The new man

In text for the 3rd Art and Education Seminar, Luis Camnitzer recontextualizes Che Guevara's comments on the relationship between art and society

Luis Camnitzer

Publicado em: ANO 09, Nº 48, Set/Out/Nov 2020

Categoria: English, Prêmio seLecT

Luis Camntizer no 3º Seminário seLecT

For good or for bad “Che” Guevara has strongly influenced my generation. I never wore a t-shirt with his image, but I did pay attention to some of his writings and was particularly interested when he mentioned art.  This didn’t happen often, but in his “Socialism and the New Man” (sic) written in 1965 he gave his views on the role artists have in capitalist society. It’s a view that in part seems to hold true over half a century later, but also with ideas that sound romantic or inapplicable although they are still in use today. “Che” observed for example that art and culture in the capitalist system are there as a defense against the “daily dying during eight and more hours in which [man] works as merchandise, to then resuscitate in his spiritual creation,” and also that art is a defense of individuality where aesthetic ideas help the feeling of being unique and immaculate.  All this, according to him, it is a way to escape the unbearable quality of the environment.  R.D Laing expressed similar thoughts a couple of years later when he wrote: “Words in a poem, sounds in movement, rhythm in space, attempt to recapture personal meaning in personal time and space from out of the sights and sounds of a depersonalized, dehumanized world. They are bridgeheads into alien territory. They are acts of insurrection.” Though art and culture may serve those things it would be an exaggeration to limit them to this function.

More interestingly, addressing the professional artist, he then writes:

“The superstructure forces an art within which artists have to be educated. The machinery subdues rebels, and only exceptional talents may create their own work. The rest become hirelings or are crushed.” “Artistic research is invented as defining freedom, but this research has limits only perceptible once one clashes against them, that is, when man’s real problems and his alienation are raised. Senseless anguish and trivial pastime become ease valves for human uneasiness: the possibility of an art of denunciation is ruled out.” “Those who play by the rules of the game receive the honors; the same a monkey inventing pirouettes might have. The condition is not to try to escape from the invisible cage.” 

The concept of the cage was later pointedly rephrased by Stephen Wright in 2013 when he commented: “Of course autonomous art has regularly claimed to bite the hand that feeds it; but never very hard.”

Art was not high on “Che”s problem-solving agenda and the “New Man” text may contain his most explicit mentions. The interest in quoting him here is because the relation of art and society hasn’t changed much during the last half-century and it’s revealing to hear from somebody immersed in political combat who was neither ignorant nor dogmatic on the issues.  Depending on one’s point of view, “Che’s” description of the artist and how artists fit in society may essentially be considered as correct, though his criticism of both Social Realism and of “art for art’s sake” lost their relevance. For him, Social Realism is as a way of avoiding artistic research by combining a socialist present with an aesthetic past.  He continued, claiming “one cannot oppose social realism with ‘freedom’ because this doesn’t exist yet and won’t exist until there is a new society. […] The development of an ideological-cultural mechanism that allows for [artistic] research is lacking […].”

This is where “Che” (as well as people thinking along these lines) seems to be most limited. Art well employed happens to be the exact ideological-cultural mechanism needed for a new and free society. He didn’t consider that possibility because he was navigating through the limitations of a political art based on narrative content instead of being based on action. Though he was trying to open perspectives, he was bound by a belief in the disciplinary separation of tasks. Accordingly, political thought would have the cutting edge role and act separately from everything else. Art was there to offer experiences and visualize the efforts. Art only would be able to work freely as long as political developments created the proper environment for it.  In the same text “Che” complained that: “There are no artists of great authority that also have great revolutionary authority.” Though true, the problem was that neither were there any politicians with great authority who also had great artistic authority. 

“Che” did not consider the possibility that art could be used to construct the freedom he felt was absent. Or that whatever revolution could take place without having revolutionary art and revolutionary politics would only be partial and therefore unsuccessful.  Politics and art have to work hand in hand to the point of being one and the same, rather than illustrating each other. In fact, that’s where art becomes the educational component that might redirect political strategy into being pedagogically effective and help the appearance of the “new man”. 

Interestingly, around the same time, “Che” wrote his text and mentioned “artistic research,” there was an incipient wish to promote the shift to understand art not as a means of production but as a form of knowledge processing.  Hegemonic Conceptual Art moved away from materialized art and introduced problem-solving, with Conceptualist Art on the periphery adding political resistance to the mix. The problem is that, from then on, the dilemmas of autonomy shifted without being totally resolved. Today it is about where this autonomy should be placed, if it is in the realms of “cognitive capital” or in education along literacy and numeracy, and also who should be served by it.

In “Che”’s time, following its tradition of being craft-based, art was either an autonomous skill or a skill at the service of something.   The question of whom it served was separate and reserved for ideological analysis. Today, autonomy can only be discussed seriously if it’s done considering all the implications and in an extremely nuanced manner. We have to try to understand how the same word accommodates financial instruments, visual spectacular punch lines, serious research in alternative problem solving, making meanings, class service, and art as social practice. “Che’s” concept of art was simpler and typical for people outside art circles.  A schematic view was o still immersed in the abstraction/figuration dichotomy prevalent in Latin America during the nineteen-fifties, where abstraction represented both autonomy and modernist utopia. Politics was to be represented in the narrative content of the artwork, something much more easily done with figuration. Put this way one may think that all these are either/or options, where one choice precludes all others and those discarded are thrown into an intellectual waste bin.  

Today one could say that none of these disquisitions about figuration and political messages matter much. Even if these differences were to be kept as relevant, some of them may eventually have a cultural effect and many won’t. One may trust that if we let art just happen either as an enhanced craft or as a contribution to knowledge, and without rational interference or guidance, it will hopefully find its own way to affect society and settle in collective culture. Historians and anthropologist in a distant future will then evaluate whatever has really happened. It would seem, however, that in the interim we do work for the present and it still is our responsibility to make the best of it since we are accountable to those living around us.

“Che”s reference to art starts by stating: “It’s in the area of ideas leading to non-productive activities where it’s easier to see the division between material and spiritual needs.” It follows the today’s still prevalent notion that art is a leisure activity. No matter which aspect conforming to the word art we may pick, by seeing it as a means of production of useless tangible objects, the results somehow always land in the area of appreciation. We are supposed to look at art, understand it, and hopefully appreciate it even if we don’t like it. Consequently, art education is clearly divided into those courses that teach how to make it, and those that teach how to appreciate it. Good “making” eventually might lead to specialized art schools, with good appreciating to all the different industries built around and supporting the art products.  In other words, the focus is on the different ways art features its instrumentalization, even if compared to other industries its applicability level is low. 

That is the problem that “Che” faced when he saw art as a tool for spiritual recovery from capitalist exploitation, and as lacking freedom in a society that was in the very beginning of enabling the freedom of its citizens.  He did not think of the possibility of having art as a form of cognition helping in this task. Neither did he describe what art might do or look like once freedom was attained. The first oversight was a pity and the second was lucky. Within his concept of art, any definition would have negated the freedom he was hoping for.  

In view of the failure of twentieth-century political revolutions, the issue of art’s social function is of increasing interest and importance. So is the focus on what it is used for, which is a concept taken for granted in all Western social systems.  There must be a practical purpose in anything we do since otherwise it’s luxury or leisure. This has conditioned the education system and made it increasingly shift towards practicality and eliminating humanities and arts from curricula and having to grapple with the issue of how this useless thing we call art may be quantified and put to practical use.  In capitalist societies, over the last years, this uselessness has evolved and acquired investment value. Art administration and consultancy courses are proliferating. In as far as art is maintained in curricula – and most artists today are university-trained – business courses and survival skills are becoming a fundamental part of artist training.

Galleries used to follow the old-fashioned grocery store model. One used to go to the store and buy what was liked or needed.  After a period of the supermarket format, then perfected with the art fair presentation., Gallery power is increasingly concentrating in the hands of transnational mega-galleries that work like brokers for over a hundred artists each. Serious art deals have become transactions performed on paper, with certificates of authenticity and ownership exchanged while the art itself remains stored in climate-proof depots. Meanwhile, artistic research is moving into the Ph.D. level making the terminal degree more expensive, unattainable, and elitist.

The uselessness of contemplative consumption is made useful through the leisure economics constructed around it.  In art, “experience” has become the commodity that generates income from those who can afford leisure. The process, however, is not limited to leisure but has become part of most commercial transactions. It has been theorized in what is called the “experience economy.” People don’t leave or switch brands and stores anymore for lack of quality, but for bad or non-personalized experience provided during the process of acquisition. Customers are willing to pay more for efficient and pleasurable service at the expense of the quality of actual products.  Therefore, it’s not anymore the work, but the experience of the work that has to be memorable.  The memorability of the experience is enhanced by the spectacle offered for context. People then don’t look at work but take selfies to document that the experience took place. 

This situation has generated some resistance that took shape in “art as social practice” (including political action), and some forms of artistic research. “Che” would have appreciated both aspects even though they don’t exactly fit his expectations. Social practice has a populist bent and works at creatively improving life conditions in society. Artistic research is geared to introduce rigorous methodology and theory into art-making, primarily serving the art field.  What is interesting, however, is that though not having a radical impact, these moves have led to show art’s true cultural role. Art is not about tangible objects, but a methodology to approach knowledge, sometimes using objects to this effect, and   about “making meanings.” 

“Making meanings” however, has two interpretations. One is used in constructivist pedagogy understood as “making sense” of things by putting order into disorder or order badly understood. The other and more ambitious interpretation goes beyond that and wants to use art to make “new” meanings. It’s this one that “Che” had missed. It might have helped him in the construction of his utopia, which raises another problem. If making new meanings was something useful to build utopias it would be self-defeating since a utopia doesn’t have room for new meanings.

This was a typical mistake of many in “Che”s and my generation (he was only nine years older than me). I’ve had my own visions of Utopia and knew how society should look. This led me to be interested in other utopian thinking. I accepted some and rejected others according to how they matched my beliefs. We all agreed that the World was not functioning and that we were assigned to improve the situation.  The fact that we are where we are, and that all the people in power who could have helped improve the situation are younger than me, shows the degree of our failure. Nevertheless, Utopia helped me to “make sense” and I used it in the pedagogical interpretation of the term. Making sense was a form of critical thinking that helped re-contextualize and rearticulate my surroundings as well as choosing the tools best suited to do it. It was the feeling that sharing this utopia was socially useful what made me focus on education. Simultaneously involved in art studies, I operated from what I learned there, but I did so within the conventional views about disciplinary divisions.

Art in the fifties was considered to be a self-contained production system, a set of crafts with something extra that couldn’t be clearly defined. This extra allowed artists to vent, express, and sometimes shock. Venting had therapeutic value, expressing helped communication, and shocking could be used either to become famous or to raise awareness. All three aspects could be calibrated to push society into accepting me as a great artist or into constructing my utopia. That either possibility was a sign of narcissistic arrogance didn’t even occur to me. The same affected my teaching. Although I believed in the horizontal classroom, I referred to education as teaching, which seriously undercuts my carefully constructed theories.

Over the years I corrected many of these flaws. “Art-making” became “art thinking” and imaginative problem-solving. “Teaching” became teamwork and “learning together.” The separation between art and education became increasingly nebulous to the point that today I don’t see a clear reason to separate them into two distinct disciplines. One point, however, remained problematic. One of my sons challenged me about what was hidden in the words “matched my beliefs.” 

It was something very simple: “matching my beliefs” favors a static system built in the past and forces the future to fit into it. The resistance to my (or any) utopia under those conditions is understandable. It doesn’t mean that my beliefs are wrong. Neither does it mean that I’m withholding the right to build a newer system that reflects the beliefs of the next generation.  But at the heart of this is the vague question of what the role of the past has in regard to the future. Vague enough to sound trivial, this question determines our relation with time and our position in regard to ignorance. It, therefore, influences the ideologies with which we act in both the pedagogical and the art area, and also whom we address. 

The past is used as the floor to stand on. After we identify what might be right in that platform, we identify what’s wrong, shape our values accordingly, and then use it to try to improve the future. This sounds obvious and “makes sense.”  However, it only makes sense within what we know. The exploration of new parameters and the making of new meanings are precluded. What we know belongs to the past and our mistakes should not become a legacy, but what we don’t know belongs to the future and the response is flexibility, not utopia. 

Even when it tries to be progressive and utopian, the education system is tied down by known parameters. The goal is to develop competency, and the evaluation of competency has no room for surprises. I believe that art and education are basically the same, that a pedagogy that is not creative is bad pedagogy, and an art that is not pedagogical is bad art, but there is a slight difference in that in art surprises are not only allowed but also expected. 

Even the most progressive education system uses words that are taken for granted as carriers of negativity without challenging their value. Impossibility is one, but there are many others like “ignorance,” “impractical,” “waste,” “failure,” “illogical,” etc.,  all of which are frowned upon because they don’t further experiences. Yet, while they may not be expedient for saleable experience, they are useful for the opposite, something I like to call inperience.

The word “experience” comes from the Greek ex=outside and perior=intent. In spite of the personal and subjective quality we attribute to it, experience is like nuts for a squirrel: reach something external that then is brought into our cheeks to be consumed. In conventional language the presumed opposite to experience is inexperience, another negative since it only refers to the absence. If we want to consider experience as what it is, without a preloaded value, the real alternative would be inperience, a word that surprisingly barely exists. In Spanish it appears as “inperiencia” with the authorship claimed by Jorge Veas in 2007. Veas is a Chilean therapist and obstetrician and in his interpretation inperience applies to how we relate to internal processes perceivable and controllable through introspection. Experience deals with how we relate to external objects.  

I find inperience more useful when interpreted as a way to focus on both internal and external situations.  It is about a process of “insighting” that doesn’t separate inside from outside and takes into account what an experience might produce, what is projected onto the experience, and what is projected onto others. This makes inperience primarily an action and not consumption. It relies on the responsibility to act and do rather than limiting oneself to the exploration of one’s thoughts and feelings after ingestion and the ability and need to receive. In relation to “Che’s” text, freedom then is not something to be delivered by a politician to then be experienced. It is something to be either taken or created, but always inperienced, brought out, and shared. As such it’s the basis for true militancy, one based on shared insights rather than indoctrination. 

Active inperience has become particularly important today. I’m writing this text in the middle of a quarantine that already has lasted over four months. Though far removed from actual prison life, the comparison is unavoidable.  Much of our sanity is provided by introspection and inperience the ways Veas described it.  The “four walls” confinement imposed by the pandemic actually increases the danger of limiting our inperience to his definition. The incidence and vividness of dreaming has sensibly multiplied in these few months generating an experience that reminds of “Second Life” and that has already generated studies and articles that explain it as an effect of isolation and lack of stimuli.  In the absence of a perceivable public, the temptation may also be to revert to romantic forms of art that focus on personal and intimate expressions.  The public stops being an audience and becomes an abstract and generalized concept that may be easily ignored for lack of confrontation. When socialization takes place it is mediated through computer screens, people become pictures, and collective performances are taken over by visual salads composed with individualized fragments.  Plays and concerts appear in social media in a new aesthetic inspired by the “Exquisite Corpses” game of the Surrealists. Music, stories and dances composed by units performed in different homes are seamlessly stitched together to reconstruct what might have happened as a collective performance on one stage. A recent notable example is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed in the bathtubs of members of different French ballet groups.

It is the difference between experience and inperience with the freedom provided by the latter that explains why there is a negative value given to words like impossibility, impractical, waste, illogical, failure, and ignorance. The attribution of prepackaged values comes from the idea of experience. Events have to be successful since otherwise they are “bad experiences.” However, from the point of view of inperiences, these words are nothing more than stimuli. Impossibility means that we are thinking on a higher and limitless level of imagination.  Impractical, the same as does waste, frees us from applicability. Illogical opens perspectives by suspending causality. Failure points to a mismatch between an initial problem and a solution that therefore needs a better formulated or a different problem. And ignorance refers to the immense and fascinating field of that we don’t know. It is eternally open for exploration, for discovery, for changing and creating systems of order, and for naming things not yet named or renaming those that are. In fact, it’s the negative use of ignorance that limits the scope end effect of traditional education. 

The negative turn for all these words only occurs once they are placed in the area of applicability, that is, when we negotiate our imagination with reality and find the needed compromises.  The problem is that by skipping our awareness of that step we also downplay and eventually lose our power of imagination.  It is in this context that the absolute negativity of ignorance probably may be the most dangerous. It is the most imprecise word (we may measure what we know but not what we don’t know) and is used to demean and exclude instead of using it to explore systems of order.  Education as commonly understood and practiced is about erasing ignorance, not about exploring what we don’t know or what we are unable to give an order to. But what if the order we need is not from what is organized for us but one we create for ourselves? In his novel Borderliners, Peter Hoeg writes:

“To organize is to recognize. To know that, in an endless, unknown sea, there is an island upon which you have set foot before. It was islands such as these that she had been pointing out. With the words she had created for herself a web of familiar people and objects. […] With her lists she had ensured that whatever she had once known would come back.”  

Knowledge refers to a past and to the construction of a past that gives us a sense of security by having us learn what has been already named and reaffirming what is known. Thus the named is integrated in our knowledge, and the most interesting, the unnamed, remains locked up in ignorance.  And then, what is not yet known is only researched within what is predictable, that is, what can be derived from what is known. It is this what makes it an experiential process and not an inperiencial one, and what makes “unpredictable” another negative word. What we haven’t experienced yet has been experienced by others so that the way it’s assumed we learn is by acquiring or sharing of those experiences. Though Experience Economy only took some theoretical form during the last years of the twentieth century, it’s clear that experience rather than inperience has shaped communication and behavior for a couple of centuries preceding. It has helped in the construction of the present individual consumer culture. In fact, it’s the lack of a clear methodology to design experiences in the context of a pandemic what is now disconcerting both the art market and educational institutions.

Since experiences are rooted on identifiable stimuli, the temptation to apply repeatability and quantitative analysis is obvious. This is at the heart of statistics and market analysis.  It was also the motor of unsuccessful attempts to quantify inperiences as they apply to art. Notably among them and attempting great precision was George Birkhoff who in 1933 proposed the formula M= O/C (Measure equals Order over Complexity). According to Birkhoff’s calculations, the most perfect shape is a square with M = 1.50 and horizontal sides.  However, when discussing music, Birkhoff acknowledged that one also has to take into account the immeasurable prevailing taste and consensus. More recently, physicist Haroldo Ribeiro has developed an algorithm to determine the relation between complexity and entropy in paintings in order to identify stylistic shifts in the History of Art. Applied to 140.000 digitalized paintings, the algorithm does not purport to measure quality, but help classification according to formalist criteria.  In either case, it’s the experiential scientific mind seeking predictability that tries to take over non-quantitative topics that explore the opposites and seeking a formalist Utopia. Fortunately both Birkhoff and Ribeiro’s work remain as futile oddities, the same as more ambitious social systems that presume to achieve immobility. What we may have learned from the virus is that our relation with direct tangibility and traditional experiencing is a very fragile one. The New Man will not spring from a trust in quantification. If at all, changes will occur from an education that reconsiders and balances experience with the power of our insights and inperiences and seeks to make this the focus.  It may then give the possibility of generating new meanings and orders and, therefore, what we may then call the constantly “New and Creative Person.”

1  R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, Ballantine Books, 1971 (1967), p. 43-44.
2  Translation into English of the quotes is my own.
3  Stephen Wright, Toward a Lexicon of Usership, p. 12, https://museumarteutil.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Toward-a-lexicon-of-usership.pdf, accessed 07/14/2020
4 Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” Harvard  Business Review, July-August 1998,  https://hbr.org/1998/07/welcome-to-the-experience-economy, accessed 07/12/2020
5 https://medicinayemocion.blogspot.com/2007/03/experiencia-o-inperiencia.html?fbclid=IwAR1ABWuVK2JcVRg9fdWycpExz8O3OVcYr3CJhQBESPNyNYOf3fBsBPldphE accesed 07/12/ 2020.
6  Peter Hoeg, Borderliners, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013
7  George Birkhoff, Aesthetic Measure, Harvard University Press, 1933, P. 47 
8  Ibid. p.11
9  Jess Romeo, “Entropy in Art,” Scientific American 04/2019, p. 16 

 

Luis Camnitzer is an artist, curator and teacher. He was a curator of emerging artists at The Drawing Center in New York; pedagogical curator of the 6th Mercosul Biennial, pedagogical curator of the Iberê Camargo Foundation, and pedagogical advisor of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection. He lives and works in New York, where he serves as emeritus professor at New York State University

 

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