Adrian Piper: Self-Healing Through Meta-Art by Donald Kuspit

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being- Sol’s Drawing #1–5, 1974 Walker Art Center


       Over the years, Adrian Piper has made the following statements:  “I have always had a very strong moralistic streak” (Meat Into Meat, October 1968); “I have always had a strong individualistic streak” (Untitled Performance for Max’s Kansas City, April 1970); “I have always had a strong mystical streak” (Food for the Spirit, July 1971); “I have always had a very strong aggressive streak” (The Mythic Being:  Getting Back, 1975).(1)  Such declarative statements suggest a strong sense of self-confident self-knowledge.  (Of course, the “self” alluded to is her artistic persona—her performing self.)  Indeed, Piper has written so extensively and well about herself—the self she is absorbed in to the point of obsession, the self that is the alpha and omega of her art—that there seems nothing left to say about her, or her art.  She appears to be the proverbial snake that has taken its tail in its mouth—indeed, one can say the bite of self-articulation is her act of art—and become a cosmos complete unto itself.

Adrian Piper, Food for the Spirit, silver gelatin prints, 1971

       Yet her authoritative statements about herself, uttered with absolute conviction, are embedded in texts that seem so achingly self-conscious, so full of tortured self-awareness, that for all their affirmative character they seem to betray or subvert the self they describe.  Her textual performances are double-edged; formally self-assertive, they seem to register a traumatic sense of self.  They seem all-knowing, but are full of self-doubt.  In this her texts seem Cartesian, but she lacks Descartes’ sense of a preconceived cognitive self as the implicit goal of the process of doubt.  (Descartes’ self-doubt can be understood, like Piper’s, as a form of self-analysis—an “ironical” form of self-affirmation.)  Taken together, they reveal her search for self-knowledge to be a Sisyphean enterprise, subtly varied but essentially but essentially repetitious and futile.  Her definitive self-assertions come as a temporary mirage of light at the end of a dark tunnel of twisting thought.

       Piper’s intellectual apologetics seem to exist to buttress a self that seems on the verge of dissolving, a self so insecure it barely coheres.  It is as though all of Piper’s extraordinary power of articulation—it seems there is no feeling that she cannot put, or fears putting, into words—exists to pull herself together emotionally, or to camouflage a self so overwrought with anxiety about the threat of disintegration from within that it seems unable to be centered in itself.  It must dissolve outward in discourse—in a talkativeness that, while obviously far from incoherent intellectually, masks emotional incoherence.  Piper’s overwrought discourse seems the centrifugal expression of a collapsing self.  Underneath its look of wideawakeness, Piper’s discourse is a somnambulist form of distress.  In Donald Winnicott’s terms, Piper’s intellectuality is the sign of a false self, in part the self others expect her—a philosopher as well as an artist (a philosophical artist)—to have.  This false intellectual self is in search of her true emotional self—indeed, the direct manifestation of its vertiginous condition—as well as its rationalization.  In general, because Piper cannot perform without explaining herself—because explaining herself is her performance, as though her self-consciousness was the real spontaneity of her art—we cannot help but wonder whether she is hiding something, despite apparently revealing all.

Adrian Piper, I am the Locus (#5), 1975, oil crayon drawing on photograph, COURTESY SMART MUSEUM OF ART, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, PURCHASE, GIFT OF CARL RUNGIUS, BY EXCHANGE, 2001

       Her condition is even more complicated, uncanny.  In 1973, she began Talking To Myself, The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object.  It is a kind of “talking cure,” to use the term that another woman, Anna O., Josef Breuer’s patient, gave to psychoanalysis before it was known as such.  It reminds us of the cliché that women are more talkative than men, and are especially expert at talking about themselves and the personal in general, as though it was a realm apart.  Is Piper’s art the archetypal “women’s art”—talk about her sense of self as though she was a being apart?

       Piper’s artistic autobiography is almost clinically detached in tone, however confessional in character and cathartic in import.  Each of her performances reads like a case history.  In each she appears as the representative female, her problem-filled life a microcosm of the female problematic, an exemplary symptom of a larger sickness unto female death.  Talking is a large part of life—of female life—and in talking one represents oneself in a certain way.  Art begins in talking, in consciousness of how one represents oneself, finally of how representative one is of a certain ideal of selfhood, for example, the intellectual self.  Art ends in listening, in the witness’s analytic consciousness of one’s talking.  Does Piper want to be both analysand and analyst in one?  Is she performing her self-analysis?

       Piper talks, but not just to herself; she talks mostly to herself (especially in the early performances), but she does so out loud, in effect talking to someone else, expecting to be overheard by anonymous others.  For Piper, art is in effect a communicative performance between those who don’t seriously want to communicate with one another, who have no real desire to interact.  It is communication that is far from serious in that it is directed to no one in particular yet serious in that it urgently bespeaks someone in particular.  It is a relationship that seriously happens despite the personal inhibitions and social barriers against serious relationship.  It fictionally actualizes possibilities of communicative relationship that rarely occur in life.

Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, Documentation of the performance,1970, Photographs by Rosemary Mayer, Collection Thomas Erben, New York © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

       Piper implicitly assumes that her talkative performance of herself takes place against a background of dense non-relationality with casually witnessing but fundamentally resistant others.  In a sense, such a background is necessary in order to make her talk “self-sufficient,” that is, suffice as a kind of self and a kind of art.  But Piper also subliminally relates to others, for each of her pieces “propositions,” as it were, the audience (actual or potential) with their own self-awareness.  It makes them uncannily aware of their own inner conflicts.  In a sense, her discursive intellectuality objectifies her self for others, or represents her self in such a way that others can identify with it.  The process is two-sided:  Piper’s self-representation has identification with the other as its implicit goal while ostensibly—because of its intellectuality—distancing herself from the other.

       Traditional art assumes that representation could and would spontaneously be experienced as identification.  Today identification is a distant goal desperately pursued by art, believed in but not always expected.  There is an effort to force it, but it does not always occur.  Nowhere is this clearer than in performance art, which is as much a struggle to compel the audience to identify with the performer as the performer’s compulsive attempt to identify—represent—her self, and through her self the self of the other.

        Ostensibly a history of Piper’s development as an artist, her autobiography climaxes in an account of what she calls meta-art, the key instrument of her self-understanding and understanding of art.  Meta-art, “the activity of making explicit the thought processes, procedures, and presuppositions of making whatever kind of art” an artist makes, “might exist as part of, alongside, or instead of the art itself.”(2)  In Piper’s case, I think it is the sum and substance of her art, that is, of her textual as well as “stage” performances.  A “regressive proof” in Kant’s sense, meta-art “would consist in beginning with the fact of the work itself, and from its properties inferring backwards to the conditions necessary to bring it into existence,” conditions that might be “social, psychological, political, metaphysical, aesthetic, or any combination thereof.”  Meta-art is clearly a form of self-inquiry; for Piper, it is the actual “work” of art, replacing any object of art.  In meta-art, the interpretation of art is art.  Piper’s art is conceptual because it is meta-art, which is conceptual art at its best.  In a sense, meta-art is an attempt to objectify art without arriving at any object of art—without reifying the concept of art in an object.  Piper’s meta-art is of major importance because it gives conceptual art a significant content:  the self—as an art, an institution, and a suffering.

       Meta-art necessarily leads to “the problematic solution” of performance art, as Piper calls it.  For Piper, performance art is the logical extension and execution of meta-art—its theory in concrete practice.  For performance art exists to deal with the problems of “interpretive control, i.e., of how an artist can successfully retain control over the cultural interpretation of her work,” and “transformation, i.e., how an artist can resolve the tension between personal significance and aesthetic significance in her work.”(3)  The one is a psychopolitical problem, the other a more or less psychopathological problem, but both are meta-art problems, and both have more than a hint of the narcissism that motivates Piper’s activity.  She articulates a self preoccupied with the conditions of its appearance in the world, a self that attempts to control the way the world mirrors it.  It can even be said that such control is part—the essence?—of her art.  Piper is an actress who wants, almost hysterically, every condition for her performance to be just right, including the interpretive aftermath.  Despite her efforts to include this interpretive aftermath in the performance, pre-empting the autonomous witnessing of others, Piper knows before hand that the performance will be spoiled.  Its cultural interpretation can never be completely controlled, nor can the tension between its personal and aesthetic significance ever be completely resolved—and must not be, if the work is to be successful, that is, to be an interpretation of the personal.  By its very nature, the performing self can never be narcissistically satisfied.  It is the double bind of always trying to be but never really wanting to be.

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being: Smoke

       The narcissistic self is inherently “spoiled,” in the double sense of the term, that is, it expects too much from the world and itself, and it is inherently impaired.  These may be the same thing.  It is impaired because it exists in a dialectical state of discourse with itself—this is its art—a discourse which has no clear and distinct terms (even though it expects to be resolved into them), and so is always spoiled by ambiguity.  It is ambiguous—volatile—to the point of anxiety.  In Piper, ambiguity and anxiety are resolved through aggression, but the aggression is a vicious circle that leads back to them.  Piper cannot escape the labyrinth of her spoiled self.  Neither intellectuality nor aggression—aggressive intellectuality—is a way out of it.  Piper’s Untitled Performance for Max’s Kansas City (April 1970)—a performance which takes place entirely in Piper’s mind—describes the vicious circle perfectly:  the more aggressive Piper becomes, the more she tightens the noose of anxious ambiguity around her psychic neck.  Her struggle with her snaky feelings about the artworld tighten its hold on her, to the point of intellectual exhaustion signaled by the self-contradiction she concludes with.  I cite the performance in its entirety, because it is typical of—almost a model for—everything that Piper does.

Adrian Piper, Untitled Performance at Max's Kansas City 

       Max was an Art Environment, replete with Art Consciousness. "To even walk into Max’s was to be absorbed into the collective Art-Conscious Consciousness, either as object or as collaborator. I didn’t want to be absorbed as a collaborator, because that would mean having my own consciousness co-opted and modified by that of others: it would mean allowing my consciousness to be influenced by their perceptions of art, and exposing my perceptions of art to their consciousness, and I didn’t want that. I have always had a very strong individualistic streak. My solution was to privatize my own consciousness as much as possible, by depriving it of sensory input from the environment; to isolate it from all tactile, aural, and visual feedback.  In doing so, I presented myself as a silent, secret, passive object, seemingly ready to be absorbed into their consciousness as an object.  But I learned that complete absorption was impossible, because my voluntary object-like passivity implied aggressive activity, an independent presence confronting the Art-Conscious environment with its autonomy. My objecthood became my subjecthood."

       It is difficult to realize the anxiety that permeates a Piper performance and text.  So intellectually self-assured does she seem, so calm and collected and knowledgeable about herself, that it is hard to realize that these are exactly the traits that indicate how minimal her sense of herself as an “active subject” is—how alienated from herself she is---despite all appearances to the contrary.(4)  She is focused and poised like a transcendental fiction, for all her gut feelings about her condition.  Her implicit sense of herself as a fictive character implies disavowal of the affect generated by her performance.  It gives Piper’s activity its subliminally cryptic—peculiarly inscrutable—air.  It is self-expression as self-repression.  Piper is far from being as transparent as she seems.  Despite her denial of the transcendental conditions of art-making, she takes a distanced, quasi-transcendental view of her self—her art—as though her mind was standing with that of Hegel on the peak of pure Spirit, and witnessing her body perform.  Indeed, a good deal of her art is about her body; for her the abstract spirit of the self seems to have complete control of the concrete body, a necessary evil she would like to make unnecessary, like the meat she despises in Meat Into Meat:

       "The performance consisted in my transforming a pound of chopped hamburger meat into food for David [a former boyfriend] and watching him eat it, while simultaneously delivering an improvised running commentary on the immorality of eating meat when other less expensive forms of protein were available, the danger to one’s health due to higher concentrations of pesticides and uric acid in meat, the insensitivity to undernourished peoples exhibited by squandering such a large portion of one’s relatively large personal income on superfluous goods such as meat, etc., etc."

The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, Adrian Piper, 1975. Image courtesy of the artist and MoMA. © Adrian Piper Research Archive, Berlin 

       For her, narcissism is in part a form of numinous regulation of her body, and philosophy is perhaps the ultimate narcissism, as Food for the Spirit—for me perhaps her most exemplary performance because of its sharp focus and concentration—makes clear.  (In that work, her identification with Kant—the philosophical self-object—becomes so overwhelming that she loses her sense of her physical body, abetted by the fact that she is fasting [to the point of anorexia?].  She is restored to herself by the mirror.)  Her introspective perspective is that of a puppeteer watching herself control the puppet while it performs, and watching it perform.  There is a ventriloquist sense to Piper’s performances, as though a numinous self spoke through them.  It is a self which for all its exhibitionism remains resolutely detached from any of its manifestations.  Piper proclaims the authority of her art through her intellectual performance of it, and the authority of her self through her self-disclosure, but her true self is peculiarly invisible, almost as though it had never existed.

       Piper is self-consciously a “split personality,” at once woman/man, black/white, body/mind, artist/philosopher.(5)  Her psyche is the prey of a host of unresolved dualisms, that parasitically feed on her enormous energy.  Each dualism articulates a different anxiety, each is a form of anguish; each is a facet of an incompletely integrated self, a deconstruction of an incompletely constructed self.  The sense of self-contradiction each bespeaks—the interminable condition of inner conflict they amount to taken together—suggests the “tragic self” Heinz Kohut has spoken of.(6)  One thinks of Piper as forever coming into being through contradiction but never truly being.  There are many signs in her writing of not wanting to exist, which is not exactly the same as being suicidal.  For all her increasingly explicit audience orientation and desire to be catalytic for a public,(7) her feeling of alienation from her audience—an extension of her feeling of self-alienation—remains essentially unchanged.  This is perhaps her most “heroic” contradiction.  Each contradiction underscores the abysmal sense of personal inadequacy underlying her heightened sense of intellectual adequacy, indeed, the intellectual bravado which makes her seem to stand on a peak of self-understanding. Piper experiences herself as wracked with contradictions—including the reality of her intellectual self-understanding and her physical self-experience—that cannot be reconciled in themselves or with each other.  She emerges as peculiarly self-defeated for all her self-celebration.

Adrian Piper, Light My Fire Sweetie

        Nonetheless, Piper’s work can be understood as an ingenious attempt at self-integration—self-healing—through a dialectic that integrates material and idealistic elements.  Dialectic states the problem—lack of integration—and holds out the promise of a solution—integration—whether in the individual psyche or in social reality.  Dialectic signals disintegration and integration simultaneously; it is equally pessimistic and optimistic, frustrating and satisfying.  Disintegration hopefully leads to a more comprehensive and binding integration—to “progress”—but there are no guarantees that it will, no guarantees that individual and society will not regress to an earlier condition of integration, which amounts to a form of disintegration from a progressive point of view.  Absolute integration seems like an impossible dream, for dialectic seems to continue indefinitely and goallessly—at least from a post-Hegelian and post-Marxist point of view—for all the clarity of its form.  (One can call this the “post-modernist” condition of dialectic.  Piper’s endless dualisms, which lack any prospect of resolution either in themselves or in relation to one another, seem to exemplify it perfectly.)  It promises the most uncertain of utopias.  It is always threatening to become idle unity—false stability—rather than tense balance.

        To preclude this—to create the semblance of integration—Piper sets herself special goals.  She recreates her theoretical contradictions dialectically as “tension arcs” or in a “tension gradient,” that is, she articulates each contradiction as an “action-promoting” situation.(8)  She dramatizes the structure of contradiction so that it becomes a personal energy field rather than an abstract universal map.  The contradiction is not passively suffered, but becomes the self’s polemical thrust into the world.  Perhaps more crucially for the purposes of self-integration, she implicitly conceives of meta-art as having a goal:  complete understanding of all the conditions for her self-performances.  To put this another way, the integrated self is the self that can integrate all its interpretations of its performances.  It is a completely “philosophical” self—a self that in the process of understanding itself understands all its interpretive methods and establishes a general theory of interpretation of which each is an example.  Her assumption of complete interpretability or comprehension—a utopian assumption—is the backbone of her meta-art.  It justifies her dialecticizing of the contradictions of her being into tension arcs.

        The ideal of complete interpretability is a kind of magical thinking, another form of the infantile illusion of omnipotence (so pervasive in philosophy).  But it serves its purpose, at least the illusion of integration that Piper’s art finally creates.  It seems to catalyze a union of opposites, an uncontradictory state of being.  Piper seems to think that if she could integrate all her interpretations, in a kind of philosophical self-apotheosis, her narcissism would mature—sublimate—into integration.  But personal integration built on the illusion of philosophical integration is more utopian than ever.  Wittingly or unwittingly, Piper transcendentalizes her self.  While interpretation is reparative integration of the bifurcated self for Piper, she seems unable to face the fact that interpretation can never be complete.  There is never any unconditional integration of the self.  This makes her meta-art all the more tragic and dramatic.  Piper’s art pursues a therapeutic goal through utopian interpretation, that is, through integration of all self-interpretations—an act of intellectual madness.  It remains a psychoanalytic issue as to whether interpretation is a sufficient cause of cure—solidifying the self, strengthening the ego—or only a necessary one.  Is something else required?  Does Piper unconsciously yearn for the empathy of an audience—for an audience that can transcend its own analytic tendencies after exercising them, and care for the object of its interest, see it as a subject?  Would Piper then have her sense of herself as an active subject—an integral being—restored to her?  This is perhaps the most vital issue that Piper’s art addresses. WM


        (1)Piper wrote up her performances after—apparently several years after—they occurred.  These statements are taken from her descriptions, which I call “textual performances.”

        (2)Adrian Piper, “In Support of Meta-Art,” Artforum, 12  (1975):79-81

        (3)”Performance:  The Problematic Solution,” March 1984.  Unpublished paper presented at the conference on “Philosophical Problems of Self-Consciously Created Arts,” The Kitchen, New York, New York.

        (4)According to Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (New York:  Harper & Row, 1976), 90, “In alienated activity, I do not experience myself as the active subject of my activity, instead, I experience the outcome of my activity as something ‘over there,’ separated from me and standing above and against me.” 

        (5)In the Mythic Being series (begun late 1972) she transforms herself into her “seeming opposite:  a third-world, working class, overtly hostile male.”  In Self-Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features (June 1981), among other works, she deals with, as she puts it in Art For The Artworld Surface Pattern (December 1976), her “marginality as a non-White but not obviously Black) member of society, and…the ways in which the social and political implications of [her] presence…were systematically repressed or avoided.”  For me, the political aspects of Piper’s art, admirable as they are—Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (August 1978) is a particularly strong, forthright example—are secondary to, and grow out of, her self-interpretation, which includes the sociopolitical interpretation and demonstration of her blackness.

        (6)For Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York:  International Universities Press, 1977), 238, “the problems of Tragic [Wo]Man” are those of “fractured, enfeebled, discontinuous human existence”—problems of fragmentation, the struggle to reassemble the self, to overcome the despair that accompanies the failure to realize one’s nuclear ambitions and ideals.  These contrast with the conflicts of Guilty [Wo]Man.

        (7)As Piper develops, she becomes more and more overtly other-directed, that is, performs explicitly for others not just for herself—not just in her mind.  Funk Lessons (1982) is perhaps her most extroverted work.  Her conception of Art As Catalysis (August 1970)—“the work is a catalytic agent, in that it promotes a change in another entity (the viewer) without undergoing any permanent change in itself”—makes her audience-orientation explicit.

        (8)Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1984), 4-5, states that “the defective self of the patient with a narcissistic personality disturbance will mobilize its striving to complete its development, that is, it will try again to establish an uninterrupted tension arc from basic ambitions…towards basic ideals.  The tension arc is the dynamic essence of the complete, nondefective self.”  By Piper’s determined performance (physical and philosophical) of contradictions—an indication of defect, that is, lack of integration—she makes manifest the potentially integrative tension in them, that is, their resolution in a singular sense of selfhood.  In The Restoration of the Self, 180, Kohut writes, “Just as there is a gradient of tension between two differently charged (+, -) electrical poles that are spatially separated, inviting the formation of an electrical arc in which the electricity may be said to flow from the higher to the lower level, so with the self.  The term “tension gradient” thus refers to the relationship in which the constituents of the self [each term of Piper’s various dualisms] stand to each other, a relationship that is specific for the individual self…it indicates the presence of an action-promoting [performative] condition.” WM

       This article initially appeared in Art Criticism, 3/3 (1979): 9-16. 


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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