From the Archives: Blacks, Whites and Other Mythic Beings

"Blacks, Whites and Other Mythic Beings," Art in America, November 2001, pp. 136-37.


Adrian Piper, the uncompromising Berlin-based American artist and philosopher whose work applies the rigorous strictures of conceptual art to questions of race and identity, was awarded a Golden Lion award at the 56th Venice Biennale earlier this month. Piper received the honor for her participation in “All the World’s Futures,” where she showed The Probable Trust Registry. The piece asks participants to pledge to live by one or more of the following tenets: “I will mean everything I say”; “I will do everything I say I will do”; and “I will always be too expensive to buy.” 

In this A.i.A. article from the November 2001 issue, reproduced below, contributing editor Eleanor Heartney reflects on Piper’s tendency “to favor the confrontational over the conciliatory” on the occasion of several traveling retrospectives of her work. —Eds.


Adrian Piper has long pursued twin careers in art and philosophy. In response to a traveling retrospective, the author ponders the artistic consequences—and seeming contradictions—of Piper’s analytical observations about race.

Does race exist? Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others, believes not. Labeling race a biological myth, the Harvard scholar has added that from a social and political perspective, race is best understood as a metaphor for something else and not an essence or a thing in itself. 1

Adrian Piper’s career has been, in one sense, an exploration of this theory. As a light-skinned black woman who, she points out in works like Colored (1988) and My Calling (Cards), 1986-90, could easily pass for white, Piper questions the validity of racial categorization and examines the prevalence of social stereotyping. If race cannot be defined by science or be determined by a person’s visual appearance, she asks, why does it continue to retain such a powerful hold on the human psyche? And what, if anything, can be done to expose its artificiality in a way that will destroy its power?

Many artists have explored the subject of race in recent years, but Piper has been conducting her inquiry from a rather uncommon position. For the last quarter century she has pursued parallel careers as a visual artist with an extensive international exhibition history and as a professor of philosophy, currently on the faculty of Wellesley College. If autobiography provided the starting point for her exploration of race and racism, philosophy has shaped the form of her inquiries. But in the process, the application of abstract philosophical principles to this seemingly intractable social problem produces certain contradictions which suggest that even Piper is not immune to the insidious fictions of race.

The foregoing reflections are occasioned by “Adrian Piper: A Retrospective,” a traveling show curated by Maurice Berger for the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Maryland. The show, which this critic saw last winter at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, is currently on view at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, N.C. Writers on Piper’s work, including several of the essayists in the catalogue, tend to insist on the mainstream art world’s neglect of Piper. It is worth noting, however, that a second traveling exhibition of Piper’s work in time-based mediums has also been making the rounds nationally, and that the University of Maryland show is in fact Piper’s second retrospective in a little more than a decade. The earlier show, “Adrian Piper: Reflections 1967-87” [see A.i.A., Sept. ‘90], was organized for the Alternative Museum by Jane Farver and covered much of the same ground as the current retrospective, which is curiously short of recent work. (In a lawsuit filed last year against Wellesley College, Piper alleged that the college, where she has taught since 1990, failed to adequately support her creative activities, hence her low productivity in recent years. More information about the lawsuit may be found on Piper’s Web site:

Piper reports that her main philosophic influence is Immanuel Kant, particularly his Critique of Pure Reason. This in itself is a departure from most conceptually based art which tends, if it makes reference to Kant at all, to allude to the theory of esthetics developed in his Critique of Judgment instead of his earlier, rather daunting examination of the conditions necessary for the possibility of knowledge. In fact, Kant’s first Critique provides Piper with a provocative starting point for an exploration of the meaning of race in American society.

What interests Piper is Kant’s notion that the human mind requires preconceived categories in order to make sense of the flux of external experience. In the first Critique, Kant suggests that human knowledge depends on forms of intuition (space and time) and categories of understanding (among them cause and effect, existence and nonexistence, necessity and contingency) which may or may not be valid in the “ideal” realm outside human consciousness, but without which we cannot grasp the world around us. Thus, he argues, these intuitions and categories are structures of the mind, rather than of the world, and through them we impose the coherence upon which our sense of self and world depends.

Piper takes Kant’s idea of the preconceived category and applies it to race. Echoing Gates, she suggests that race is a structure of the mind rather than something with an independent existence. As such, it allows us to impose coherence on our otherwise bewildering experience of human difference. But because this mental structure is necessarily inadequate to the complexity of experiences it attempts to make sense of, race is, in Piper’s words, a product of pseudo-rationality. It appears to obey the rules of logic and reason, but in fact does not. This results in the pathology of racism, which Piper defines as “an anxiety response to the perceived difference of a visually unfamiliar ‘other.'” 2

There is an important distinction between how Kant and Piper apply the idea of the preconceived category. For Kant, categories of understanding and forms of intuition are universal and involuntary: we simply can’t think without them. But for Piper, the category is mutable. In fact, the major thrust of her art is to shake us out of a dependence on simplistic and stereotypical assumptions about the other so that we can, in her words, “simply stand silently, perceiving and experiencing at the deepest level the singularity of the object or person.” 3  While such a notion of pure, unmediated contact meshes well with her more recent explorations of Hinduism and yoga (detailed in a revealing “personal chronology” in the exhibition catalogue), it is absolutely contrary to Kant, whose whole point is that such unmediated understanding is impossible.

Piper, it must be said, acknowledges her divergence from Kant. (Actually, her conception of race as a category seems to have less to do with Kantian thought than with the notion of a socially constructed reality posited by post-structuralism, a philosophic movement she generally disparages.) It must also be said that if Piper is, indeed, distorting Kant, she would hardly be the first artist to employ a deliberate misunderstanding of a philosophic text to creative ends. The real issue, then, is not about Piper’s fidelity to Kant but about the artistic consequences of her philosophical speculation. To address this question, we must turn to her art.


In two of her best-known works, Piper assumes the role of a teacher providing lessons on interracial relations. Funk Lessons (1983) is Piper’s response to the question Why are white people indifferent or hostile to funk music? In this atypically exuberant video, Piper instructs a white audience on the history and nature of funk and then leads them in a series of dance movements to musical accompaniment. Here, music and dance become tools for breaking down the stereotypes whites may have about blacks through an exhilarating, participatory ritual. Though there is an element of ridicule in her assumptions about the white audience’s rhythmic deficiencies, by the end of the video everyone seems to be having a good time.

In Cornered (1988), Piper again uses a classroom metaphor, but here she has morphed into a buttoned-up schoolmarm who draws a presumably white viewer through a series of logical arguments designed to explode the myth of racial separation and the viewer’s own complicity in maintaining the fiction of black and white. Unlike Funk Lessons, where we see Piper interacting with real students, here she addresses us directly from a video monitor which has been set behind a barricade made of an upended table. Beginning with the statement “I’m black,” which clashes visually with her on-screen appearance, she explains in measured tones that she has, in effect, been “cornered” by our assumption that she would be better off passing for white. But in the end, it is the viewer who ends up cornered, as Piper cites statistics suggesting that most whites in America have some black blood due to miscegenation during the slavery era and hence are legally black themselves. She ends by asking whether the viewer, like her, will now be willing to identify himself or herself as black and if not, “What are you going to do?”

While Funk Lessons uses a shared experience to dissolve the artificial category of race, Cornered employs a relentless logic that, according to the artist, more than one white viewer has found abrasive. In an interview in the catalogue of the current retrospective, she notes that people end up arguing with her that they could not possibly be black, or that she really is white. Piper takes these responses as proof that her predominantly white audience is largely unwilling to relinquish the privileged ground that its whiteness provides. But she herself seems unwilling to concede that many of the viewers in a multicultural America come from immigrant groups who do not fit into her black/white equation.

Throughout her career, Piper has tended to favor the confrontational over the conciliatory, as other works in the exhibition demonstrate. In the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, she produced several bodies of work in which she questioned the categories of race and gender by making herself into a discomfiting “other.” In 1970 and ’71, she undertook a number of public actions in which she transformed herself in odd or repellent ways: walking around New York City wearing a “wet paint” sign; talking to herself in the subway with a plastic bag in her mouth; strolling into the legendary art hangout Max’s Kansas City wearing ear and nose plugs, a blindfold and a pair of gloves.

Designed to break down her viewer’s conventional responses to an unknown other, these actions eventually evolved into a series of public performances and photographs depicting a fictional character called “The Mythic Being.” In order to create these works, Piper transformed herself into a lower-class black male, a figure she knew many whites perceived as an especially dangerous threat. Wearing men’s clothes, an Afro wig, fake mustache and sunglasses, Piper went out onto the streets of Cambridge, Mass., where she was then living, and staged stereotypically antisocial actions—a mugging of a white friend, cruising white women—which she assumed white passersby would associate with her persona. The Mythic Being also turns up in a number of photo narratives in which “he” appears with speech bubbles drawn overhead. In one, what begins as a philosophical reflection on the apparent autonomy of consciousness becomes license to shove others out of the way. In another, The Mythic Being sits at a typewriter tapping out a Kantian text (written over parts of the image in a comic-strip fashion) about the self’s need for a coherent reality.


If “The Mythic Being” series exposed the absurdity of society’s stereotypes of the young black male (with her slight physique, Piper looked anything but threatening), it also allowed the artist to explore the mutability of her own identity, by changing her gender and her degree of visible blackness. A related work (featured on the cover of the retrospective catalogue) is a drawing with the self-explanatory title Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981). Here again, Piper questions the visual arts as a criterion for categorizing others.

In a series of collage-drawings titled “Vanilla Nightmares” (1986-87), Piper challenged the notion of categories by forcing two incompatible stereotypes together. Here she reinvoked the fearsome persona of the black male by drawing black men on the pages of the New York Times so that they may be seen to be accosting the white models in fashion spreads or invading a credit card ad. In the latter work, Piper makes the slogan “membership has its privileges” sound like a barbed comment on racial identity.

Decide Who You Are (1992) consists of a set of text and image works that operate in a similar fashion. Pictures of black life—a smiling middle-class black family, for instance—are flanked by text-image panels that critique the central image. One panel always contains a drawing of the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkey, stand-ins for a willfully oblivious while public. The texts, meanwhile, present what so many whites choose to ignore, chronicles of the indignities and horrors visited on American blacks.

My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2 (1986-90) return Piper to performance mode. These works consist of small cards which Piper passes out when someone makes an unwelcome sexual advance or someone in her presence, unaware of her racial background, makes a racist joke. The texts printed on the cards alert the recipient to his or her misbehavior. “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you,” concludes My Calling (Card) #1, “just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”

The retrospective also contains a number of Piper’s installations that turn an emblem of esthetic reduction, the Minimalist box, into a walk-in space where the viewer is exposed to photographs, texts, and video- and audiotapes dealing with the political and social effects of racism. Black Box/White Box (1992), for instance, invokes the Rodney King beating and its aftermath. Within a pair of 8-foot-high cubicles (one white, the other black) are various documentary materials related to the incident: among them a video loop of the famous beating, a soundtrack which mixes Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” with excerpts from George Bush’s speech in the wake of the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved, and King’s own anguished plea: “Can’t we all just get along?” There is also a light box with a photo of King’s bruised face which turns into a mirror reflecting the viewer’s face. The work, which is outfitted with easy chairs and boxes of tissues, is genuinely moving, though it is hard to imagine any circumstances under which such potent material would not be affecting.

Concurrent with the retrospective’s New York stop were a pair of gallery exhibitions in Chelsea devoted to Piper’s work. The works on view at Thomas Erben Gallery seemed almost like outtakes, providing additional examples from several of the series highlighted at the New Museum, along with several very early conceptual works that contain no obvious social message. Paula Cooper Gallery showed Piper’s new “Color Wheel” series. Reflecting the artist’s recent interest in Hindu philosophy, these works consist of digitally altered prints, each of which contains an image of the Hindu god Shiva inside a fire wheel, a Sanskrit text, three “no evil” humanoid monkeys and a red target. Colors in the prints are determined with the help of the Pantone matching system, a commercial method used to set color standards in printing and publishing. Given the artist’s longstanding interest in truth rather than beauty, the prints are surprisingly decorative and surprisingly devoid of overt political content.

Although it contains little new work, the present retrospective offers a chance to assess Piper’s efforts to break down the “pseudo rationality” of racism. What’s clear is that her oeuvre provides a complex reading of the way that race becomes encoded in the African-American experience, and how “blackness” is a category that has little to do with visual discrimination. But the Achilles’ heel of Piper’s work is the unequal way she treats the categories of black and white. “Black,” for Piper, is fictive, mutable and full of levels of social and psychological complexity that the mere application of the label can never do justice to. But too often in her work, “white” is treated as an undifferentiated state of being. The category of “white” seems to be equated with privilege and is rarely allowed the shadings she so skillfully reveals in her analysis of “black.” Her “white” is monolithic, showing little or no appreciation of the range of ethnicities, races and types which make up the nonblack. Are Asians white in her scheme? What about Latinos (who, the most recent U.S. census reveals, are now equal in number to African-Americans)? Is there no difference between a Jew and a WASP? Thus, though she deals well with her own ambiguous status, Piper seems to reduce the rest of the world to a binary relationship between black and white.

At her most effective, Piper provides us with tools for making the conceptual switch between self and other. Works like Funk Lessons, The Mythic Being and Black Box/White Box reveal how a thoroughgoing understanding of the “other” can serve as a guide for obliterating “pseudo-rationalizations” like race. But as her own work demonstrates, false categories have a power that can overtake even the most vigilant thinkers.