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Luis Camnitzer on Art and Literacy Luis Camnitzer on Art and Literacy

Luis Camnitzer, The Discovery of Geometry, 1978. Courtesy the artist.


We asked A.R.T.'s 2022 Honoree Luis Camnitzer to speak with us about his thoughts on the importance of art and literacy – an enduring focus of his work.

A.R.T: The A.R.T. Library Program, as you know, distributes art books and educational resources to public spaces of reading free of charge. We believe that access to cultural resources is a necessary – but by no means sufficient – condition of advancing literacy. You have proposed that the first step in literacy is not reading but writing: "you must learn to write before reading, or to encode before de-coding, otherwise you risk reinforcing received ideas and structures of power." [Luis Camnitzer and Ben Eastham on One Number Is Worth One Word, e-flux podcasts, September 17, 2012].

Does your understanding of literacy challenge the model of the A.R.T. Library Program? If so, how might we address these challenges? And how could art-making methodologies be useful to this process?

Luis Camnitzer:
Books are one of the main repositories of knowledge and should make them a common good. Even if they were, how we become literate often assumes that we’ll receive this knowledge with little opportunity to contribute to it. Reading is often conceived as the strict and literal consumption of messages. Therefore I’m not against literacy, but rather the way it is reduced to the passive decoding of the writing of others.

The development of literacy should stress the power of creating new knowledge through writing. Writing and reading should be taught in the context of coding and decoding messages, always enabling creative inquiry to follow.

From the point of view of an artist, literacy can also be seen as one of many ways of coding and decoding messages. There are multiple means of messaging, like intonation, body language, how we dress, and art itself. Yet art is perhaps unique because it is a field in which the rules may be freely challenged without the danger of being ostracized by society. Because all rules may be suspended, we are allowed to imagine without boundaries, to use existing code systems or invent new ones, and to determine how they should be decoded. This is a freedom often bypassed by traditional literacy although I wish it could be integrated.

From a well-used art point of view, reading should be an opportunity for feedback, real or imagined. We should know what encoding means, how to do it, and ensure that our messages are decodable. Literacy from the vantage of art prioritizes writing over reading, and artistic production as a process of creating forms over the appreciation of artworks. If we are good at fostering literacy from this point of view, we will prompt readers to shift from being consumers to authors. Books, like works of art, should be meeting places where power is not displayed but redistributed.

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