One Number is Worth One Word
(Sternberg Press, 2020)
In his series “The Assignment Books” (2011), Luis Camnitzer pairs simple, poetic objects with instructions that enlist the viewer in the completion of the work. In one, a crude square marked out in painter’s tape accompanies the text, “Presented with this evidence, prove or disprove the existence of god.” In another, an engraved plaque prompts, “Write the biography of an idea.” To its right are three serial photographs: a hand placing a bouquet in a wide white bowl; the flowers stabilized in the bowl’s center with a tripod of wire; and then the same flowers, in the same spot, now held in a vase. Camnitzer’s language of forms is familiar—in conceptual artworks, the object is often complicated and expanded by its wall text. But these pairings maintain a resident strangeness, as though their maker were treating the white cube like one big walk-in school textbook from an alternate universe.
These excerpts from “The Assignment Books” are some of the few artworks included in One Number is Worth One Word, the recent collection of Camnitzer’s writing on art and education. Camnitzer rarely discusses his own work in these texts, but it’s through the lens of his visual work that his writing feels most fully formed. His work concerns a keen interest in conceptual art as communication, museums as places of learning, the political possibilities of creative thinking, and a constant trespassing between disciplines and forms. As he writes in the “The Detweeting of Academia” (2015), “It’s the root of my belief that when done correctly, art and education become the same thing.”
Camnitzer was born in Germany, raised in Uruguay, moved to the United States in 1964, and shortly thereafter started the fine art program at State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury, where he taught for more than three decades. His work ranges across mediums and scales, from printmaking and sculpture to room-sized installations. Some read as more overtly political than others, condemning the torture of Uruguayan political dissidents; others are more playful, commenting on language and the social hierarchies of the art world.
When I look at Camnitzer’s visual work, I get the same impression of intellectual restlessness I do from his writing. Spanning nearly six decades of Camnitzer’s thought, from his involvement in educational reform as a student at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (the School of Fine Arts) in Montevideo to lectures delivered at symposiums and schools around the country as recently as 2019, these texts probe the role of museums, the value of radical pedagogy, and what it means to teach art in the Ponzi scheme that is the MFA system. Reading these texts together, the arc of his thought becomes visible in his frequent returns to the same subjects over the course of a lifetime spent making, theorizing, and agitating. Central to his beliefs is an understanding of art as always already present in other disciplines, and creative thinking and questioning as crucial elements of all forms of education.
One of Camnitzer’s long-held interests is in the thresholds and points of cross-pollination between language, art, and communication. In the essay “Art and Literacy” (2009), Camnitzer compares the practice in non-specialized education of teaching the mechanics of reading and writing before critical thinking to one that emphasizes learning craft and studio skill before creative analysis and questioning. “Art education has always been faced with a confusion between art and craft: in teaching how to do things, one often neglects the more important question of what to do with them,” he writes. Camnitzer calls this narrow approach to education “learning how to cook without first being hungry.”
Camnitzer upends the educational hierarchy that places art and creative thinking at the bottom. He admires the Venezuelan Simón Rodríguez, an 18th-century radical, anti-colonialist educator, and theorist best known as Simón Bolívar's tutor, who, among other things, advocated for Quechua to be taught instead of Latin, opposed the idea of intellectual copyright, and condemned the goal of education as equipping students to enter the workforce. Camnitzer picks up this critique, connecting it to a widespread interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The addition of art to STEM, which upgrades it to STEAM, he writes, promotes “the underlying message [that] it’s good to be creative as long as it’s not art. Creativity is good if applied to disciplines that are rational and have a useful application.” The importance of this question extends beyond becoming a realized artist to becoming a realized political actor (though Camnitzer might protest that these two aims are one and the same).
One of the most appealing ideas in Camnitzer’s work, and perhaps one of the most timely, places art as a form of knowledge that remains in a constant state of upheaval, “a permanent and unrestricted state of research.” Art is a realm fundamentally unlike others. It should be a process not only of learning, he says, but also of unlearning, revising, and imagining. In a time of open questions about who art institutions should serve and how, Camnitzer’s thought invites us to linger on these questions a little longer.