Per Aspera… to the Same Order of “Alphabetization”

Per Aspera… to the Same Order of “Alphabetization”

 (Critical Notes on Luis Camnitzer “Alphabetization”, part 1&2, E-Flux Journal, 11/2009)

This future essay will focus on questions of art education and view several arguments on the subject made by Luis Camnitzer in his article “Alphabetization” through the lens of contemporary Linguistic Educational Psychology, pedagogical practice and … logic.

The central argument of “Alphabetization” is that art has traditionally been taught as literacy, starting with teaching the basic skills – as in letters recognition or ‘craft’. The author claims that this approach “becomes even more dangerous in art than it is in literacy”. In art, Camnitzer stresses, “exercises in building academic skills are designed for instant gratification and efficient grading, but also introduce aesthetic dogmas”. I am going to follow Camnitzer’s alternative way of doing things which he introduces in Part Two of his article – changing the order -  and report his own order of preferences in art education (which I partially agree with):

The author offers a better, a “sane approach to pedagogy” in which he defines four important ‘steps’:

  • Perception of a need to establish and order
  • Explore the origin of this need, and the relevance of power relations
  • Search for the most effective code to transmit (a new) order
  • Mastering the code to achieve effective communication

While this new proposed by Luis Camnitzer order is truly a sane order of steps in contemporary pedagogy, what he uses it as an argument against – is more problematic. His claim is that there is no need in a preceding step in art education – teaching the alphabet, the basics – or the ‘literacy’ which he frequently alludes to. I believe that many art educators would agree that the first step of Art Fundamentals or Art Foundation requires many structural changes and I also know that the best personae in the field are introducing those changes into the system as we speak. My argument (that followed some wild amusement and some mild surprise which was my reaction to the initial reading of “Alphabetization”) is that most of the conclusions Camnitzer reaches in his article are made somewhat haphazardly, skipping certain facts for the sake of arguing the correctness of specific (and probably, pre-determined) outcomes.

      Camnitzer chooses teaching literacy as a parallel to teaching art because both are based on “the recognition and execution of signs” (“Alphabetization”, Part Two). After examining the processes of coding and decoding that are obviously present in both art appreciation /art making (for some reason the author calls it “doing art” – as if specifically denying the traditional art education any possibility of teaching creativity) and reading/writing, Luis Camnitzer makes a shortcut to comparing art education to acquiring receptive skills only. And this is how he achieves this:

    He quotes James Paul Gee that reading is understanding and writing is producing. “This”, he proceeds “puts reading in a category together with art appreciation and writing in a category with art making. Or, more specifically, one category refers to decoding while other refers to coding.” All true: while listening and reading are known as receptive skills, speaking and writing are considered to be productive skills in Linguistic Psychology. Very solid comparison to art making and art appreciation as well. Coding and de-coding.

The unexpectedness of the next statement makes me spill my coffee: “Art and literacy therefore come to be considered as completely separate entities”. How many steps have been missed here? Where have I lost the train of Camnitzer’s thought?

“Reading is the decoding of writing and thus together they presumably constitute a distinct and inseparable couple”. The author here works his individual (!) and thus, following his own thinking, elitist (!) way through the woods very energetically never stopping to see what was accidentally torn away by the resilient bushy aspera he is ignoring: “…literacy leads to an understanding of what other people have done or discovered”. True, but how about literacy being acquired as a tool for creative thinking and creative writing?  What has been thrown out here with the dirty water?  If literacy led to only de-coding, there would be no inspirational speakers and inspirational speeches; no thought –provoking non-fictional writing and no amazing poetry or novels. What a scary thought!

Luis Camnitzer meanwhile has come to a clearing of his own making in the woods I have just described: “The consequence is that society expects the written word to inform, while art is expected to reveal. Where they curiously find common ground is in how, despite differing definitions and expectations, both arrive at their destination only through proficiency” (emphasis mine). Camnitzer’s surprise is understandable – considering his rush to the pre-determined goals – it is easy to skip a step or two; probably even take a wrong turn. If the underlined statement was true, the ever written, printed and published material would consist of sets of instructions, manuals, various data recordings, and weather forecasts would be considered pieces of science-fictional writing at their best. Scarier still!

The best, however, is still to come… The author is in the driving seat now, accelerating through assumptions: “This common ground – making proficiency the foundation – is a curse for both”. (Meaning both literacy and art education) “In the case of literacy, the student is trained to see mastery of the craft of written language”, (not only in manuals and data recordings, hopefully – mine), “as the definitive route to freedom of expression, when the code itself embeds limits to possible meanings. In the case of art, the student is trained in the code of the craft, but without the luxury of being able to think that mastery of the craft will lead to success”. Here I would like to stop this passionate and argumentative flow of thought and consider for a moment why this luxury is granted neither in creative writing nor in art education to begin with. I would claim that the reason is that in both fields ideally not only one code of the craft is taught but an exposure to multiple codification systems is taking place, and thus multiple possibilities (or orders – thank you, Luis Camnitzer) are introduced. That fact in turn pre-supposes multiple possibilities for individual expression and communicating of an individual (!) message is made possible via new ‘orders’, tools, or means. To question orders as the author proposes, the students have to be acquainted with the existing multiple (!) orders, or the orders that have been in use in history of both writing and art making. If these students are here to come up with their own creative ideas, exposure to numerous references is supposed to enrich their bank of possibilities, and not at all limit their vocabulary to one and only “hegemonic language”. One [singular] order is, no doubt, dangerous, reactionary, and dogmatic. Lack of exemplified or demonstrated for triggering a creative process multiple ways (‘orders’) might result in a painstaking and extremely lengthy process of re-inventing a wheel. Anarchy is not only a lack of order. It is an order in itself. Given power, it becomes hegemonic – Luis Camnitzer is particularly eloquent in warning against ‘hegemonic’ – being it ‘orders’, ‘languages’, or policies. 

    Another major concern of the author in this piece of writing is the presence of an ‘instructor’ or ‘teacher’ in the institution of art education. That’s why he promotes co-learning and mentorship as a ‘horizontal’ relationship among the participants as opposed to ‘vertical’ instruction. With his personal account of his own art-education as a young student ‘back in Uruguay in the forties’ – it comes as no surprise that he argues against academic instruction at art institutions. However, many things have changed in the system of that education since ‘the forties’ (of the last century!). Much has been changed in the literacy and language learning as well. As an example I would like to quote a diagram on a successful framework for language learning as introduced by Jane Willis first in 1996 (!) Though this diagram is referring to language acqusition, I trust this example is appropriate as the author refers to the literacy and language teaching in his work:



Exposure To a rich but comprehensible input of real spoken and written language in use

Use  Of the language to do things (i.e. exchange meanings)

Motivation  To listen and read the language and to speak and write it (i.e. to process and use the exposure)


Instruction  In language (i.e. chances to focus on form)


As we see in this diagram, the weight of instruction is reduced to being not “essential”, but “desirable” and serving or catering for the needs of the students for a particular purpose of delivering the formal component of the training. I would add that it is also meaningful for the facilitating of the exposure in favour of which I have been tolling here today. Hence, the most profitable and successfully facilitated learning has to comprise both horizontal and vertical models described by the author.

    And now- for the title of Luis Camnitzer’s article which I find very telling. According to Thesaurus, ‘alphabetization’ has two meanings:

  1. Arranging in an alphabetical order
  2. Supplying with an order

I would argue here that neither of these meanings does any justice to the author’s intentions. He speaks in favour of students’ freedom of finding their own ‘order’, but ‘alphabetization’, unfortunately, offers or supplies only one – the alphabetical.

To be continued, improved, and further thought-over


Works Cited:

1. Camnitzer, Luis. “Alphabetization”, E-Flux Journal, 11/2009

2. Willis, Jane. 1996. A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Edingburh: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 2001. Print




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