PRINT December 2017


New Objectivity

Adrian Piper responds to the editors’ response to her letter in the Summer 2017 issue:

I APPRECIATE the editors’ impassioned defense of “the writer or viewer’s right—indeed, responsibility—to have independent thoughts,” of “the integrity of alternative interpretations,” and of “acknowledg[ing], more broadly, the reception of an artwork in the larger world” in response to my letter [“Matters of Fact,” Artforum, Summer 2017]. I think we can all agree that having independent thoughts is a good thing, as are alternative interpretations and a larger world beyond “the artist’s point of view” in which art is received.

However, the editors’ independent thoughts have, in this case, led them to another factual error. They state that I claim in my original letter to have “first used the Solzhenitsyn quotation at issue here in 2003,” etc. In fact I did not claim that. A review of my letter will find my statement that “I first started using the phrase in the Everything series in 2003, before I had read Solzhenitsyn’s novel.” This is consistent with my having previously used the phrase in other, earlier works. Indeed, the editors cite discussions of Black Box/White Box (1992), in which the phrase, lifted from a review of Solzhenitsyn in the New York Review of Books long before I had read the novel itself, first appears. Had the editors of Artforum given APRA [Adrian Piper Research Archive] the chance to fact-check their reply pre-publication, we would have caught and corrected this factual error. So Artforum’s publication of this factual error, in response to a letter deploring Artforum’s publication of factual errors, reinforces rather than undermines my suggestion that the editors need to revise their policy to permit fact-checking by the artist (or artist’s representative) whose work is being discussed.

I take it we can also agree that, according to the OED definition of a fact as “something that has really occurred or is the case,” this really is a factual error, not merely a matter of “metaphorical comparisons, subjective descriptions, [or] original interpretations.” At least I hope the editors do not mean to concur with Kellyanne Conway and her supervisor that whether or not something counts as a fact is merely a function of one’s point of view—relative to which unpalatable facts, concealed facts, recalcitrant facts, newly discovered facts, etc., do not exist.

Unfortunately, the editors’ claim that “all other statements [I have] cited as problematic or false are not strictly matters of fact but fall within the writer’s or viewer’s right—indeed, responsibility—to have independent thoughts,” etc. denies strict factual status to the following questions raised by my letter: (1) whether or not an object actually has a certain property; (2) whether or not an agent performs an action; (3) whether or not an agent has a particular intention; (4) whether or not an agent aims to achieve a certain goal; and (5) whether or not a concept refers to an empirically verifiable state of affairs. But these are strictly matters of fact. All of these questions aim to establish what has really occurred or is the case. They are some of the same questions to which cognitive scientists, epistemologists, clinical psychologists, behavioral economists, lawyers, judges and juries in courts of law, linguistic anthropologists, and genetic biologists also offer strictly factual answers. Like me, they will be surprised to learn that they have been working to establish not matters of fact, but rather “metaphorical comparisons, subjective descriptions, and original interpretations.” Of course a state of affairs can be strictly factual and also generate “metaphorical comparisons, subjective descriptions, and original interpretations.”

With the editors’ misrepresentation of the historical fact described in my letter and their dismissal of (1)–(5) as “not strictly matters of fact,” they effectively relegate themselves to the rabbit hole of Alternative Facts, where false statements are true because they say so and inconvenient true statements are a matter of subjective interpretation. The reality is that factual errors need to be acknowledged and corrected, not rationalized as personal opinion. APRA offers guidelines for avoiding factual errors in the first place at

The editors couch in the passive voice their claim that the “approved press image” of Everything #5.1 they used without APRA’s permission was “made available to all publications by exhibition organizers, and preauthorized for reproduction.” For the record, APRA’s reproduction permission agreement with the Ninth Berlin Biennale granted permission to reproduce this image in the catalogue only. Reproduction in press releases and press outlets would have required a different contract stipulating different conditions. Of course APRA would have provided this contract upon request.

—Adrian Piper

The editors respond:

We respect Piper’s position and are grateful for her continued responses. We also uphold the fact-checking and research in the articles under discussion, as well as in general, regarding editorial content to date. The standards for fact-checking must always rely on multiple sources—taking into account the artist’s perspective, but not only that. Historical documentation, secondary literature, the viewer or critic’s reception, and the public record must also be considered. In an era where the epithet of “fake news” is ubiquitous, and often used to squelch critical perspectives, these standards seem of utmost importance.