Letters Editor 27 October 2001
The New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036
To the Editor:
When I first saw Ken Johnson's review of my New Museum retrospective last
November 17, 2000 ("Art in Review: Adrian Piper"), the first thing I
noticed was how similar in tone and tactics it was to many reviews of my
Alternative Museum retrospective in 1987 and exhibitions I had immediately
thereafter. That retrospective marked the beginning of my professional
rehabilitation, after approximately fifteen years of obscurity following
the art world's discovery of my race and gender in the early 1970s. But in
1987 I enraged even more people than I had in 1972, and many of the reviews
showed it. They had three features in common: (1) rampant factual
misrepresentation of my work and artistic motives, (2) a hostile tone, and
(3) the use of these misrepresentations as an excuse for the hostility.
I made the decision at that time to communicate to the community of art
critics that I would not tolerate rampant factual misrepresentation of my
work. I replied in writing to each such review with a list of factual
corrections and/or factual assertions made by the critic for which no
factual basis had been supplied. For about three years, I wrote a lot of
letters. It was a very depressing and demoralizing task. But I felt it
was important to try to set a minimum standard of respectful treatment of
the work of African American women artists, below which no critical review
would dare to sink. At the time I was the first and only African American
woman artist given serious and sustained recognition by the mainstream art
world. So I recognized the necessity of this task as part of the price of
breaking new ground.
I thought that task had been long since completed. In recent years I have
felt relatively secure that critical reviews of my work could be relied
upon to get at least most of the facts right, whether the critic liked my
work or not. Even when I first saw Johnson's review, I tried to dismiss it
as an anomaly. Johnson had reviewed my work twice before (for Art in
America), and had demonstrated the ability to write thoroughly and
judiciously about it despite his evident personal antipathy toward it. I
respected him for that, as a critic and an intellectual. So I tried to
explain away his New York Times review as motivated by a bad mood, or
perhaps an attempt to impress his new employer, and remained silent.
I now understand that Johnson's review was not an isolated case, but part
of an emerging pattern among some mainstream publications – the same
pattern I fought against so hard over a decade ago. I now understand how
little has changed, and that I will now have to fight this battle all over
again. So in the remainder of this letter I am going to list the factual
misrepresentations in Johnson's review of my work (I enclose a copy for
your recollection), and close with some comments as to their significance.
(1) I do not want to "make people behave better."
(2) I do not work to
"force" anyone into anything.
(3) I do not view "the system" as
"pervasively racist, xenophobic and unjust."
(4) I do not "more or less
tacitly" take the "art-world audience to be white and liberal."
do not presume the viewers of Cornered to be white.
(6) I do not make
"attempts at psychological manipulation."
(7) My Decide series, which
includes How to Handle Black People: A Beginner's Manual, is not a response
to any work by Barbara Kruger.
All of these factual mistakes purport to report my beliefs, motives, and
assumptions. There is enough in print – by me as well as by others – as to
my actual beliefs, motives, and assumptions that Johnson has read. So he
knows that (1) – (7) are false. What they add up to, however, is
nevertheless coherent: a picture of me as trying to pressure and manipulate
white viewers into shedding their racism, and of my work as a footnote to
As usual in reviews of this sort, these distortions then serve as the
foundation for Johnson's overt antagonism – less toward my work than toward
me personally. To Johnson, I am "hectoring;" "bitterly sarcastic;"
"nothing if not intelligent;" "have the touch of a sledgehammer;" have "an
off-putting, morally bullying tone;" and am "heavy-handed and calculating."
These characterizations, too, amount to a coherent and very familiar
picture: that of an angry, overbearing, pushy, manipulative black woman.
Now since (1) – (7) are false, they do not provide any foundation for this
familiar picture. So what we – or, I should say I – am left with is
Johnson's picture of me, and his obvious antagonism toward this picture of
me (which I do not take personally because, like all racial stereotypes, it
doesn't have much to do with me).