Why I’m not talking about my artwork

by thomasmagnahastings

*This paper was first presented at the World Picture Journal, Property conference, Cambridge University 13–4 December, 2016.*


 My paper will consider the open letter, penned by the late-career artist and distributed through social networks, as an ambivalent expression of property ownership. I will consider two letters, written by Adrian Piper (2015) and Yvonne Rainer (2011), which differently intervene into the art world’s dominant conditions, in order to arrive at an understanding of “why property” –– a description that may at first seem counterintuitive, given these letters’ avowed critical function. This will mean thinking about the movement of exceptional goods through civil society, and, in turn, the livelihood of “public opinion” as a historical bourgeoise category, but ultimately I want to reflect on questions of style and rhetoric in two instances of literary culture. 

But first, an epigraph from the artist Mary Kelly, whose 1981 essay for Screen journal, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” usefully sets this inquiry’s scene :

The Work of art, filtered through the institutions and discourses that determine its specific conditions of existence, produces artistic authorship in the fundamental form of the bourgeois subject; creative, autonomous and proprietorial. In a sense there is no ‘alternative’ to that passage; for the very moment that the work of art enters into circulation it is sanctioned by law as the property of a creative subject (but not to enter into such contract would be to forfeit even the possibility that the artistic text, in the process of its construction of meaning, could indeed interrogate that form).[1] (46)

The artist is compelled to circulate her person through gallery openings, collectors’ dinners and Instagram, or be circulated retroactively as a personage in history; for the art-historical prestige that attaches to the indestructible form of the work of art springs from the social practice of conversational exchange. The art historian George Kubler understood this perfectly when he wrote in 1962 that ‘The most valuable critic of contemporary work is another artist engaged in the same game’; and hence the determinate vitality, in the mid-60s New York context, of a critic like the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston, whose weekly dance column squared current trends of aesthetic theory in art-making with the latest Downtown loft-party gossip.[2] The artist’s entrance into those beckoning material circuits is better for being well-timed, for unlike other commodities, artworks come alive when they are recognised as the products of, or, in the case of time-based media performances of, an artist, who either maintains a proprietorial connection to the aftermath of production or risks having that aftermath foisted upon her; and like other classes of symbolising goods that uphold social distinction, the artist must as a condition of her entry be seen to lavish that Liberal dictum [Slide: Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.][3] which is everywhere else under the Capitalist mode of production, being congealed to a pulp (Gallerte) 24/7.

Of course, artists do attempt in a number of ways to demystify the distinction that is achieved by their artworks. Where one artist mimics the labour contract that accompanies the sale or acquisition of a work, another might test the institutional apparatus that displays or markets those products – and these patterns of recuperation and détournement certainly, and importantly for my purposes, feature in the early practices of both Rainer and Piper. By way of a more recent concretion, note that the artist Maria Eichhorn sent all employees home for the run of her London show at the Chisenhale Gallery, titled 5 Weeks 25 Days 175 Hours. Writing for Kunstkritikk, Josefine Wilkström responded with the valid point that demonstratively “giving back time to the staff” does not equal the suspension of wage labour, nor does it stem the wearisome back-piling of administrative duties.[4] In fact, and this is the crux of the matter, such committed attempts only consolidate the “possessive individualism,” to borrow a term from the political theorist C.B. Macpherson, that emboldens the artist whose person provides quality insurance –– with each renunciation more conversations are galvanised, the valorisation process speeds up.

A paradox materialises – and this is what Kelly and other artists writing for Screen were getting at –; it is more likely that the artwork will be spoken about, its value as proxy to a talking-point enlarged, if the artist treats the aftermath of its life in the workplace as an occasion to publicly comment on the conversion of moral values to market values that sanctions its circulation. For the mingling artwork should be seen to possess a share, however immaterial or remote, of the artist’s “body” and “hands,” comportment and signature; while the artist is encouraged by her representation, to act as an ambassador on its behalf. In this sense the contemporary artist is distantly related to the nineteenth-century bourgeoise, who, as Marx responds to Bruno Bauer in his 1843 article, “On the Jewish Question”, leads ‘a double existence––celestial and terrestrial… liv[ing] in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he acts simply as a private individual.’[5] Leveraging some distance from the mechanisms of circulation, the late-career artist emerges as a concerned citizen who challenges the general loss of political obligation that, in Macpherson’s diagnosis of liberal democracy, accompanies the systemic privatisation of individual needs, with the only means available to her; namely, by broadcasting protests over the adulteration of her product at the hands of ‘alien power’. Yet something unexpected results from all of this: abetted by those same institutions and discourses that force the artist’s hand, these protests make their way back, via a ladder of progressively fattening stylistic rungs, to the artwork’s original point of social entry. By saying this I merely point to those contractual benefits that Kelly relegates with good conscience, which profit from the artist choosing not to forfeit the possibility of interrogating the form of the bourgeois subject. And true to form, placards are one day filed alongside programmes and pictures at the Getty Research Institute.

Too quaint an image? Played back, such a conclusion starts to sound as robust as the artist’s protest it sets out to criticise (and here I also have in mind Adam Curtis’s vulgar depiction of the critical artist Martha Rosler as a normalising agent of Neoliberal forces); for my characterisation courts the same charge of “positivist Ideologiekritik”; of a kind that, as Raymond Geuss explains, ‘can have the right effect… but cannot give an account of its own activity in bringing that effect about.’[6] As an art historian, I covet exactly these spiralling conversations, however wrongful that may be. By seeing in each material thing the ‘reflection’ of a conversation, and by bracketing that material, the artwork, so as to get a little closer to what went on in the wings or behind closed doors, I risk obfuscating what T.J. Clark once called the ‘network of real, complex relations between the two’. [Slide: I want to discover what concrete transactions are hidden behind the mechanical image of ‘reflection’, to know how ‘background’ becomes ‘foreground’; instead of analogy between form and content, to discover the network of real, complex relations between the two.][7] To address this blind side – my own lover’s disbelief – I want now to focus on a historical genre whose vocal passage from the terrestrial to the celestial interjects some requirement to reflect, and to dwell with these statements as effects of the work of art, by intimating for-us the join between critical theory and literary subjectivity.

And here I’m thinking of the open letter. It is one of those instrumental mediums that, in Habermas’s foundational account of the public sphere – which I read cautiously, with Miriam Hansen, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge over my shoulder – enables the organ of public opinion to jostle with public power for control over the regulation of social life. The open letter is a vital force for the bourgeoise, because, encoded in its DNA, is the repressed knowledge that the public, what Nina Power christens “the good public”[14], is the perverse efflorescence of a now-lost ‘sphere of purely human relations’.[8] Encircled by the novel pathos of Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney and Goethe, this sphere crystallised in the eighteenth-century, which Habermas refers to, with some valedictory feeling, as “the century of the letter”. ‘Through letter writing,’ he writes, ‘the individual unfolded himself in his subjectivity… [Understood] as the innermost core of the private, [subjectivity] was always already oriented to an audience’.[9] Now, it is important that the German word Publikum here translates to ‘audience’ and takes in its predicate, ‘the innermost core of the private;’ for this word captures how, as Habermas goes on to write, ‘The sphere of the public arose in the broader strata of the bourgeoise as an expansion and at the same time completion of the intimate sphere of the conjugal family.’[10] Comically, we might say that the public desires nothing more than to be chided, then caressed, with the tender unconditionality of a good telling-off. Of course, as Negt and Kluge argue in their book Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, published in 1972, ten years after Habermas’s Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, such close-knit address immediately negates the experience of the majority class subject’s Lebenszusammenhang, that subject’s “context of living”; in fact, and this the authors simultaneously denigrate and re-imagine as a resource for future proletariat movements, publicness is nourished on the negation of that “context”.[11] Having said that, and here the paradox returns, this utopia does not hold for a phenomenon like the art world, whose token counterpublics horribly parody its promise; through its exceptional status vis-à-vis civil society, the art world subsists in a weird homologous relation to the nineteenth-century bourgeoise public sphere, classically imagined. Its labour, as Marina Vishmidt contends, is speculative; its context, spectral.[12]

From this world-historical view, I now want to read Piper’s and Rainer’s letters against themselves, as anachronic missives; that is, less as artist statements and more as peculiar emissaries of a disenchanted global microcosm.

Why I’m not talking about my artwork is the header of a PDF communication written by the artist Adrian Piper and posted last year on her official website.[13] This statement signals the renunciation of the artist’s engagement with her own work past and present; though to my mind it formally sabotages that same gesture, eliciting the following sort of ambivalence: [Slide: But what is the artist doing, if she is not talking about her artwork?] For within that perlocution [Slide: Why I’m not] lurks the contrary sense that however an artist chooses to sign, or simply “is present” as a minimal condition, something is being ‘oriented to an audience’.

Piper’s letter is interesting because, while it objectively criticises what I take to be a normative conception of the public sphere, its style defaults on that criticism. ‘One of the reasons I am not doing interviews or talks about my artwork for now,’ the letter opens, ‘is that I have already said more on this topic than any sane person could possibly want to read or hear… At the time… I felt the need to add my… concerns to the general discourse.’ Here, Piper evokes art criticism as a shared and enclosed world capable of mediating subject and object; something like Habermas’s ‘rational-critical debate in the world of letters’. As she goes on to say, ‘Circulating those ideas within the shared discourse also had the unwanted side effect of sabotaging those ideas themselves… I in effect mediated that relationship through my discourse about it, thus undermining the ability of viewers to enter into it!’ In this passage, the concentration and transference of discourse from the ‘general’ to the ‘shared’ to ‘my own’ shows Piper to be cognizant and critical of the processes by which an artist’s utterances are fashioned into an intrigue surrounding her life story, around which in turn, artworks link to form an incontestable halo. Piper’s acknowledged sabotage and the intrigue to which this gives rise is not attributable, however; this intrigue does not appear (at least) to possess a “sense of having”, but instead manifests a “being”. By her mere authorial presence, Piper admits, the artist has heretofore excluded viewers from entering into an exchange with her work; yet underlying this, too, is the subjective feeling that it is the artist who is interpolated by the viewer, as a “block” to such an exchange, and never so acutely as when her status as artist is under threat or in question –– a tautology that is painfully and contradictorily expressed by the work of art. Piper thus clarifies a worldly truth about artworks, which is that they often stimulate bad feelings about relationships; the artist, we may infer, sometimes experiences other people as a reflection that is dazzling –– her unshakeable “individualism” harshly exposes what Marx calls ‘the real energy and movement of private property’[15] that is everywhere transmuted through the division of labour. It is for this reason, I argue, that Piper’s letter can only retreat from such a recognition, by recapitulating the above conversation through an image of her own practice. [Slide] ‘That I had asserted P was taken to be a statement about me, rather than about P.’ Here the artist employs an analytical formulation that summons her early interventions into a set of 1960s art world discourses, propagated in the main by the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. The designation “P” functions as a second-order motif, one that signifies the author’s formative practice; the authorial voice is synchronised with the artist’s timeline, and this letter’s renunciation is most succinctly expressed in terms that are, if not self-referential, at least evocative of that self’s reservoir of signs.

The second letter I want to read does foreground ‘the totalising logic of Capitalism,’ as Ellen Meiksins Wood would reassert it; here I see a genuine attempt to muster something like a counterpublic from within the art world.[16] In 2011, Yvonne Rainer wrote an open letter to Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, decrying a performance, orchestrated by Marina Abramović, that was to be held over the course of a donors’ gala dinner. “It has come to my attention,” wrote Rainer, after having been informed of the proceedings by a renegade auditionee, “that a number of young people will be ensconced under the diners’ tables on lazy Susans and also be required to display their nude bodies under fake skeletons.”[17] Rainer’s disgust over a performance situation in which young artists, in search of a break by any means, have been asked to remain immobile for a period of three hours while their protruding heads steadily rotate through an arrangement of dining table glory holes, when it cannot be promised that donors won’t try to touch, feed or insult them, is buttressed by the cool fact that they are prospectively being paid $150 for two days’ work. Rainer’s letter thus treats Abramovic’s entertainment symptomatically, as indicative of the generally exploitative working conditions that undergird the art world’s uppermost tiers, predicated as they are, on a ramping up of absolute surplus value:

This description is reminiscent of “Salo,” Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramovic by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramovic and MOCA have no such credibility, only a flimsy personal rationale about eye contact.


Rainer’s elaboration imbricates the work in a discursive tangle that situates the art world against dominant social conditions: For the mention of Salò invokes, via the figure of the Marquis de Sade, Adorno and Horkheimer’s “culture industry” thesis and their joint analysis of entertainment as a primary site for the extraction of value from bodies under capitalism, which in turn indicts Abramovic and MOCA’s lack of credibility along an axis that renders those schooled in such references somehow complicit too. This is a deliberately refractive gesture, then, which properly points to the social limits of criticism in the process of raising, collectivising and distributing a concern through the art world.

But isn’t this now too overweening? For on the other hand, these sentences are patently representative of Rainer’s idiosyncratic patterns of speech and writing; and the “flimsy rationale about eye contact” which she does concede as a positive remainder of the Abramovic x MOCA spectacle, seems to usher her own performance histories in with the criticism’s punch line, (note that “eye contact” has posed a theoretical problem throughout Rainer’s career.) Descending a few more rungs of the ladder, images of Rainer’s signature work, Trio A, fall behind others of a formative Abramović, immobile, immaculate, touched, fed and insulted, resembling Salò more closely still, perhaps, through their coeval reduction to a body abused by hand and prop –– the person of the artist becomes the pedestal to a banquet.


I have been curious to know how such authority silently reendows the form of the bourgeoise subject; where Piper looks to for redress; why Rainer serves Abramović on a silver platter; and what this says about the artist’s achieved career. I don’t want to say “competition” because that could be construed as a dirty word in this context, but there is something palpably going on in the open letter form, which warrants such reflection.

[1] Mary Kelly, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” Screen 22:3 (1981), p. 46.

[2] George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale UP, 1962), p. 23.

[3] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (1689) Section 27.

[4] Josefine Wilkström, http://www.kunstkritikk.com/kritikk/a-not-radical-enough-gesture/

[5] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” (1943) Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 220.

[6] Raymond Geuss, The Idea of Critical Theory: Habermas & the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), p. 29.

[7] T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art, Image of the People: Courbet and the Revolution of 1848 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1973), p. 22.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1992), p. 48.

[14] Nina Power, http://www.tkh-generator.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/tkh-20eng-web.pdf

[9] Ibid., pp. 48-9.

[10] Ibid., p. 50.

[11] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (London: Verso, 2016).

[12] Marina Vishmidt, http://transformativeartproduction.net/the-politics-of-speculative-labour/

[13] http://www.adrianpiper.com/docs/Piper2015OnNotTalkingAboutMyArtworkWebsite.pdf

[15] Karl Marx, “1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” (1844), Early Writings, p. 341.

[16] Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 2016).

[17] http://theperformanceclub.org/2011/11/yvonne-rainer-douglas-crimp-and-taisha-paggett-blast-marina-abramovic-and-moca-la/