2018 Winner: Reflecting on Blackness: Conceptual Art, Race, and Racial Issues in the Art of Adrian Piper and Glenn Ligon

Project Information
Reflecting on Blackness: Conceptual Art, Race, and Racial Issues in the Art of Adrian Piper and Glenn Ligon
HAVC191D: Semiotics and Visual Culture
How do conceptual artists address social, cultural, and historical issues concerning race? In what ways is this effective or significant in addressing these issues? I will argue through a semiotic framework that conceptual artists Adrian Piper and Glenn Ligon's work is effective because it reveals the presence of racism, racial perceptions, and the creation of racial identity within social and cultural institutions. This is done by signifying racial stereotypes, using language, and referencing social, historical, and cultural lexicon. As a result, the audience is encouraged to confront, acknowledge, and possibly challenge the racist institution they are complicit in. I will rely on the theoretical work of Roland Barthes and Homi Bhabha to support my argument.
I will first provide background on the methodologies and timeframe of conceptual art I will dealing with, especially in relation to both artists. From there, I will discuss the use of language in highlighting racial perceptions and identity through an analysis of Piper's My Calling (Card) #1 and Ligon's Stranger #20. The card uses etiquette to have a racist individual confront their behaviors and Stranger #20 uses illegibility of its content to highlight the obscurity of understanding and acknowledging black experience. Then, I will discuss Piper's Mythic Being performances in relation to signifying stereotypes and cultural lexicon. I will also analyze the use of alternate exhibition spaces for the Mythic Being to support how conceptual methods effectively question race. This is seen in the early history of the Mythic Being's performance in newspaper ads that were accessible to a wide audience. Moving on to referencing cultural, social, and historical lexicon highlighting racism and racial perceptions, I will analyze Glenn Ligon's To Disembark installation. I will talk about the referencing of slavery and popular culture to show the endurance of racism and race construction that reduces the defining of black identity. Lion's Runaway series mimics runaway slave bulletins with descriptions of the artist to highlight the endurance of the tie between slavery lexicon to describing black identity. Finally, I will address a counterargument that the artists' work is too confrontational and quick to make both the racist and sympathetic white viewer to feel guilty and alienated. This can weaken the effectiveness of the work. However, through Piper's Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems, I will argue that these criticism miss the point that feeling guilty or having to face the effects of institutional racism is not counterproductive. The words, thoughts, and behaviors of complicit people in institutional racism have these words, thoughts, and behaviors mirrored back at them. This encourages an acknowledgment and a destruction of claimed ignorance from these behaviors.
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  • Paula Yahaira Lopez (Stevenson)