PRINT Summer 2017


As a Matter of Fact

IN YOUR FIRST extended treatment of my work in your March 1991 issue, your author situated it in the context of excrement and self-defilement. Our dialogue about that article appeared in your Summer 1991 issue.

In your third extended treatment of my work in your Summer 2016 issue [Ara Osterweil, “Fuck You! A Feminist Guide to Surviving the Art World”], your author situated it in the context of sexual profanity and aggression. We denied your request to reproduce accompanying images of the work because you refused to allow the APRA Foundation Berlin to fact-check the text prepublication. I corrected the factual errors in the published article in the e-mail excerpt below, which I am requesting that you print in full with this letter.*

In your fourth extended treatment of my work in your September 2016 issue [Hannah Black, “9th Berlin Biennale”], your author situates it within the confused but earnest Anglo-American devotion to obsolete racial categories that no thinking person has taken seriously for more than half a century. This time you did not bother requesting permission to reproduce accompanying images of my work. Instead you reproduced the work without permission, adding the caption, “© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin” to the image you had reproduced without permission.

So perhaps it will help if I try to explain to you what the word copyright, i.e., ©, means, according to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (henceforth BCPLAW), to which both the United States and the United Kingdom are signatories:

• It means that the artist and/or her legal assignee has full and exclusive right to determine whether, when, and under what conditions the work is to be reproduced; please see BCPLAW, article 9, paragraph 1: “Authors of literary and artistic works protected by this convention shall have the exclusive right of authorizing the reproduction of these works, in any manner or form” [italics added].

• Exceptions to this rule are permissible only “in certain special cases, provided that such reproduction does not . . . unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author.” (BCPLAW, article 9, paragraph 2). As the author of artworks, I have a legitimate interest in ensuring the factual accuracy of discussions of my work. By reproducing my work without allowing APRA to fact-check the text prepublication, you unreasonably prejudice that interest.

• The word copyright means that you must obtain permission from the copyright holder and/or her legal assignee in order to reproduce the work; please also see BCPLAW article 11, paragraph 1, subsection i: “Authors of literary and artistic works shall enjoy the exclusive right of authorizing . . . the communication [of their works] to the public by any other means of wireless diffusion of signs, sounds, or images” [italics added].

This means that if you do not obtain the artist’s permission before you reproduce her artwork in Artforum, you are breaking the law. Perhaps you may wish to speak to the advantages that, in your view, justify breaking the law.

Let me now turn to the particular respects in which your most recent treatment of my work not only breaks the law but also prejudices my legitimate interest in ensuring the factual accuracy of discussions of my work:

• Your author states that Everything #5.1 (2004) consists in “a hole excised in a wall in the shape of a tombstone.” If the shape of a tombstone is what she sees, then that is what it is for her. Fine. As that is not what it is for me, but rather the shape of a round Romanesque arch, factual accuracy would enjoin that she state that a tombstone is what she sees, rather than reporting her perception as though it were fact.

• About the text engraved in the Romanesque arch-shaped Plexiglas, she states that it “is adapted from a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel In the First Circle: ‘Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free.’” Your author chose to formulate the sentence in the passive voice, which obscures the intention she is attributing to me. The attributed intention is clear when the sentence is reformulated in the active voice: “Piper adapted the phrase from a passage etc.”

This is false. I started using the phrase in the Everything series in 2003, before I had read Solzhenitsyn’s novel. Once I had, I quoted the sentences from Solzhenitsyn opportunistically, to elucidate the meaning of the phrase in relation to the particular Everything work in which they appeared (Everything #19.4: Megan Williams, 2008). Your author incorrectly ascribes to me an intention I formulated in 2008 to a work I created in 2004.

Both of these factual errors would have been easy to correct prepublication. That is the purpose of APRA’s reproduction permission policy, available at We never deny reproduction permission on the basis of a critic’s value judgments about the work. When we discussed this matter in e-mail, in connection with your Summer 2016 permission request, you refused to submit the text for fact-checking on the grounds that “as a means of maintaining critical distance, all textual content is kept under wraps until publication. Rest assured, however, that every article appearing in the magazine is thoroughly fact-checked.”

So let’s now talk first about critical distance, and second about thorough fact-checking. The OED defines “critical” in this sense as “involving or exercising careful judgment or observation.” “Judgment” includes epistemic judgments about matters of fact, as well as value judgments about an object’s worth. The OED defines “distance,” in the same context, as “remoteness in relationship . . . hence aloofness, excessive reserve.” “Distance” in this sense is often taken to signify impartiality, impersonality, or disinterest. Conjoining these two terms, as you do, implies that careful and disinterested judgment and observation of an artwork is strengthened by remoteness in the relationship between critic and artist. I do not agree with this implication as a general rule that is valid for all cases. However, I do see the force of it. The reasoning would be that a critic more easily exercises disinterested judgment and accurate observation of an artwork when the artist who made it can influence neither judgment nor observation.

The factual errors I have just listed, as well as those I list below, show that, as regards my work, this reasoning is false. Your authors’ epistemic judgments and perceptual observation of my work are less careful than they would have been had you allowed APRA to fact-check these texts. What we see from this quite lengthy list of factual errors is that there are some facts—quite important ones regarding artistic intention, dates, matters of shared consensus in the natural sciences—that require rather more criticality and less distance to get right. Perhaps you should reconsider the policy.

* The changes we would have required to Ara Osterweil’s “Fuck You! A Feminist Guide to Surviving in the Art World,” in order to have granted permission to reproduce images of my works discussed there.

(1) Page 321: She describes the phrase as an “indispensable survival strategy for feminist and avant-garde artists.” This implies that feminist and avant-garde artists, including me, use this phrase in order to survive. In my case, this is a factual error. I do not use the phrase “Fuck You” as a survival strategy at all, so it is not for me an indispensable survival strategy.

(2) Page 327: “Disguised by mistaken identities, her clever FUCK YOUs are aimed at those miasmic (by which I mean white) viewers who wrongly presume that racial, gender, and class identities are always transparent, categorical, and legible.” This sentence contains three factual errors.

(a) I do not have or use any FUCK YOUs at all, whether clever or dim.

(b) I do not aim FUCK YOUs at any viewers at all, regardless of racial affiliation.

(c) “by which I mean white” implies that the category of whiteness is an intelligible and plausible tool for distinguishing some viewers from others. This is a factual error. This category is fictitious. The science on this issue (available in Genetic Abstracts) is almost seventy years old.

(3) Page 327: “ . . . while behaving in typically aggressive and sometimes criminal fashion.” “Typical” of what? Of whom? This is a factual claim. We would not have been able to evaluate it without knowing of whom she took my behavior to be typical.

(4) Page 327: “After all, the notion of the inherently dangerous black man was created and reified by a racist, colonialist imagination; Piper just mirrored it back.” If she is ascribing to me the intention to “mirror back” “the notion of the inherently dangerous black man . . . created and reified by a racist, colonialist imagination,” that is a factual error. We would have asked her to reformulate the concluding clause to clarify that this was not my intention, perhaps by adding “in effect” or something similar.

—Adrian Piper

The editors respond:

We are grateful for Adrian Piper’s extensive response to the aforementioned articles in the Summer and September 2016 issues of Artforum, and we respect the artist’s right to set the factual record straight regarding her work. Like Piper, we adamantly uphold the crucial importance of fact-checking, and we endeavor to rigorously vet every statement we publish—which is why we cannot rely on any artist’s archive or recollection alone to determine even basic information about an artwork, its attributes, or its history. For example, while Piper claims she first used the Solzhenitsyn quotation at issue here in 2003, the use of it in her work has been documented in primary sources going back to 1993 (see notes*); all other statements she has cited as problematic or false are not strictly matters of fact but fall, we believe, well within the writer or viewer’s right—indeed, responsibility—to have independent thoughts and make metaphorical comparisons, subjective descriptions, and original interpretations of an artwork. Given the inherent subjectivity of art criticism (and artmaking, for that matter), we do not send whole texts on a particular artist’s work to that artist for approval before going to press, although we do typically seek the artist’s imprimatur on all matters of fact; and while we respected Piper’s wish not to illustrate works mentioned in Osterweil’s article, we used an approved press image—i.e., one made available to all publications by exhibition organizers, and preauthorized for reproduction—from the Berlin Biennale to illustrate a key citation of the work in Black’s review that we believe falls under fair use.

While we always strive to honor the artist’s point of view, we must also honor and uphold the integrity of alternative interpretations—and acknowledge, more broadly, the reception of an artwork in the larger world. If one were to accept as integral to the arena of fact (as Piper defines it in her letter) what we view, to the contrary, as descriptive and interpretative statements, it would be virtually impossible ever to say anything about an artwork made by a nonliving artist, a group of artists, an anonymously made work, or one whose author is unknown. A “fiery red” in a Michelangelo might have been more tomato red to the artist, or he may have thought a rounded form was shaped more like a Romanesque arch than like a tombstone, but we can never know; multiple artists might have conflicting views on the colors or shapes or meanings of a work they made collaboratively; we could not know if a description of an unattributed clay vessel from the Moche period would have jibed with its maker’s; and so on. To maintain that all statements of description, interpretation, and comparison (which are distinct from value judgments) are empirical claims, and that these must be vetted and their “accuracy” adjudicated by the artist alone, is to maintain a traditionally Western Enlightenment definition of authorship that, in our opinion, Piper’s own art has historically and powerfully challenged.

*Ann Bremner, “Black Box/White Box,” in Will/Power: New Works by Papo Colo, Jimmie Durham, David Hammons, Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, Adrian Piper, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, exh. cat. (Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1993), 56–7.

Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery, 1999), 177.