PRINT May 1991


To the editor:
Ida Panicelli and David Frankel, I am addressing this letter to the two of you specifically, because you are jointly responsible for the decision to run Hilton Als’ “Darling: Adrian Piper” in your March 1991 issue. And I am directing it to the public forum of your letters column so that your readers will be fully aware of at least some of the ramifications of that decision. Not that I delude myself that you will print this letter uncensored.

That you have encouraged and rewarded a troubled black writer with money and attention for parading his racial self-hatred and personal problems (“big black baby . . . lost and fat and abandoned, big black lips, flies climbing out of his ass all shit stained . . . ”) across the pages of your magazine, for the titillation of your overwhelmingly white readership, is in itself unspeakably offensive. You have compounded this debacle by allowing Als’ exhibition of self-loathing to appear in a form that reinforces virtually every damaging stereotype of blacks we are all trying so hard to dismantle: of blacks as childish (“blubbery parents as bewildered as big black baby rolling around, lost and abandoned; a lot of soul but no power . . . ”); as primitive and cannibalistic (“ . . . big black baby took a walk one day, one bloody but still pink European-derived toe trailing from his mouth. . . . ”); as selfish and dirty (“Big baby shifting and mewling, I, me, mine. . . . big black baby experienced a miserliness of feeling for others like himself; they’d be the last he’d help . . . ”); as irresponsible, shiftless and misogynistic (“No such thing as responsibility for the self and others (adulthood) . . . big black baby afraid of the non-European-derived woman; of Mom and her thank God skillet and kindness and model of adulthood”); as embodying an essence of blackness that only other blacks can detect (“What can it mean to them that many Negroes know, on first sight, that Piper is anything but white?”). Your tasteless and sensationalistic exploitation of Als’ personal pain and confusion is disgusting to witness.

Furthermore, you have completely abdicated your editorial responsibility, to your author as well as to your readership. You have failed to edit Als’ essay past a sophomoric, pseudo-Joycean notion of what “creative” writing involves that reinforces yet more tired old fantasies about blacks as “uninhibited” and “elemental,” and that is inflated even further by philosophically naive truisms (“To emulate that is to belong to a superstructure, power structure, whatever, that says—correctly—that as an adult, probably European-derived, you are these things (unfeeling, ungenerous, memory obsessed, closeted, male), but yet are entitled to this, that, the other thing, everything: the world”). And you have failed to require of him the most minimal standards of self-expression as something more than the repetition of knee-jerk stereotypes and the regurgitation of pseudo-Proustian literary theory (“Down the road of remembrance this time; remembrance being distinct from memory in that remembrance does not require one’s presence in it”). You have insulted and patronized Als’ abilities as writer, by failing to demand of his work adherence to the same rigorous and sophisticated editorial standards that have always characterized Artforum in the past. It is difficult to imagine how you could possibly justify this unusual, unscrupulous and condescending treatment of a promising young writer at the beginning of his career.

That my work was merely a convenient pretext for this sad and sickening spectacle—a way of killing two blackbirds with one stone, as it were—is obvious from Als’ treatment of it. Of an essay that goes on for more than 4,500 words, slightly more than one-third is devoted to desultory discussion of the work itself. That discussion is factually inaccurate (“Piper believes that speech claims attention etc. . . . ”), trivial (“The work Piper produced in ’67–’68 was . . . concerned less with the self than with discovering the quality of her mind, which may be a self or may be not. Is it?”), and is itself replete with even more platitudes and stereotypes: The Artist on a Quest for Self-Discovery; the Tragic Mulatto (“’Yellow colored girl, who wants her?’”); the Bad Nigger (“For the Negro . . . in the empty alabaster terrain of the art world . . . the only chance one has of establishing a self is to become . . . a ‘bad nigger,’ meaning . . . the necessary theatricalization of a persona, loud and uncomfortable and ironic and in pain . . . ”); European Culture as Alien Oppressor of African-Americans (“this art usually strikes me as . . . the artist sitting in nothing, or rather, in the white space of being European derived”); and the dreary prejudice that of course a young black woman could not possibly have been a significant participant in the origination of conceptual art in her own right (“Piper: Left behind being a student of purely conceptual work. . . . No longer was she solely a student of the ideas of the West and their civilization, dogged by notions of the ‘correct’ approach to making art, as dictated, somewhat, by the artistic climate of the time (Conceptual)”). This last is particularly demoralizing because it reproduces precisely the rationalizations by which Euroethnic critics dismiss the original contributions of artists of color to what is jealously defended as an exclusively Euroethnic and male cultural enclave.

The real obscenity, however, is not the indifferent quality of Als’ discussion, but rather your public legitimation of its association between my work and his extended verbal self-defilement. I’m sure your readership would be even more entertained by an attempt on your part to explain exactly what you see as the connection between them (there is, of course, a ready one you might find fitting, namely the traditional stereotype of black women as mammies, maids, or prostitutes whose place it is to receive and dispose of male excreta); and to explain also why you thought that connection was important enough to valorize in your magazine. In fact your actual opinion of Als’ prose efforts as a means of shedding light on my work is amply demonstrated by your selection of six images to accompany his text: of the fourteen works of mine he mentions, you reproduce exactly one for the edification of your readers—a work to which he devotes exactly one sentence. The virtual absence of relation between images and text in this essay sends the very clear message that Als’ discussion is irrelevant to any attempt to illuminate the significance either of the works you reproduce or the ones he mentions.

Indeed, Als himself admits that he is uninformed about contemporary art in general (“Big black baby not exactly up on contemporary art, if you get him”), and has no understanding of my work in particular (“I’m incapable of any real process of assimilating Adrian’s work, as I find the system of the Negro absorbing the cultural artifacts of another Negro . . . marked by the stench of near impossibility. I see no way around the flattened perspective one Negro will have for another regardless of what they do . . . ”). But despite your implicit acknowledgment, and Als’ explicit avowals of his incompetence to undertake a serious study of my work, you nevertheless saw fit to publish his personal effluvia as though it were one, demeaning both of us and the intelligence of your readers in the bargain. To my knowledge this astoundingly careless and derogatory treatment represents a first, and a new low in Artforum’s history.

That you actually attempted to solicit my unknowing collaboration in this travesty, by urging me to contribute an essay or page project to accompany Als’ article while denying me the right to read it beforehand, is completely incredible. I am mystified as to how you could possibly have thought it acceptable to treat the work of a black female artist—or that of a black male writer—in such a blatantly degrading manner. Truly, you have outdone yourselves. Your lack of judgment, sensitivity and scruple regarding the most elementary issues of race politics has irreparably damaged Artforum’s credibility as a serious intellectual arena for the discussion of pressing cultural concerns. Please cancel my subscription and return my page project for your summer issue immediately.

—Adrian Piper
Wellesley, Mass.

The editors reply:
Adrian Piper appears to have difficulty with the fact that once her work is out in the world, her audience will respond to it in all kinds of ways besides the ones she prescribes. Although her art addresses questions of identity astutely, she seems appalled that someone might put her insights to practical use—someone, at least, like the narrator of Hilton Als’ “Darling.” That narrator sees in Piper’s art a source of personal support and enlightenment (among other things) in his search for an identity—“how to gain a self.” Attacking Als’ article for perpetuating damaging stereotypes, Piper fails to acknowledge that anyone might actually be dealing with the feelings and experience that Als’ narrator describes. Given the work she makes, this is a surprising failure both of reading and of sympathy.

We stand behind Als’ piece. Departures from the usual critical forms are a long tradition in Artforum, as regular readers will know. (These experiments have hardly been confined to the work of black women artists.) Incorporating critical ideas in a provocative fictional narrative, “Darling” makes no pretense at objectivity or omniscience, but views Piper’s art in the light of both intellectual and subjective, felt concerns. The art holds up well to these demands. The reader of Piper’s letter, in fact, may remember that Als’ piece expressed admiration for her work’s “self-conferred power,” her strategic language, her moral and existential motivation.

The reader may wonder at the degree of anger in Piper’s letter. It may help to know that although Als and Piper were on good terms when he began work on “Darling,” nearly a year ago, their friendship subsequently deteriorated—for reasons quite unrelated to his article, which Piper read only much later. Piper told us about her change of heart toward Als. But it has never been a criterion of criticism that the artist approve the critic. And since Als had in no way used his article to attack Piper in public over their private dispute, but had written the same, complimentary piece he planned all along, their changed relationship seemed no reason to halt publication.

We had asked Piper to create a project to run alongside “Darling.” She at first agreed, then, after their falling out, decided that she could only contribute if we sent her Als’ article before it went to press. To consent to this would have violated the principle of independent criticism. Far from “completely incredible,” a refusal to send a copy of an article to its subject before publication is policy at Artforum as it is elsewhere. We were quite open about this with Piper, and rather than submit to her condition, chose to forgo the project (which, incidentally, she sent us anyway for use in the future, only now to withdraw it again).

Piper attacks Als for his “explicit avowals of his incompetence” to write about her art. This, too, is a failure of reading. Als’ narrator is a fictional construct; the piece—and Als had written about Piper before, and had many discussions with her while writing “Darling”—is an attempt to imagine how a viewer like this narrator might respond to Piper’s work. (Perhaps Piper would exclude such a narrator from her audience, making art only for the qualified.) Moreover, the factual content of the article was checked with the artist.

Despite Piper’s evident hostility to Als, in this and other attacks on him she is strategically indirect; her worst scorn is reserved for the editors, who have failed him, failed the readers, failed her. Apparently Als bears no responsibility for his ideas, and the editors who respected his writing enough to print it are guilty of exploiting him, of unscrupulously refusing to save this “troubled” yet “promising” writer from himself. Piper would have the editors explaining to Als what to say and how to say it. It is she, not the editors, who is “patronizing” and “condescending” to him here. And to be “unscrupulous” in publishing Als, we would have had to agree with Piper that “Darling” is beneath Artforum’s standards. This is her opinion, not ours.

It is also Piper, not the editors, and not Als, who is perpetuating a pernicious stereotype: the idea of the black as passive and helpless, in need of instruction from whites, responsible for neither his achievements nor his failures. In fact, among the many points we rebut in Piper’s letter, it seems most important to say that she crucially distorts “Darling” by claiming that the stereotypes Als discusses, illuminates, and dismantles are stereotypes he embraces, and by ignoring his account of change, discovery, self-empowerment, and self-recognition. In a way, Als adopted a strategy of Piper’s own, bringing stereotypes into the light in order to overcome them. Furthermore, his article paid her work the deep compliment of imagining its positive effect on an individual life. We regret that Piper considers her letter an appropriate reply to him.

To the editor:
Whatever was the point of Hilton Als’ essay, “Darling,” in your March 1991 issue?The artwork of Adrian Piper is intelligent and intelligible. The same cannot be said of the psychosexual babble Als’ “big black baby” offers up in lieu of meaningful criticism. “Baby” should leave off “lying in bed” imagining Piper and confront her, outside of his fantasies, in the adult world as an equal.

Als summed up Piper’s contributions as the work of what he calls the “bad nigger.” If Piper’s work can be summed up as the work of a “bad nigger,” then so too can the work of the late Andy Warhol. Als failed to capture what is nongeneric about Piper’s work—the thing that makes people like me board trains and planes to see her shows in distant cities.

The decision to publish Als’ article suggests a willingness to view the breach of civility as brilliance; vulgarity as creative free speech; and self-absorbed commentary on the projects of a remarkable black woman as good enough.

—Anita L. Allen
Harvard Law School

To the editor:
As a longtime admirer of Adrian Piper’s work as an artist of international worth, I was further enlightened by Hilton Als’ article “Darling” in the March issue of Artforum. The unique and provocative style of Als’ writing was a perfect echo and reflection of the work and importance of Piper.

“So hard to grow up if the only adults you’ve ever known are dead or silenced.” This in my view goes beyond ordinary journalism and treks into the world of high art, with its basic understanding of the tragedy of what the human condition can be. It is a single sentence of unbelievable eloquence, and with it Als did Piper a great service.

Hilton Als’ kind of writing is such a compliment to an artist of merit who strives for justice as Piper does. As long as bigotry and suppression exist in this world for any person, then the original and ingenious nature of both Als’ and Piper’s work can only help to make things better, and for Artforum’s continued courage in presenting the valid, I am grateful.

—Louis Zoellar Bickett
Lexington, Ky.

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