Imagination Over Submission: Luis Camnitzer’s Liberatory Art Education

Luis Camnitzer, "Find an unnamed object and suggest a proper name for it," 2011. From the series "The Assignment Books," 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Over the summer of 2020, I was continually surprised by the versatility of cars. Amid mutual aid mobilizing and uprisings against police – each thrusting a new vision of reality – my car was not only a transport for goods and people but transformed into functions previously unregistered: a blockage for obstructing traffic, a billboard for protest demands, a noisemaker. On the streets, I saw loudspeakers affixed to truck roofs and shields refashioned from the side panels of decommissioned vehicles. Drivers formed car caravans to swarm protest sites with a cacophony of horns, and car brigades to protect pedestrian protesters from police. It felt like not just cars, but everything – what constitutes a skill, tool, knowledge, or resource – was being reconceived. I had graduated art school that May, and though the degree’s power was nullified by these exceptional states, the wild experimentation of the insurrections brought a more direct education.

In One Number Is Worth One Word, Luis Camnitzer writes that, “just as we should view art as a way of approaching knowledge, we should also view knowledge not as an accumulation of data, but as a flexible mechanism for reorganizing reality.” These lines evoked how the summer had felt like an evolution, or even a rectification, of schooling. Though the collection of essays amasses over fifty years of the Uruguayan artist’s writings, its arrival—it was published by Sternberg Press and e-flux journal in October 2020 – coincided with my own reflections on the discrepancy between the possible forms and actual dysfunctions of art education.

Cover design of Luis Camnitzer, “One Number Is Worth One Word.” Courtesy e-flux journal and Sternberg Press.

Camnitzer, an artist who has spent his life seeking how art and pedagogy may redistribute power in society, is naturally critical of art schools. His first brush against them was as a student at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (ENBA) in Montevideo, where he and his peers pushed for a curricular overhaul in the late 1950s, and created a new Plan of Studies, or curricular track, in 1960 (he would return in 1969 and organize with students again, as “the school had stagnated” under President Jorge Pacheco Areco’s “proto-dictatorial government”). Camnitzer taught for three decades until retirement, at SUNY at Old Westbury, a college started in 1968 by oil heir and politician Nelson Rockefeller to, in Camnitzer’s words, “isolate leftist faculty and students so they wouldn’t spread revolts.” Such cutting descriptions of institutional education—particularly, art education – abound in One Number. In “An Artist, a Leader, and a Dean Were on a Boat…” (2014), written in response to Atlanta’s Emory College terminating its Visual Arts Department, Camnitzer remarks that this decision “could be interpreted as a step toward honesty.” Though it may seem counterintuitive, Camnitzer’s endorsement of an art department’s closure advocates for art’s re-entrenchment through all disciplines, even all aspects of society. In this scenario, the instruction of what he terms “art thinking” would be concerned less with industry standards or market preparedness than with creative cognition – for “imagination over submission.”

Though he has primarily worked in the US, Camnitzer roots this conception of art as liberatory pedagogy in the upheavals of Latin American art education, which were premised on resisting abuses of power by the state. These art practitioners traced their lineage to eruptions such as the 1918 student protests at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina, which demanded free education and student co-governance. Autonomous universities subsequently proliferated across the region, spreading all the way up to Cuba by 1923. For those informed by this legacy, dominant education is understood as a process of inculcation by the ruling class. Take “alphabetization,” Camnitzer’s signature neologism from a direct translation of the Spanish alfabetización for “literacy”: one typically learns the rules of language before learning to write. “I was forced to fill pages with the same letter, repeating it over and over again,” he reflects in “Art and Literacy” (2009); “I was given words before I could even explore what my own ideas might be.” This memory of prescriptive and punitive instruction represented “the fragmentation of knowledge into airtight compartments”, “the development of communication without first establishing the need for it.”

Luis Camnitzer, “This is a poetic statement. Identify the elements that construct the poem,” 2011. From the series “The Assignment Books,” 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

This diagnosis feels quintessentially Freirian, and Camnitzer tells me in an email exchange that he and the educator Paulo Freire, who was born only a generation prior in São Paulo, were radicalized by the same contexts, including the Theology of Liberation movement during the ’60s. Camnitzer proposes that art, or “drawing with the writing pencil,” should first be taught in grade school to offset the “consumption before production model” of literacy learning, then maintained as lifelong practice. This art education would not prioritize finished products, but train one to actively reevaluate existing conventions. If widely implemented, Camnitzer believes, it could hold revolutionary potential. Yet, he argues, art is deemed a postgraduate concentration, and art education is represented by art schools, whose operations are ideologically opposed to the “socialism of creation” of this educational vision.

Given the current state of affairs, most would scoff at the mention of art schools and socialism in the same sentence. Art schools are the most expensive colleges in the country, inviting speculation, as in a 2014 article in Art Times, about whether they are “beyond the reach of the 99%.” As over-professionalization further encroaches the field, one question that defines this era, as the collective of artists and educators BFAMFAPhD puts it, is “what is the work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?” Economic precariousness, as Camnitzer elaborates in the essay “The Restricted Definition of Art” (1992), further shrinks the enclosure: “the definitions of quality become increasingly rarefied, funds allocated become more limited as schools downsize, tuition fees increase, and the process of elitist concentration ensures that the art enterprise remains under the control of society’s more affluent segments.” The dire straits of art schools are not new and have been elaborated elsewhere, but what feels reorienting about Camnitzer’s proposal is that rather than enclose the definition of art, crises should expand it. As art institutions froze during the dual pandemic-uprisings, creative production flowed through the streets – were these demonstrations of unrestricted art thinking?

Simón Rodríguez, “Sociedades Americanas en 1828,” printed by Biblioteca Ayacucho in Caracas, Venezuela, 1990.

What art thinking and the uprisings share are emphases on autonomy and self-organization. In conditions of emergency that expose not only the state’s inadequacy but its hostility, a “disaster communism” of provisory and informal aid networks emerges. Over 2020, along with autonomous zones that sprung up in different cities, insurrectionist and Black radical traditions for interceding social space, such as pouring cement on anti-homeless spikes or installing faucets to release “private” water sources, surfaced to the mainstream. Across the country, people applied sensory sensibilities to disassemble and rearrange the environment, to level the playing field against offensive state force. In Portland, protestors fused rebars to form caltrops, ancient tools where sharp edges always point upwards, to prevent entry by police cars. At the courthouse, they pumped insulation foam into the gaps of a chain link fence to obstruct officers’ lines of site. The uprisings’ pedagogical nature was spontaneous and explicit. Inventive tactics like leaf blowers devised as diffusers of tear gas traveled from Hong Kong to Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Instruction guides circulated on and offline, for shields crafted from storage containers, plastic barrels, and scrap wood. Camnitzer’s question of “how does a radical fight against hegemony use art as a ‘natural wrapper’ for ways of thinking and acting?” evokes my education that came after graduation: how to mix solutions of baking soda and water for an effective tear gas rinse; how to sew pouches of rice to canvas banners to add weight for high suspensions; how to identify what needs to be done, then figure it out with others.

In “My Friend Rodríguez” (2019), Camnitzer reflects on an unlikely inspiration of his conceptual art practice: the Venezuelan pedagogue Simón Rodríguez. In his book American Societies in 1828, Rodríguez expresses critiques of Europe’s colonial dominance on Latin America through the literary structure itself—texts are spatially arranged across the page, etching out shapes like concrete poetry, in manners that broke eighteenth-century calligram standards. That no one would deem this art, Camnitzer writes, is paradoxically significant to art; in experimenting with form not as discrete artistic practice but to alter the recipient’s relationship to the message, Rodríguez was exercising art thinking at its most uncontained. I observed a similar paradox during the uprisings, when art production and other forms of labor were enmeshed and rendered indistinct. Over the summer in Chicago, collectives such as Black Abolition Network and BYP100 organized artmaking, skill-sharing, and political education events on de-arrests and de-escalations, screen-printing, outdoor painting for children, street medic training, clothes mending, and bicycle repairs. This rapprochement between art and the social sphere not only elicits the specter of the communist imaginary on socially engaged art but envisions the life of art education beyond institutions.

Invited by the New School in 2011 to stage a project that would involve students from all departments, Camnitzer created The Assignment Book, a series that consists of twelve artworks, each pairing an object and an engraved brass plaque. Some of these artworks referred to lesson plans he had assigned since the late ’60s. In one set, a fused instrument, like a pull-handle welded to a folding ruler, hangs on the wall next to a plaque that reads, “find an unnamed object and suggest a proper name for it.” Camnitzer had intended for the audience to flood the space with suggestions and eventually erase his authority. This didn’t happen, he laments: “people are too respectful of the art object.” Perhaps the successful enactment of this dream was in the streets, where the prompts of challenging subordination and state violence were fervently met with ingenuous resistance. Regardless of its form, art is always instructive; yet liberatory education requires doing away with the separations between informal and institutional learning, between art education and the life practice of imagination over submission.

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