Issue #143 Let’s Call It Art!

Let’s Call It Art!

Luis Camnitzer

Collective kids painting, 1973, Bratislava.

Issue #143
March 2024

When I was in sixth grade, a teacher who I still remember fondly asked us to draw something we had never drawn before. She thought she would be freeing us from the boring, regimented assignment format and release our natural Rousseauian purity. She was wrong. We all froze and couldn’t even make a scribble.

Twenty-five years later I gave my students ten minutes to come up with an original idea. These were very uncomfortable minutes for them, but I knew that. I wasn’t expecting anything. The assignment was only an excuse to discuss the many meanings of originality, the underlying issues of competitiveness, and the consequences of individualism.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to be on a panel about art and education. Out of curiosity I asked what the honoraria would be, and I was told that the institution wasn’t paying. I responded that I wouldn’t do it for free and that they would have to wire one dollar to my bank account to maintain my dignity. My punch line was: “I am not a philanthropist but a knowledge worker.” I previously had been, in sequence, a sculptor, a printmaker, an artist, and a cultural worker. During this exchange, however, I realized that none of those past iterations really mattered. They had only been steps toward the present insight that what was important was to work on knowledge. And this work was not necessarily to contribute anything to the field of knowledge, but to facilitate it.

Despite her good intentions, my sixth-grade teacher missed the point. She had asked us to make something instead of setting us up to know something. In my own ten-minute assignment, I got closer, though I admit that I resorted to torture to get there. And finally, with this knowledge worker thing, I got it. I put all the dispersed and disorganized issues I’d worked on into one single coherent point of view.

I entered art school when I was sixteen without a clue about what art might be. It had been decided that I was skillful with my hands and that my skill should be developed further. In school, discussions about art referred to form and content, informed by the belief that one needed to be a good realist copier before venturing into any avant-garde aesthetic. The most frequently used argument was that Picasso had started as a rigorous figurative painter before he developed his personal experimental art. Nobody took into account that, given the year he was born, there were parameters for knowledge that gave him no other choice.

In school, it was a given that art was a tool for nonverbal communication. It was also assumed that art was a set of skills to make objects. The focus was first on the looks, and then on what the looks communicated. Within this setting, my struggle was not so much about art itself, but rather about trying to figure out what I was doing there in that moment and then to enjoy it. After all, what makes art art is the part that words cannot explain. The question of what makes a product qualify as “art” therefore remains unanswered for me. We only know that the reasons are there (though in some cases, we aren’t even sure of that). Therefore, the entire quest to figure out and describe what art is seems like a waste of time. It’s as futile as trying to use words to describe what happens in the space between words. Such an endeavor would only fill that space with more words.

Some decades ago, I proposed a fictional history of the origin of the loosely defined word “art.” During the Stone Age, somebody produced something unexplainable and unnamed. The thing elicited awe among onlookers, who were totally disconcerted. Then, one of the admirers dared to break the silence and exclaimed: “Let’s call it art!” The word, arbitrary like all other words, stuck. It stuck so well that from then on, people made new objects in an attempt to fit the word. The hope was always for these objects to be accepted as “art.” However, everyone who engaged in this effort made the same mistake. They believed that whatever power “art” might have was trapped in the object. This prevented people from recognizing that the awe they sought was not in the name. It was in the inability to name it.

The successive artists-to-be adapted their activities to fit the now-established understanding of the word “art.” They focused on the techniques used to produce the pieces that preceded them. Since it couldn’t be described, the awe part was neglected, and virtuous skills took over as a sign of quality. Predictably, this produced experimentation with a variety of other techniques and generated a long tradition of craftspeople. This fuzzy concept still prevails today in conventional thinking, in how art is taught in most traditional art schools, and in how it’s shown in museums and galleries. What’s worse, it forces us to accept art as a way of “making things” instead of a way of knowing—with or without the production of “things.”

Paintings in rock shelter 8, Upper Paleolithic period, Bhimbetka, India. Photo: Bernard Gagnon. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Not long ago, a plumber came to fix a leak in my studio. He saw my old etching press, some work by friends on the walls, and a disarray of papers and books. There were no easels, paints, or brushes. Nevertheless, he said, “You are a painter?” He seemed disconcerted by what he saw—or didn’t see. He handled his apparent confusion by reducing art to some craft and asking after the craftsman’s tools. However, nobody would think of a scientist as a microscopist or a Hadron Collider-ist. A surgeon would not be defined as a flesh cutter, nor would philosophers and historians be referred to as typists. The “how”—the tools of the trade—is secondary to the “what.” But when I answer the question “What do you do?” with “I’m an artist,” nobody asks what problem I might be working on. As with my plumber, my answer is almost inevitably followed by “Oh, you are a painter?” If I were to answer: “Oh no, I work with knowledge,” my interlocutor’s eyes would glaze over and they’d try to change the subject. Maybe they assume that as an artist I make something useless, so let’s skip the “what” and ask how I do it instead.

By addressing knowledge, we evade or postpone the “how” part, thus allowing us to choose between “useful” knowledge and “useless” knowledge. I find this much more interesting than choosing between, say, well painted and badly painted. In our culture we assume that uselessness is negative or, when we can afford it, a luxury. If we were to make a scale for measuring use, we would have practical knowledge on one end and purposeless imagination on the other. In a simplistic way one might say that art is a formalization of purposeless imagination. This may explain why it tends to be an elitist activity. Art can elevate the value of useless things while simultaneously wasting time. And not many people can afford it, either. Thus it can be traded at incomprehensible prices, and big museums can charge thirty dollars to enter the building. Products therefore need tangibility or a spectacular, craft-fully made quality. Art can then generate money and enter the financial world. So much so, that often it’s not the actual artwork that is traded, but the certification of ownership. Finance has provided art with a second order of usefulness. It’s something like eating the meat of herbivores and then claiming, like I do, to be a vegetarian once removed.

Considering art from the point of view of knowledge creates a different picture. Kant spoke of the purposelessness (Zwecklosigkeit) of art, which he did not intend as a slight. While he addresses purpose here, he does not address “use” as such. Lack of purpose implies the maker’s possible vagary, while lack of usefulness is about applicability and therefore places the onus on the receiver. However, these related concepts tell us that practicality and purpose limit our imagination and constrain our thinking. Similarly, our freedom and ability to make something is also limited by material and skill, so when we see somebody overcoming those limits, we appreciate their virtuosity.

Nevertheless, even if we accept art as a form that produces tangible things, if the result is really art the artist communicates more than material presence and technical expertise. Many masterful craftspeople are lousy artists. The real artist is what we might call a “crafts-plus-person.” The “plus” part, even if we cannot describe it, contributes to knowledge through experience. It is the crucial factor that helps separate art from that which only tries to be art. It happens between or outside words, and that is why when a work can be fully explained, it stops being art.

This brings us back to “awe.” Awe implies a recognition that we are taking stock of unknown information. It’s a confrontation with the “plus” factor that tells us art is working as it should. It reveals something previously hidden: new meanings or the possibility to make new meanings. The awe that may have once elicited the word “art” surely isn’t based on superior skill or hedonist pleasure. It’s related to the impact the work has on our knowledge. In that sense, awe is not a property of the object, but of how our knowledge relates with the object.

The closest concept to this “plus” is “mystery,” and both are often intertwined. “Mystery” is a complicated term because it’s usually discussed from an obscurantist point of view rather than as a knowledge experience that might be obscure. For science the issue is very clear. Science uses logic to deny mystery. Religion, on the other hand, delegates justifications to higher powers. This, of course, assumes that both justifications and higher powers exist. So far, between science, religion, and art, only art can embrace mystery as a form of unbiased uncertainty. Without appealing to dogmas or causing any anxiety, art addresses facets of the unknown that hide other unknowns. Contrary to what science often assumes, mystery in art does not cater to obscurantism but instead opens minds. Mystery is one state of knowledge that the artist may actively use to contextualize and enrich rationality. Unlike other forms of knowledge, it maintains endless imaginative flexibility by disorienting and reorienting us.

Conflicts and negotiations of cognition take place within and between both secular and religious belief systems. We are dealing with modes of knowledge, not with the professions that administer it. It’s not artist versus priest but one way of knowing versus another. The difference lies mostly in the allocation of power. The artist takes over decision-making power, which can sometimes lead to a sense of omnipotence and narcissism. From the point of view of religion, this power may also lead to blasphemy. And from the point of view of political and social structures, it may lead to subversion. It is also way of discovering without becoming absorbed by or subservient to what is discovered.

A rabbinical student in Olga Tokarczuk’s historical novel The Books of Jacob explains that to create the World, God had to leave himself and create a void for the World to reside in. First there was something and then it disappeared, so the World in its totality is an absence. It would seem that religion accepts this situation rather passively. Science, on the other hand, wants to figure out why that void exists and proceed to something else as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, art tries to find different ways of filling it. We know that we won’t succeed, but we pursue it anyway. The effort is cognitively fertile because each question raises new questions and new experiences of awe.

The British neuroscientist Anil Seth describes our conscious experience of the world as “controlled hallucinations.” We face a chaos of stimuli and, to survive it, the filters of our physiology make some order of that barrage. This sounds close to what we do in art. However, art may be a way of “controlling the control” of the hallucinations. It acts as a meta-control. Art’s control is not just sensorial but includes other ingredients, like metaphors and evocations. At the same time, it pays attention to how those elements connect to create order, how we can communicate that order, and how it is replicated in other people.

Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445. License: Public Domain.

So why does the education system concentrate only on the control and not on controlling the control? By doing so we limit education to encountering and processing information and leave out imagination. There are historical reasons for this fragmentation of knowledge. Since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, we have equated knowledge with science but have also believed that knowledge is a geographical entity that can be artificially mapped like countries— where some areas may be picked, and others ignored. These “knowledge countries” are called “disciplines.” They have borders and customs officials, and they promote chauvinism. If you don’t know everything that is contained within a given discipline’s borders, you are deemed an ignorant, second-class citizen. As an artist and knowledge worker, I prefer to define myself as an “ignorant generalist” and enjoy my freedom. Being an ignorant generalist does not preclude knowing some things better than other people do. It only opens up the possibility of exploring those interstices that fragmentation overlooks. It rescues ignorance from the danger of its own fragmentation.

As the educational system understands it, ignorance applies to what we don’t know within what is already known. Applied to current institutional education, this presents two problems. First, it assumes that knowledge is located in the past and must be dug out to be used in the present. Second, knowledge is codified into units that can be acquired and collected. These are only half-truths. What is known is scant compared to what is not known, and the bulk of ignorance is located in the future. By mainly locating both knowledge and ignorance in the past, we get a false sense of certainty and an inflated confidence in our ability to predict the future.

Pedagogically speaking, this view prioritizes posing questions that have answers over the ability to question. Ignorance in matters of the past means that we don’t master what is available. Ignorance in matters of the future means that we must be educated to navigate the infinite ocean of the unknown. If we work on known knowledge located in the past, we must learn to acquire. By working on the unknown, we speculate and imagine. In one, we accumulate. In the other, we create. This difference explains the divide between traditional conservative pedagogy and progressive critical pedagogy. The latter is open to learning by exploring the impossible to evaluate what is possible, by dealing with uncertainty to understand what is certain, and by emphasizing the way things connect and are ordered to disorder and then reorder them again, using the question “What if?”

“What if?” is a standard form of real enquiry. In art it is based more on uncertainty than on any form of certainty associated with experienced reality. Maybe there, on the scale of cognitive possibilities, is where we can locate the difference between traditional scientific thinking and artistic imagination. It is not that science lacks wishful thinking or imagination. It is that the scientist ultimately seeks certainty. “What if” is based on an if-then expectation. In art the “if” remains or leads to a new “if.” In science, thinking is guided and reduced, and when certainty is unavailable, many scientists, unlike artists, feel uncomfortable.

In 1927 Werner von Heisenberg presented his uncertainty principle. He stated that the position and momentum of particles could not be simultaneously determined with precision. Any increase in certainty about a particle’s position would decrease the certainty of its velocity. Meanwhile, his colleagues were developing quantum theory and proposed the notion of “superposition,” a state where “either” and “or” coexist instead of excluding each other. Ernst Schrödinger was involved in this line of work, which also questioned how measurement itself influences what is measured. However, I gather that Schrödinger felt his friends were going a little too far with their view of superposition. With the support of Albert Einstein, who also felt that a quantum theory based solely on acceleration would always be incomplete, he decided to poke fun at his colleagues and make his issues understandable to laypeople. He presented the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment.

A cat is locked in a box with a radioactive photon that has a 50 percent chance of decaying. Thus, the possibility that it will decay, and the possibility that it will not decay, coexist in “superposition.” Also in the box is a bottle of hydrocyanic acid, a hammer, and a Geiger counter. The counter will detect the decay if it ever happens, then activate the hammer to break the bottle, release the acid, and kill the cat. Until the moment this happens (if it ever does), the cat, like the photon, is in a state of superposition—simultaneously alive and dead. Quantum theory goes even further. It assumes that if someone opens the box during the state of superposition—an action equivalent to making a crude measurement—the coexistence of both realities will be broken and will be forced to settle into the observer’s single reality. The cat is then forced to be either alive or dead.

Schrödinger came up with this thought experiment because he, like Einstein, was uncomfortable with the implications of superposition. They believed the cat in the box could be either alive or dead, but not both at the same time. While this “either/or” mentality is how a typical scientist might approach the thought experiment, an artist might ask, “What if it’s dead and alive at the same time?” Quantum theory therefore comes closer to art, though for understandable reasons its theoreticians don’t include the factor we call “empathy.”

As an artist and outsider in such matters, I am not concerned with the accuracy of the experiment. Nor do I understand all the implications of the theory. However, I can work with the missing empathy quotient. I have always wondered: Why, in all this, did nobody consider the cat’s perspective? How does the cat feel living in a double reality contingent on one randomly decaying photon? While the lack of transparency inherent to the experiment goes against our rational thinking and our wish for certainty, it’s to the cat’s advantage to have faith in superposition and hope that that state goes on forever. As long as the superposition remains unbroken, uncertainty is what keeps the cat alive.

The uncontemplated faith of Schrödinger’s cat—or maybe henceforth “Schrödinger-Camnitzer’s cat”—is like the faith we artists have in our research. A scientist explores uncertainty to erase it. Scientific results must be predictable, either when ideas are developed forward or retro-engineered from the conclusion to find a replicable beginning. For the cat, as much as for the artist, the whole point is different. It is about unravelling what is unknown and unpredictable without reaching closure. Maybe that is also part of maintaining a real and complete ecological balance. It helps to reveal something we don’t know, and to elaborate on it, but without condemning it to a definitive life or death.

Interesting questions in art should generate more interesting questions. They should not eliminate uncertainty and unpredictability, but capture and help us respect them, not as a transitory state but as a source of nourishment. In art, ending in predictability and certainty means burying our research in anachronism and imprisoning the results in dead icons sold to benefit cultural necrophiliacs. One could say, then, that the elimination of uncertainty alienates the art experience from our living experience. It gives art false autonomy that impoverishes our lives by promising a state of harmony, while in fact putting obstacles in the way of reaching it. Maybe art is the proper tool to restore superposition where it has been “resolved,” and thus to preserve our ability to be part of a general state of harmony.

All this reminds me of Erich Fromm’s ethical and nonreligious interpretation of the requirement to be idle on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. Fromm connects idleness to harmony:

It is not rest per se, in the sense of not making an effort, physically or mentally. It is rest in the sense of the re-establishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature. Nothing must be destroyed and nothing be built: the Shabbat is a day of truce in the human battle with the world … On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love.1

Fromm’s view embodies the roots of a sane form of ecological thinking. In the Anthropocene, we are instead behaving like party crashers who climb onto a table to lecture at the other guests, break some fine china, kill some pets, steal the silverware, and leave assuming that we will be remembered fondly. Science tries to fix some of these things after the fact, while activists try to prevent further breakage. But ecological thinking does much more than that. It involves dealing with an ecology of time. This includes an understanding that, against Benjamin Franklin’s 1748 statement that “time is money,” time should not be a private property used for exploitation. Purposelessness, uselessness, and leisure should all be guaranteed universal rights.

Kant may have defined art as a purposeless activity in order to preserve it as an area of freedom. In his view of art, mind and emotion may roam freely without having to be in service to anything—and from there one is able to understand everything we give up in our daily lives. It is interesting that the US Constitution was written around the same time that Kant expressed his views, since this famous document takes the opposite position. Ratified in 1788, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Apparently “useless art” was not considered worthy of support.

Unlike Kant, the US was burdened with trying to stitch together a country expanding from “sea to (shining) sea,” with all the genocidal consequences this implies. Kant could accept the importance of “useless art” because he was concerned with knowledge and not with applicability. Some years ago, I used to try to amend the Constitution. I wanted to have the word “useful” deleted, but I only got twenty-five signatures.


Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (A&C Black, 2013), 43.

Aesthetics, Education, Contemporary Art
Return to Issue #143

Luis Camnitzer is an Uruguayan artist living in New York.


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