PRINT October 1973

In Support of Meta-art

I WOULD LIKE TO MAKE a case for a new occupation for artists. This occupation might exist as part of, alongside, or instead of the art itself. If it existed as part of or alongside the art, it might have the effect of giving the art a perspicuous and viable interpretation, support, or framework, although I don’t see this as its intention. If, on the other hand, it were to replace the art, well and good. We could then add it as a nascent appendage to the field, and spend hours of discussion and many kilocalories deciding upon its status and implications. I will call the occupation I have in mind “meta-art.” To establish something of its character, I will first give a loose account of what I mean by the term. Then I will try to sharpen the definition somewhat by contrasting it with other activities for which it might be mistaken, viz. art and art criticism. Finally I will attempt to justify the contention that we need such a thing.

1. By “meta-art” I mean the activity of making explicit the thought processes, procedures, and presuppositions of making whatever kind of art we make. Thought processes might include how we hypothesize a work into existence: whether we think subliminally and suddenly have it pop into consciousness fully formed; or reason from problems encountered in the last work to possible solutions in the next; or get “inspired” by seeing someone else’s work, or a previously unnoticed aspect of our own; or read something, experience something, or talk; or find ourselves blindly working away for no good reason; or any, all, or other processes of this kind.

Procedures might include how we come by the materials we use; what we do in order to get them; whom we must deal with, and in what capacity; what kinds of decisions we make concerning them (esthetic, pecuniary, environmental, etc.); to what extent the work demands interactions (social, political, collaborative) with other people, etc. In general, by procedures I mean what we do to realize the work as contrasted with how and what we think.

Whereas getting at thought processes and procedures is largely a matter of perspicuous description of what is immediately available, getting at presuppositions is not. Here there are many possible methods, all having to do with analysis of some kind. One might be what Kant called the method of “regressive proof” which he used in the Critique of Pure Reason. Such an analysis would consist in beginning with the fact of the work itself, and from its properties inferring backward to the conditions necessary to bring it into existence. Luckily there is no need to insist that such conditions be transcendental. They might just as easily be social, psychological, political, metaphysical, esthetic, or any combination thereof. Still another kind might he based on a loosely construed Hegelian method, in which the work is treated as thesis, an antithesis is posited, and a synthesis arrived at which in turn becomes thesis. The resulting dialectic attempts to specify the work with respect to the system of which it is a part. A third might be some variety of formal or informal psychological analysis: Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, etc. in terms of which we would try to make clear our subjective assumptions about the world.1 Clearly there are others. We might do induction on the dreams we’ve been having, conduct ultimately ad hominem arguments with friends about the nature of art, etc.

The distinctions between the above are not intended to be sharply drawn. Generally what is required in meta-art is that we stand off and view our role of artist reflectively; that we see the fact of our art-making as itself a discrete state or process with interesting implications worthy of pursuing; that we articulate and present these implications to an audience (either the same as or broader than the art audience) for comment, evaluation, and feedback.

2. It might happen that the results of such an occupation alongside the art would feed back into and change the art: like everything else, it might become grist for the mill of art-making. Or, as I suggested above, it might replace the art. By this I mean that one might come to spend all one’s time reflecting on the thought processes, procedures, and presuppositions of making art, using the impulse to make art as itself grist for the mill of reflection. I will consider the possibility of making meta-art a vocation in order to clarify some of the differences between art and meta-art; offer some suggestions about what our identity as “artist” consists in; and argue that meta-art is specifically a job for artists.

An artist’s impulse to make art issues in a product which is in a sense opaque. That is, an artist doesn’t work to revise the world or the structure of society (except in the broadest sense of adding a new entity or event to it) by doing social or political work, teaching, medicine, etc. Nor does he or she offer supportive labor, e.g. driving a cab, administrating a business, etc. Nor contribute to the general sum of human knowledge by making a scientific discovery, doing anthropological research, etc. Nor improve the environment (although this may be a peripheral effect of the work or its location), as do the industrial arts, interior decorating, fashion, architecture, etc. These descriptions may be, and often are, used to justify the existence of the work, but they don’t describe the character of the work. In saying that art is opaque I want to suggest that it is a unique, concrete example and epitome of something, the referents and implications of which are not fully accessible. But probable referents may include the artist’s personality, esthetic preoccupations, the current sociopolitical climate, etc. The vocational role of artist differs from other vocational roles in the artist’s impulse to epitomize experience in the fruits of labor.

a. Although I’ve suggested some possible referents of a work of art (I deliberately ignore the question of which are intended and which are not), it is in the nature of the work that listing its possible referents can neither fix nor exhaust the significance it has for us: it seems that only repeated and excessive contact can do that. The claim that the work is unique implies this. That is, if there is just one, then its “meaning” cannot be successfully rendered in language. Words, excluding proper names, must have general application if they are to have any. The relation of an artwork to other facts in the world is epistemologically analogous to that between a proper name and the sentence in which it occurs: for all the “meaning,” or information a proper name gives us, it may as well be an ellipsis. An artwork is similarly nongeneralizable and nonfunctional. Though one can describe its physical (i.e. spatiotemporal) presence the way one can describe the alphabetical and phonetic structure of a proper name, the significance of the work eschews analysis. The uniqueness of it as a fact in the world makes it inarticulable and therefore inscrutable. This is just to say that it is an esthetic, rather than an epistemic object.

b. The activity of making art is similar in character to the work itself. It is opaque in the sense that we can’t seem to rationalize the impulse to epitomize our experience. We can justify it in terms of the effects of the work, but I doubt if we would claim as an explanation of motive the wish to edify, beautify, propagandize, etc., as one might explain one’s motive for being a social worker by one’s concern for society. There is no rationale or explanation for the art-making activity any more than there is for the existence of the work. Similarly, the uniqueness of the activity is determined by the uniqueness of the work: we don’t, indeed can’t by definition, go through the same process each time we make a work. And this reinforces the opacity of the activity. It determines the degree of invulnerability to conceptual elucidation for exactly the same reasons as the work itself.

c. But ultimately, the opacity of the activity is determined by the opacity and uniqueness of the artist as person. People in general are this way: if we tire of someone, it’s usually not because we really think the person diaphanous, but because those qualities we do know are the only ones we seem to be able to elicit, and those bore us. We tire of the person long before we exhaust the range of predicates which characterize him or her. From this it follows that there can be no reason for a person’s existing (as distinguished from the cause of someone’s existing). I can try to explain the way I live, but not the fact of my living.

So far I’ve tried to define the inscrutability of the artist in terms of the essentially esthetic qualities of opacity and uniqueness. But an artist epitomizes a wider range of influences, which is accessible only to the artist and not the artwork or art audience. The nature of the work is determined partially by sociopolitical and esthetic influences on the artist, partially by the agentry of the artist—which is, I have argued, itself opaque in the above sense. But the artist per se, as a social and esthetic being with a vocational role defined in relation to the rest of society, is not determined by the agentry of anyone else, but only by a broader and more subtle spectrum of undeterminable forces. These include the social, political, psychological, physiological, esthetic, philosophical, etc. This is simply to accept the truism that art reflects the society in which it is made, and then to reason that likewise the artist surely must; and do so even more. The defining of oneself as an artist and the process of making art—i.e., the thoughts, procedures, and presuppositions, is an organic barometer of societal pressures, customs, and assumptions in a broader sense than the art itself can encompass.

The argument has been that artwork, activity, and artist are essentially homogeneous. The last can be seen as active and more complex, but generically similar to the first. But the differences between them are important for my definition of meta-art. One is that the nature of art is necessarily esthetic and not epistemic, while an artist is both of these and more. An artist is esthetic in his or her personhood; in being unique, particular, uncategorizable, inscrutable, ultimately opaque. But we are also conceptualizing, discursive, cognitive creatures. And to the extent that we can successfully analyze, identify, and ascribe properties to ourselves, we forfeit that esthetic quality and become what might be called “epistemically transparent”: we can be known.

This implies a second difference. Whereas an artwork is always a third-person object which we can never penetrate, an artist has privileged access to him or herself: we can know ourselves. If the foregoing suggestion that both artworks and artists are opaque in the way I have described is accepted, then these differences imply that only the referents of the latter can be successfully, if incompletely, articulated.

Because art, making art, and being an artist are generically related, the character of the genus is immediately accessible only to the artist, both esthetically and epistemically. But although we can have an esthetic experience by making and looking at art, we can’t thereby know anything in the conceptual or discursive sense; I have argued that it is in the nature of the esthetic that we can’t. Further, I have argued that any attempt to unpack the object through conceptual analysis will be at the least problematic and ultimately unsuccessful. If we want to articulate anything it must be by appeal to our epistemological abilities, and not to esthetic experience.

Meta-art is generically related to art, art activity, and being an artist. The impulse to meta-art is unfathomable in the way the impulse to art is; meta-art is unique in just the way art-making activity is, and for the same reasons; its subject matter is, like both of these, immediately accessible to artists. But unlike art and art-making, meta-art is not completely opaque because its tools are the discursive, conceptualizing, cognitive abilities of the artist. Doing meta-art presupposes immediate and privileged access to the impulse, the activity, and the emergence of the art. It is all of a piece with these, but in addition requires an epistemic self-consciousness about them, viz. viewing ourselves as the esthetic objects we are, then elucidating as fully as possible the thoughts, procedures, and presuppositions that so define us.

3. Obscuring the distinction between meta-art and art criticism has resulted in the conceptions of the artist as superstar, as financial con man, as political satrap, as public relations expert. But it makes a difference whether we describe our own machinations and the motives and presuppositions behind them, or whether these machinations are revealed or imputed to us by a critic. The interviews in Avalanche attempt to circumvent or simply ignore this problem by allowing artists to speak for themselves. But this mode of self-representation is not immune to the problem of misrepresentation encountered in third-person discourse. The point I want to press is that it is one thing to handle the referents of artworks in the third-person case, or try to educe them from the work: art itself can’t, after all, protest that it is being misunderstood. But to handle artists this way is more often than not to make of them unpleasantly stylized biographical objects. This then creates near-inviolable prejudices which blind us to any genuine attempts to penetrate past the formal properties of the work for a framework in which to understand it. Artists almost always complain about the way they come off in such articles or interviews, the best intentions of the critic notwithstanding. Since they are clearly not averse to having the material revealed in the first place, the implication is that artists should take the means of revelation into their own hands.

One way of emphasizing the distinction between meta-art and art criticism is by looking at the focal point of each. For a meta-artist the focal point is oneself as object, and the process by which one realizes a work. For an art critic the focal point is, generally speaking, the work alone. The artist is of interest only to the extent that he or she contributes to a better understanding of the work. This has certain implications in the matter of evaluation, all of which turn on the concern of art criticism with art history, however broadly this is understood.

Art history is the history of things, not people. To analyze and apply esthetic standards of evaluation has been, until recently, to place a particular work within the context of others like it, both past and present. The significance of the work comes from giving it a position relative to the coherent framework of art history, on which the very language of art criticism is based.2

Moreover, art history is the history of a certain kind of entity: an entity which has performed at various times a decorative, illustrative, or propagandistic service, but the essential definition of which does not depend on a criteria of utility. Most recently, art history is at least the history of entities with significant capital power. The account of an artwork at any particular time in recent art history is at least (and sometimes only) the account of its financial history and value to contemporaneous and future collectors; and our historical distance from it is directly proportional to its capital—and (perhaps therefore) esthetic value in our eyes. Buying, selling, collecting, and showing art is the means by which recognition by a public is insured; thus the means by which critical availability and possible immortality of the work is also insured. These activities consist primarily in financial speculation and investment. Typically, the capitalist system is centered around the work; it provides for the artist only secondarily and often poorly.

This means that what the critic evaluates (and thus prescribes for more discriminating esthetic consumption) has already been evaluated and prescribed for by someone else, not esthetically but financially. Not only has the work been filtered once, but the initial filter—the art speculator—thereby determines the scope, financial status, and cultural education of the less general viewing audience, including the critic: the works which broadly comprise the art world at different times are the works which have been preserved and evaluated by those rich and educated enough to do so. From these, the critic (the role of which presupposes a greater cultural education and therefore an at least comparable financial security) further delimits the scope of objects to be included in the annals of art history, in the process of critical evaluation. That is, the speculator and then the critic are successive steps in the process of rarefying the scope of objects included in the art establishment, and thus in art history.

The same kinds of determinants that circumscribe which artworks are accessible to critics are also those which, in a different but related way, circumscribe which people become artists. It is one thing for a person to be given a broad, liberal, cultural education with the financial security that presupposes, and then decide to starve for the sake of art; it is unlikely that a person given little or no education, subject to various forms of social oppression, and living in poverty for the first third of his or her life would make the same decision. It is in fact more likely that such a person would choose a vocation that offered at least a minimum amount of financial security. Thus the very existence of the work presupposes the filtering out of certain sociological and psychological pressures.

Because monetary, social, and psychological pressures determine the scope of entities which comprise art history, the scope of art criticism is circumscribed by these pressures. Further, the fact that art criticism is concerned with the artwork precludes concern with its own presuppositions. For the presuppositions and pressures which delimit art history also delimit the role of the critic: the artwork and thus the critic presuppose many of the same societal conditions, filters, forces. This means that the critic cannot criticize these conditions and pressures within the framework of criticism without threatening the edifice on which his or her status depends. This is a consequence of the fact that art history is not coextensive with, but a subset of, history. The critic’s concern must be with the esthetic properties of the work, and not with any broader ramifications it may have.

Because the focal point of meta-art is on the artist qua artist, it simultaneously accommodates all those broader referents which support the art (including its cultural, financial, social, etc. status), while circumventing the requirements of cultural anthropology to account for an entire social context. Although the values will be social, ethical, philosophical, political, as well as esthetic, the meta-artist need merely explicate his or her particular condition in order to suggest the condition of the society.

The contrasts I have tried to bring out support a description of meta-art as artistic in its concerns, epistemological in its method, humanistic in its system of values.

4. My strategy in justifying the claim that we are in need of something like meta-art will be to elaborate on suggestions I have already made, and also to conflate argument with facts. The claim might be reformulated as a question: Why do artists need to do anything besides make art?

Above I characterized meta-art as a cognitive, self-conscious process which attempts to elucidate the broad scope of referents which together define the art-making process over and above the art. I contended that such an elucidation would include its social, political, philosophical and psychological, as well as esthetic components; and that consequently—because we are social beings—the system of values would be humanistic. Right now, our system of values centers around the esthetic; the relative isolation of the artist from the rest of society is accepted as status quo. And we think that this part is all right: didn’t Romanticism demonstrate the necessarily asocial temperament of the true artist? And didn’t it demonstrate as an exigency the role of the artist as pariah? We take a covert, perverse pride in our maverick status. But we ignore the repercussions of it by enclosing ourselves in the language, associations, and interactions of the art world. And we then operate under the implicit assumption that the value of our art is somehow directly proportional to our ability to maintain this art-world context as an enclave in the midst of society.

But broaching the topic of the recondite nonutility of the product provokes a barrage of defense. We point to the improvement of the environment through art (which is placed in parks and plazas, and then defaced by a public not sufficiently educated or sophisticated to appreciate its esthetic value); to the didactic psychological value of art, through which we are taught to broaden our range of expectations about the world (but which are not only determined and delimited by the expectations of art speculators, critics, and the most recent art “movement,” but indeed superceded by the unpredictable and incomprehensible actions of prominent political figures); to the necessity of satisfying our basic esthetic proclivities.

I think none of this will do because as things stand, the work of art is functionless. While it does indeed affect us, annoy us, stimulate us, “remind us of who we are,” it has no function that can’t be performed as well by architecture, Gestalt psychology, or popular culture. As I claimed earlier, there are many valid justifications of the effects of the work from the position of spectator. But since these justifications are generally not the same as our intentions, they are not sufficient to justify or explain our activity. And if we accept the assumptions about the necessary utility of the work, our defensiveness is compounded by the fact that for whatever reason, the impulse to make art compels artists whether the product has discernible utilitarian value or not. It would, on analogy, be difficult to conceive of a psychologist feeling irrationally driven to conduct T-group events after finding that the entire enterprise had been rendered categorically useless by applied pharmacology.

The work per se is without pragmatic value, and this is as it should be. If we are going to justify the activity, it can’t and shouldn’t be by reference to the product of our labor, but to ourselves as conscious and responsible agents. It is not the art but our role as artist which needs analysis.

Of course I want to press the argument that art activity is a great deal more than a gratuitous game. The argument is, however, that its value encompasses more than the esthetic alone: this, mainly because the esthetic as such is significant, indeed available, only to a very small, highly educated segment of the population. It is in the nature of what artists do to be prescriptive of particularly esthetic experience. But the value of artists’ activity can’t rest only on the esthetic value of the work, because these values are arcane with respect to social values in ways they have not been in the past, and in ways the artist is in fact not with respect to society. I don’t mean to imply that esthetic values were ever the same as social values in the broad sense, but just that artists’ activity has been more obviously formative of social values and more ensconced in the social matrix than it now seems to be (witness, for example, the role of religious art in the Catholic Counter-Reformation). Now, there is an implicit but sharply drawn distinction between the esthetic and the social: any suggestion that the two are related is met with ridicule, imputations of a Social Realist sensibility, etc. I want to suggest that the distinction drawn is valid when drawn specifically between the products of art activity and the products of other forms of labor: we would probably go mad, or at least get bored, if all the entities that confronted us were useful. But the distinction is invalid when drawn between artists and other workers: what we do as artists is useful because our activity epitomizes the social currents of this society, just as art activity of the Catholic Counter-Reformation served to prescribe the religious currents of its society.

An artwork thus has a necessary esthetic value: that is, it is an enigmatic exemplar, unique and permanently opaque in its significance for us. But the esthetic by definition presupposes the social and cultural conditions which make it possible. I have argued that the attempt to educe sociological or epistemological referents from the work itself is, at this point in history, futile. These conditions can be found not in the product of the activity but in the agent of it. This is just to repeat that artists are more than esthetic beings. The art-making activity has a necessary pragmatic value because it reveals society in a way that can and needs to be articulated. It reveals society to itself because we are social beings. Doing meta-art explicates the character of and reasons for making art in ways the art itself cannot and should not be expected to do.

I think we need to assert the didactic social value of making art now, just because it is in question; because we are losing our audiences to political rallies, losing our governmental support to military defense, thinning our own ranks by defections to social work and politics. Somehow our isolation, our social kinkiness, seems less and less acceptable or meaningful. Similarly, the esthetic value of our work has come to be tailored for an educated leisure class whose politics we frequently abhor and of whose financial manipulations we are often the victim; and whose own ranks have been decimated by the genuine pangs of conscience that make concerned rich people give their money to Cesar Chavez rather than artists.

I said earlier that the values of meta-art were humanistic in character. I meant to contrast this with the narrowly esthetic values of art, and then argue that esthetic values alone were in fact never sufficient to explain or justify making art, when viewed in its broader social context. Our basic esthetic proclivities may indeed be real enough; but curiously, they barely develop, if at all, in the face of poverty, overcrowding, fifth-rate education, or job discrimination. Having esthetic proclivities presupposes gratification of survival needs; and the more we are hit by the social and political realities of the suffering of other people, the more the satisfaction of esthetic proclivities seems a fatuous defense of our position.

In elucidating the process of making art on a personal level, meta-art criticizes and indicts the machinations necessary to maintain this society as it is. It holds up for scrutiny how capitalism works on us and through us; how we therefore live, think, what we do as artists; what kinds of social interactions we have (personal, political, financial); what injustices we are the victim of, and which ones we must inflict on others in order to validate our work or our roles as artist; how we have learned to circumvent these, if at all, i.e. how highly developed we have had to become as political animals; what forms of manipulation we must utilize to get things done; what compromises we must make in our work or our integrity in order to reach the point where such compromises are no longer necessary; whether, given the structure of this society, there can be such a point.

This is not to say that the justification for meta-art is social indictment alone. It can also be an epistemic tool for discussing the work on a broader basis which includes the esthetic. But ultimately the justification for meta-art is social, because it is concerned with artists, and artists are social: we are not exempt from the forces or the fate of this society.

From Talking to Myself: the Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object, unpublished manuscript, © Adrian Piper, 1973. Copies available for consultation at A.I.R. Gallery, 97 Wooster St., New York City, and Artforum.



1. For some recent examples in this and other fields, from an observer’s standpoint, see: Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation, New York, 1972; Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, 1962; Bruce Mazlich, ed., Psychoanalysis and History, New York, 1971; C. Hanley and M. Lazerowitz, eds., Psychoanalysis and Philosophy, 1971; Rosemary Mayer, “Performance and Experience,” Arts, December–January, 1973, pp. 33–36. Evaluations of some of these efforts—predominantly negative, and justifiably so, include Robert Coles, “Shrinking History, Part I,” New York Review of Books, February 22, 1973, pp. 15–21; Emmet Wilson in The Journal of Philosophy, March 8, 1973, pp. 128–134.

2. I had to put in “until recently” after reading a passage in an article by John Perreault, “ART,” The Village Voice, March 1, 1974, p. 22:

Although escapist art has its place, I much prefer the art that makes me remember the news and remember myself. By news, I don’t mean this or that disaster, but the condition of public and personal disaster, teasing me and waking me with what I am most likely to forget: my physicality, the complexity of my sensory system and my thoughts, my mortality.

Perreault is, as far as I know, the first to broach the possibility of using an essentially subjective humanistic response as a critical tool. This “critical subjectivity” preserves the general character of esthetic response, unlike the “I-don’t-know- much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like,” “It-just-makes-me-feel-good,” “I-could-do-that-if-I-tried,” brand of subjective humanistic response.