Revollusion, or the Battle of Utopias

Luis Camnitzer on Art, Education, and their Futures

For over fifty years, artist Luis Camnitzer has worked across and between the visual and literary arts to explore themes of political repression, the legacy of colonialism, and issues of teaching, learning, and pedagogy. On Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, Camnitzer will deliver a lecture in conjunction with the Colby 2016–17 humanities theme Revolutions that will combine a personal reflection on the theme with a prescription for renewal without complacency in the overlapping realms of art and education. Having come of age in Uruguay during a period of widespread revolution in Latin America, Camnitzer grew to distrust immediate, totalizing shifts in the social sphere. Instead, he will explore the potential for “micro-revolutions” based on the idea of the artist as an agent of empowerment and communication, like the best of teachers. Ahead of his arrival on the Hill, Anne Lunder Leland Curatorial Fellow Andrew Gelfand reached out to Camnitzer with some questions about his life, work, and what we can expect from his talk. 

Luis Camnitzer. Photo by Pepa Batot León.

Andrew Gelfand: With your interests in politics—having been involved in leftist movements in Uruguay in the 1960s—and education, how did you arrive at art?

Luis Camnitzer: I started with art (as a craft) when I was fourteen, and went to art school at sixteen. By the time I was seventeen I figured out that there was more to art than the craft part. That year there were US-sponsored bombings in Guatemala, and that made me politically aware. Around that time I also started to realize that educationally the art school needed some revision. So art, politics, and education merged into a coherent salad at about the same time. Politics and education were pretty ease to figure out, mostly a matter of common sense. However, it took me longer to get a grip on art as my personal expression. It first took shape in 1957 in the form of neurotic and personal expressionism. It took me until 1966 to figure things out in that area. So it wasn’t an issue of arrival at art, but rather of getting rid of my artistic preconceptions.

AG: As both an artist and a writer, how do you understand the relationship between your artistic and literary practices? What does writing do for you that making art cannot?

LC: It’s like asking what sculpture can do for you that painting cannot. I don’t separate those activities. I’m interested in problem formulation and solving in the context of knowledge acquisition. Sometimes writing is more efficient for this than imaging. Sometimes it’s the other way round. And sometimes they help each other. Ultimately it’s about information processing and presentation. I would say, however, that art for me is a metadiscipline and that I observe and ponder from an art point of view before I negotiate things with reality and decide what parts I have to give up.

AG: You have spoken frequently about art as a tool for problem-solving across academic fields as well as the importance of autodidacticism. While I can readily imagine what this might mean for an art student, what might this pedagogical approach look like in our educational system for students not studying art? What advice do you have for students at Colby who are not in art and who are looking to instrumentalize art as a tool in their chosen fields?

LC: I confess that I answered the preceding question before reading this one! I think that what I said is not something reserved for artists or art students. I consider it a general approach to knowledge. Education is about learning, not about teaching. Learning confronts ignorance: how to erase it or how to administer it. Teaching transmits knowledge that already exists. Therefore it is redundant in terms of cognition, and trains and fits students into what is known. I don’t think you can learn without using boundless imagination, considering absurdity and failure, and analyzing and questioning the parameters used to transmit a message, both as a giver and a receiver.

This means that thinking cannot just be arithmetically quantitative, as schools usually assume. We still respect erudition, believing that the more you know, the better or more important you are. Today it is about how well you access information, how well you make connections, how interestingly you pattern data to reveal things you don’t yet know. These are art tools, yes, but they are tools that should be integrated into all disciplines. In this mode there are no errors, there are only solutions that haven’t yet found the problems to which they belong. And this demands imagination instead of accountability. Thus, what I call “art thinking” is something different than art making. And even art making is not something that should be the monopoly of so-called artists. Art as a discipline is taught as a competitive activity, in hopes of identifying the next Picasso. This is like reserving the learning of how to write for only those perceived to have Nobel Prize potential.

AG: Having read an advance copy of your talk, I noticed that you make an interesting case about why students should be paid to attend college, seeing it as parallel to military service. This is a provocative argument. Could you say a bit more about it?

LC: I had an exceptionally good education and it was totally free. At the time, many of the students complained that they weren’t getting paid for the time they spent studying and I thought that they were ungrateful. Today, six decades later, I realize that they were right. Education as we know it is designed to create a meritocracy and to facilitate entry into the labor market. That means that institutional education acts as a preinterview chamber that filters the quality of students for service. The accent here is on “service.” What I say in my talk is that charging students to go through this preinterview and service preparation is equivalent to asking soldiers to pay for the “privilege” of going to war. Neither of these services is focused on the maturation of the individual, something that actually would lead to a better society. Instead they are designed to have people spend resources for the benefit of abstractions (market, nation, etc.).

AG: Similarly, you read the current status of a liberal arts education as one “primarily designed to bolster the myths of exceptionalism and national dominance.” What would you say to a general trend toward an emphasis on transnationalism in higher education? What does anti-exceptionalism look like?

LC: The notion of exceptionalism is an aggression. The idea of “making America great” is a declaration of war against other nations, since “great” only makes sense as a comparative evaluation that, being competitive, is detrimental to those who automatically become opponents or submissive helpers. I recognize that I’m a Uruguayan chauvinist, but that is only because it’s chauvinism reduced to soccer games and without any possibility of harm. I doubt that in Uruguay Trump would have had a chance to be elected, but that is not because Uruguayans are better. It’s more likely that the cause lies in that the access to education there is easier (even if students are not yet paid for studying), the literacy level is high, and there is no ambition whatsoever to rule the world. I don’t know if good transnationalism is possible as long we have globalization based on financial flows, hegemonic economies, and bank rules. It can only be a reality if we take responsibility for equal distribution of resources and recognize that those we call refugees, for example, behave like water in communicating vessels. They need to find equal level everywhere instead of being obstructed by dikes. So it’s not about national and transnational, but about community and connecting with communities. The danger of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in this context goes beyond its being an opposite to the humanities. The danger is that STEM might engulf and redefine the humanities by confusing true creativity with applied ingenuity, and putting everything at the service of exceptionalism. Thus greatness within nationalism will be furthered, and a true world community made impossible.

Luis Camnitzer, The Museum is a School, 2011, site specific installation. Gift of Seth A. Thayer Jr. ’89 and Gregory N. Tinder in honor of the staff of the Colby College Museum of Art, 2013.509. Photo © Bittermann

AG: As a Colby Museum employee, I’m greeted every day on my way to work by your site-specific installation The Museum Is a School. While the pronouncement offered by the work presents one understanding of the operations of a museum, it appears to remove museum workers—curators, educators, registrars, security guards, etc.—from the equation. What role might they have in your model of the museum?

LC: I don’t think that’s really true, or if it is, it’s not because of any lack in the statement. I mean, I could add “. . . and the public, curators, educators, registrars, and security guards learn to make connections.” But what you are describing is really the museum, not the statement. The museum could define itself as a community within the community, with walls there only for climatic and security reasons, but otherwise as conceptually nonexisting or acting as an osmotic membrane. Or it could define itself as a vault with functionaries who are so specialized that they are a separate entity altogether to ensure that the vault functions. I presume that Colby is somewhere in between, and probably not totally radical on the progressive side either because of financial pressure or for lack of fully and politically thinking out things to the extreme. In any case, you might all get together and discuss exactly where you fit in—museum? school? artist? or public? That might lead to a tighter definition of the institution.