While we still can

The Editors

Newsreel, Columbia Revolt, 1968. Still from black-and-white film documenting the 1968 protests at New York’s Columbia University, 50:00 minutes. Public domain.

May 2, 2024

First of all, power to the students. Images of armed police storming campuses in order to evict peaceful demonstrators on the invitation of administrators whose primary responsibility is the protection of academic freedoms hardly need parsing for meaning here, except to point out that these are merely the most visible expressions of a wider crackdown. But a couple of details might warrant the closer kind of attention that publications devoted to art criticism might usefully provide.

The first was a statement from Columbia University President Minouche Shafik that, among a skewed list of priorities, cited the need to “prevent loud protests at night when other students are trying to sleep or prepare for exams.”1 Put aside how disingenuous this is—Shafik later co-opts to her cause those students who are the “first in their families to earn a university degree,” and are thus presumed (because they are less wealthy than their peers?) to value a picturesque graduation ceremony over their intellectual liberties—and ask: what of kind of education is this, to be predicated on the total exclusion of the world’s horrors?

One answer was provided by John McWhorter, an associate professor at Columbia, to whose recent article Aruna D’Souza drew attention.2 McWhorter complains that he was prevented from playing John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) in his music humanities class by fear that noise from “protesters outside the building” would have overwhelmed the sounds of “birds or people walking by in the hallway.” It is hard to imagine a more eloquent summation of the means by which dissenting positions are excluded from the artistic discourse. What entitles McWhorter to decide what is the “right” kind of sound for his students to hear? It is left implicit.

In a recent review of Raven Chacon’s exhibition at the Swiss Institute, Rômulo Moraes reflects on how Cage’s principles are adaptable to a new “repertoire of political challenges” precisely because they challenge the conventions of what constitutes meaningful sound. If the listener is only prepared to hear what they want to hear, then Cage’s work loses its power to change their perception of the world. This is true, of course, of any experience of art. The first challenge facing the critic is to divest themselves of prejudices so that the work might act upon them. This is easier said than done, especially in a curatorial culture that prefers to tell its audience what a work means before they have a chance to experience it.

This month’s program offers several examples of how a more open and sustained attention might transform our understanding of our surroundings. That listening and looking in this way can open up much wider vistas than expected—as one startlingly expansive review of Vija Celmins’s paintings demonstrates—and that the most revealing information about the underlying anxieties of any society frequently resides in the least examined places. We’ll be publishing more in our series of responses to the Venice Biennale, alongside reviews of exhibitions in Australasia, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. Having said all that, we are also preparing a substantial essay addressed more directly to the assault on academic freedoms for which the ongoing dispersal of campus protests provides such a powerful image. Because, to paraphrase Félix Guattari, isn’t it a good idea to discuss it freely while we still can?3


“Statement from Columbia University President Minouche Shafik,” Columbia University website (April 29, 2024): https://president.columbia.edu/news/statement-columbia-university-president-minouche-shafik-4-29.


John McWhorter, “I’m a Columbia Professor. The Protests on My Campus Are Not Justice,” New York Times (April 23, 2024): https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/23/opinion/columbia-protests-israel.html. See also: Aruna D’Souza (invisible.flaneuse), “On John Cage” Instagram (April 24, 2014): https://www.instagram.com/p/C6KEZEpRc8Q.


Félix Guattari, “Everybody Wants To Be A Fascist,” in Chaosophy, éd. Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2007), 162.

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May 2, 2024

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