Why I’m not talking about my artwork

by thomasmagnahastings

This statement of intent, which this paper takes as its title, appears at the head of an open letter published in 2015 by the artist Adrian Piper. Discussing the effect of the artist’s critical engagement with her or his own practice, Piper writes: ‘The result was that the artwork itself was often, and usually incorrectly, viewed through the lens of my pronouncements about it, as autobiographical. That I had asserted P was taken to be a statement about me, rather than about P.’ In other words, Piper’s commentary on her production is converted, via the operations of art history, into a proprietorial relation –– the artist’s words become evidence of what the Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson, whose writings were circulated through artistic discourse of the eighties by the artist Terry Atkinson, in the UK context at least, has termed “possessive individualism”.

The format of the open letter has been mobilised to different ends, notably by a generation of postwar artists. Often, as with Piper’s letter, or, for instance, with Yvonne Rainer’s 1980 rejection of the critic Arlene Croce’s ‘revisionist sense of history,’ this type of intervention has had the obverse effect of further enshrining the authority of the artist’s author-function. Clearly, the epistolary form is distinct from, say, the conceptual artist’s détournement of the labour contract –– it does not seek to enter the art world via the mechanisms that support it. This paper will therefore consider the open letter, penned by the late-career artist, as a form of expression of property ownership.

* This abstract belongs to a paper that will be presented at World Picture Journal’s “Property” conference, to be held at Cambridge University later this year.

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