On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias by Luis Camnitzer

Camnitzer, Luis. On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias. Ed. Rachel Weiss. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. 272 pages; $46.00 hardcover.

Luis Camnitzer's On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias (On Art) contains essays that span over 40 years of his career as an artist, art critic, curator, and scholar. In contrast to his earlier book Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, many of these essays have an autobiographical and somewhat confessional tone but lack significant use of photographs of works discussed in the essays. Camnitzer cleverly uses food metaphors in several essays to deconstruct the transculturation and co-optation of Latin American cultural values via space, time and consumption. In this book, as in his earlier essays, Camnitzer reconstructs art history to include artists from the Latin American “periphery,” paying homage to the forefathers of Uruguayan art (José Pedro Varela, José Enrique Rodó, Joaquín Torres García, and Pedro Figari) and documenting these artists’ theoretical and creative breakthroughs, which preceded those of European or East Coast contemporaries. Overall, Camnitzer's essays address several themes: the variations of simultaneous diasporas, artistic colonialism (historical, theoretical, and economic) in the context of the flawed mounting of art exhibits in the U.S.; the examination of Cuban biennials as an instance of the failure of Marxism to sustain utopian art; the role of Latin American artists in the construction of utopia; and the apathetic U.S. student activism of the late 1950s and 60s.

Throughout On Art… Camnitzer deconstructs his own exodus and addresses his personal dilemmas with transculturation. For example, he questions in which language should he create art: English, Spanish, or German? In which language should he write and/or submit essays for publication? Who is or might be his target audience? Camnitzer also uses food analogies to condemn U.S. economic colonialism, arguing, for example, that the potato chip demonstrates how mass consumption replaces cultural values from Latin America. For example, the potato is indigenous to the Americas while the potato chip is artificially processed and has little or no nutritional value. In the United States, more people prefer eating potato chips rather than eating potatoes prepared in any nutritionally significant form. In a similar manner, Camnitzer discusses how the popularity of personal computers has led to the devaluation of printmaking. More people may read actual words on a computer or surf the Internet for images, but the substance or aesthetic value of those words or images is debatable. Thus Camnitzer's analysis of the systematic devaluation of people and objects give his works a critical function in historicizing the existence and importance of artistic praxis from a geographically specific perspective.

Camnitzer's self-admitted revision of art history is endemic to his analysis of privilege and the unfortunate corruption of art as a tool for social change. Camnitzer recognizes that his career benefited from receiving an art grant to study in the United States at the same time in which a dictatorship took power in his homeland of Uruguay. As a result of this political upheaval, Camnitzer was not able to return to his native country and became an accidental exile. Camnitzer expresses his outrage at the United States’ artistic and intellectual omission of the atrocities committed by the Uruguayan dictatorship, in contrast to the U.S.’s knowledge of the Argentinean and/or Chilean dictatorships. In his criticisms of art exhibits and installations, Camnitzer also challenges the intentional misrepresentation of historical knowledge and privilege in contrast to selective ignorance. In addition, Camnitzer laments that while university students from Latin America radicalized themselves as artistic and intellectual leaders since the Cordoba reforms of 1918,[1] U.S. and European students and art activists did not demand similar reforms until the 1968 Free Speech Movement or until they inconsistently embraced Paulo Freire's Liberation Theology.

One of the things I enjoyed about this collection of essays is Camnitzer's autobiographical introspection. As a Chicana performance artist and academic also facing multiple diasporas and transculturations, I empathize with his frustration over the colonial legacy in the U.S. And while I was a little disappointed to not see more references to feminist, female and/or queer artists in this installment of his reconstruction of art history, I find myself inspired by his intellect, humor and introspection. Camnitzer’s essays challenge me to create more art for social change and to include literary criticism as a tool for that change. Camnitzer, like other sympathetic intellectuals of his time, sincerely believed that Marxist art would create, as a tool for social change, a utopia on earth within his lifetime and, while the definition of what constitutes a utopia may not be the same, the conviction of the necessity to create art for social change is something many artists continue to work towards in our own particular ways.

Antonia Garcia Orozco received her BA and MA in Communication Studies from Cal State Northridge, and her PhD in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University. She is Assistant Professor at Cal State Long Beach in the Chican@ Latino@ Studies Department. She is a canta/autora specializing in Nueva Trova and parodia, and a bilingual, bicultural performance artist. Her areas of study include the intersectionality of gender, race, and class in performance and visual arts of the Americas, Chicano/a history, feminism, literature, and ethnomusicology.


 [1] Inspired by intellectual movements worldwide and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, students at the University of Cordoba, Argentina, organized themselves to demand several changes in their education. Some of those changes included student representation in administrative councils; more freedom for instructors’ choice of teaching materials; making class attendance voluntary to accommodate working class students; offering extension courses for urban workers; giving the students a voice in hiring instructors; and a call for a university education that encouraged and celebrated Argentinean nationalism and consciousness not just a better paying job. See Richard J. Walter, “The Intellectual Background of the 1918 University Reform in Argentina,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 49 no.4 (May 1969): 233-53, accessed October 21, 2010.