of these works.
(2) I do not "take Kant's idea of the preconceived category and apply it to race." My views about Kant's categories of the understanding are summarized in "Kant on the Objectivity of the Moral Law," in Andrews Reath, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Barbara Herman, Eds. Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). My views on the relation of Kant's categories of the understanding to the category of race can be found in my "Xenophobia and Kantian Rationalism," Philosophical Forum XXIV, 1-3 (Fall – Spring 1992-93), pp. 188-232. I am unhappy about Heartney's having devoted five paragraphs to an exposition of my views on this topic on the basis of a couple of paragraphs in an art magazine interview ("The Critique of Pure Racism: An Interview with Adrian Piper," originally published in Afterimage, is the only source she cites), without having read any of my philosophical work on it.
(3) My "explorations of Hinduism and yoga" are not "recent." They began in 1965 and underlie all of the work I have done both in art and in philosophy. I have said this to every critic who has interviewed me (I grant that not many have heard me), and it can be verified by checking the index of my Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Essays in Meta-Art and Art Criticism 1967-1992, reviewed in this publication (Ken Johnson, "The Artist as Intellectual Warrior," Art in America 85, 1 (January 1997), pp. 29-30). An essay about the depth, duration and content of my yogic commitment can be found in the recently published How We Live Our Yoga, Ed. Valerie Jeremijenko (Beacon Press).
(4) My notion of "pure, unmediated contact" is not "absolutely contrary to Kant," nor is his "whole point … that such unmediated understanding is impossible." Kant's very first sentence of The Critique of Pure Reason begins thus: "In whatever manner and by whatever means a cognition may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in unmediated relation to them… (A 19; italics added).
(5) There is no "element of ridicule in [my] assumptions about the white audience's rhythmic deficiencies" in Funk Lessons. Again, this is an element Heartney brings to her viewing of this work.
(6) I do not use a "classroom metaphor" in Cornered (nor would I have thought that wearing a blue cashmere pullover sweater and pearls would qualify as "morph[ing] into a buttoned-up schoolmarm"). For the information of your readers, the relevant metaphor was that of the newscaster commentary, and I acted this part myself because neither Diane Sawyer nor anyone resembling her was available.
(7) I did not "assume white passersby would associate" my "stereotypically antisocial actions" with my Mythic Being persona. As a rule, Heartney's reports on my motives for doing my work are mistaken.
(8) In no Mythic Being performance do I "shove others out of the way." Again Heartney is projecting something that is not to be found in the work itself.
(9) The Color Wheel Series contains no "humanoid monkeys." Nor is this series "devoid of overt political content" (as the events of September 11th tragically demonstrate). The Sanskrit text is overtly political, and a translation always accompanies exhibition of this work (my page project and essay on the "overt political content" of The Color Wheel Series, "Whiteless," appears in the forthcoming Fall issue of Art Journal).
I am very depressed by these mistakes, and even more by having to list them. I've been doing this work for over thirty years now; and I've been having to make these elementary factual corrections to essays already in print ever since my art world rehabilitation in 1987 (as it happens, the unsympathetic ones are always the worst offenders). When does this end? When do I get to enjoy the fundamental confidence that, regardless of whether a critic likes my work or not, she at least has looked at, reacted to, and written about what's actually in front of her? More importantly, when do such critics see what's in front of them clearly enough to move on to the deeper formal and philosophical themes that have always structured my interrogation of race? Maybe this is what the catalogue contributors mean by "the mainstream art world's neglect of Piper." Heartney pigeonholes my work as that of a "race woman." I am more than that, and my work is more than that.
Heartney writes, "the Achilles' heel of Piper's work is the unequal way she treats the categories of black and white. … [T]oo often in her work, 'white' is treated as an undifferentiated state of being. The category of 'white' seems to be equated with privilege and is rarely allowed the shadings she so skillfully reveals in her analysis of 'black.' Her 'white' is monolithic, showing little or no appreciation of the range of ethnicities, races and types which (sic) make up the nonblack. Are Asians white …? What about Latinos …? Is there no difference between a Jew and a WASP? Etc."
None of these assertions are backed up with discussion of so much as one example from my work (perhaps because even one would be hard to find). Moreover, Heartney ignores the most obvious point of Cornered, which is that "white" is a specious and irrelevant category. Finally, her queries indicate no awareness of current debates in critical race theory. But I want to address the failing for which she chides me, that I treat the categories of black and white unequally.
I have not noticed Heartney treating these categories equally. I have not noticed her writing as much about black artists as she does about "white" ones. Nor have I noticed any artists whom Heartney reviews favorably treating black and white equally (indeed, since the social context in which art is made and understood is so strongly biased in favor of "whites" it is hard even to know what this would mean). I also have not noticed her contextualizing the concerns of "white" artists with respect to their race as she does mine (of course, the fact that she thinks my work is only about race is part of that problem). I have not noticed Heartney requiring of "white" artists an "appreciation of the range of ethnicities, races and types" that make up "the black" – or, for that matter, the "nonblack." I have not noticed Heartney objecting, when a "white" artist speaks from and about his or her experience in his or her work, that he or she treats the categories of black and white unequally, or fails to distinguish among Asians, Latinos, WASPS, and Jews. Nor have I noticed Heartney requiring of any "white" artist any obligation to do more than express truly, resourcefully and authentically what he or she is and feels and has experienced.
In short, Heartney takes "white" artists on their own terms, but imposes special requirements on me. Heartney generally does her homework when writing about "white" artists (believe it or not, I have been a fan of hers in the past), but doesn't bother when writing about me. Heartney accepts from "white" artists the validity of their personal self-expressions as candidates for universality, but demands of me that I treat black and white equally. If "white" artists are not required to be impartial when speaking from their experience, why is Heartney imposing this requirement on an African American woman? Does she really believe that my work is less universal because it explicitly addresses a pervasive and enduring global malaise that most "white" artists ignore? More generally, Heartney accepts and allows herself to enter into and explore the personal universes of "white" artists, but requires of me that I instead reshape mine to meet these rather arbitrary demands of hers. If all this does not count as treating the categories of black and white unequally, I don't know what would. I understand and sympathize with the apprehension some "white" women – and men – may feel at the prospect of entering into and exploring a personal universe in which none of the rules that privilege white over black apply. However, no critic who is unprepared to do this is qualified to review my work.
But then, I don't think Heartney is under the obligation I reject her attempt to impose on me. I don't require of her that she treat black and white equally. I require of her only what I want her to require of me – that she speak truly, resourcefully and authentically what she is and feels and has experienced. In her review of my work I believe she has spoken authentically. By treating me so very differently from the "white" artists she usually writes about, by neglecting to research or carefully view my work, and by projecting on me various motives and distorting the factual content of my work accordingly she has, after all, expressed what she is and feels and has experienced. I accept that, and I am sorely disappointed. I expected more of her.
Heartney seems personally affronted by my insufficiently reverential and appreciative attitude toward the rewards and perks of a white appearance in in My Calling (Card) #1 and Cornered. She expresses feeling ridiculed by my riffing on the (you'll pardon the pun) black comedy of mutual cultural deprivation in a segregated society in Funk Lessons. She also seems to dislike the feeling that Cornered actually may be teaching her something. And she feels implicated and threatened by my permutations of racial stereotyping in The Mythic Being series. In all this, she puts me in mind of a former "white" female philosophy colleague who, upon learning that I identify myself as black, hissed at me: "Oh, so you want to be black, do you? Good! Then we'll treat you like one!" Heartney's real animus, it would seem, is that she thinks I'm a race traitor. I think Heartney should lighten up, and treat her own racialized responses with the grain of salt and the sense of humor they deserve.