Utopias and Identities

By Luis Camnitzer

Before starting, I should clarify some meanings. Utopia for me is a process guided by an ideal and therefore something that helps to exercise quality control and identify compromise. Ideology is the set of rules that help instrumentalize the above. Identity is a tag that unifies groups of people after they undergo some shared experiences. Latin America, art and education, are three terms that, though seemingly more precise, change according to the eyes of the beholders, their utopias, ideologies, and their beliefs about who they are.

For biographical and ideological reasons (I grew up and was educated in Uruguay, I live in the U.S.) I always start from my Utopia, my ideology and my identity to then focus on the latter three: Latin America, art and education, and how they relate to each other and the rest of the world. Yet, at the root of this are the issues I have with my identity: where I come from, where I am, and how I can make sense out of these two conflicting places. In certain ways the question is: Am I still Latin American after leaving Uruguay and being in the U.S. fifty years? Is this, whatever the answer, part of what we call identity, part of my tag? How much does this affect my thinking? Sixty years ago, as a student, the answer would have been a definitive “yes” and my interest in these topics was then grounded on a political and anti-colonial position. Now, though I haven’t changed much, those original beliefs may sound limiting, like an essentialist and outmoded way of seeing the world. Today, all three terms: Latin America, art and education have become polysemic enough to introduce shades of subtlety that somehow help soften any simplistic polarity. At the least, they stopped being encapsulated terms. Latin America is affected by the push and pull between the local and global, a force field more than a physical geography. Art and education are torn between specialization and transdisciplinarity, storm clouds of tension. In this text, I’d like to explore how all these ingredients merge and have the analysis help, if possible, understand us better as a whole culture by going through the several meanings attributed to the words.

Art in certain contexts is a means of producing things, and in others a formative tool that helps in acquiring and expanding knowledge. Either way, art therefore shapes culture no matter where it’s seen, just in different degrees depending on the shared tacit understandings of those who make and see. Education is a training system devised to satisfy the interests of a labor market and/or a development of autodidacticism that allows for re-situating what one keeps learning, a process also mostly independent of geography as long as it’s kept for individual benefit or it’s general enough to fit different markets. Packaging knowledge in credits makes it not only easier to commercialize, but also facilitates interstate travel of education in the U.S. and, through the Bologna Accord, inter-country travel in Europe. Love and death seem topics general enough for art or education to become independent of location and free for speculation orbiting around the world. Political resistance, however, less so. Some ideas only sound like they have a unified universal meaning, and yet, have vernacular interpretations that don’t travel well. And then, Latin America is an artificial construct lain over a conglomeration of independent countries with diverse cultures and imposed borderlines, yet unified by a colonial history and, according to who talks, a shared submission to hegemonic power, or an attempt to resist it. When governments talk, art tends to be production, education is training, and Latin America is a field reorganized by market and military treaties. National interests take or try to take over, everybody is convinced, and nobody really knows what is being talked about. It’s about abstract national and abstract individual wellbeing, all based on national and individual competitiveness that obliterates individual creativity. When it’s the people who talk, it becomes something about very concrete individual betterment and wellbeing, and Latin America is mostly a political label that separates it from Anglo America.

This brings us then to touch upon the meaning of identity today, and to how it affects art- and education-related questions: how it may or may not inform our activities. Regardless of our intentions, do we make national art? Are we working locally or internationally? Do we rely on the branding of our authorship when we make art; or do we do it as representatives of our countries? Do we address the world or a local community with whom we communicate in depth? Do we work as individuals or as members of a collectivity glued together by some manifestation of identity? Who is served by cultural hybridity? Do we educate to have a stronger and more competitive nation, or to better individuals? And, finally, do we represent an identity or are we helping to create one?

The difference in the answers to these questions is that in some cases we are producing objects and forming individuals that follow increasingly globalized market rules, and in others we are engaged in a local pedagogical activity. The analysis of the difference is not anymore contingent on Latin Americanism vs. internationalism, but on an updated version of hegemony vs. periphery that is based on not only the distribution of power, but also the direction of the flow of information. Who produces information and controls its values, and who receives it and submits to them. I like to call this “infography” as something qualitatively different from geography. Mexico City is three times as big as New York, but the ruling stock market happens to be in the latter, though it could be anywhere. Lexmark headquarters are in Lexington, Kentucky, and the corporation has a maquiladora installed in Ciudad Juárez. There, ninety workers were fired some months ago.[1] The reason was neither Lexington nor Ciudad Juárez, but a demand by workers for a 34-cent-per-day raise (at U.S. Dollar rates at the time). The center that controls the Internet flow in Latin America, the NAP of the Americas (or Network Access Point) is located in Miami. It could be on Mount Everest and nothing would change. Verizon owns it, but Verizon is an autonomous commercial-legal artifact, unrelated to the U.S. as a nation-state. Zygmunt Bauman recently commented: “the marriage between power and politics in the hands of the nation-state is finished. Power is globalized, though politics remain as local as they were before.”[2] This means that the good parts of government, the ones that were designed to protect the citizen, are being eroded away as well.

All this is a generalized situation since these things affect the whole world and not single countries. A discussion of identity, though, needs a more particularized approach since it addresses very specific constituencies grouped around particular issues that may or may not be attached to physical localities. But before going into that, there is yet another global cultural/political shift to be mentioned, which is going from paying attention to cumulative data to working with patterns and connections. It’s a shift that can cut both ways: it may lead to enlightened education or to cement new levels of consumerism. Google gives us easy access to information without allowing access to their algorithms. Amazon is ready to deliver products to our doors that they know we will eventually want and intend to order, even before we do ourselves.[3] Recently the CEO of Yum Brands, the parent company of Pizza Hut, declared that due to a drop in profits Pizza Hut was changing its policy about quality. It will focus on distribution instead. Invoking the example of Uber taxis he said that products should be easy to use, easy to pay for, and easy to track. Today “easy” beats “better,” he said, and according to him the times when competition was based on quality are over.[4]

On the negative side of this, the connections that link ideas and organize knowledge then become meta-objects to be consumed. On the positive side, connections may help us organize and configure information, and give us control over it. This might force a good education process to help us access information and tailor it to our needs, instead of accumulating data towards an instantly obsolete erudition. It might force us to accept art as a mode of cognition that works as or with education to help us identify patterns of oppression and liberation, and activate us to create accordingly. In other words, with a good education and good art thinking we may be able to “think the market” instead of having the market “think us” for us, and therefore shape the world instead of being shaped by not fully visible powers. In order to do this in the present world we have to be educated for an appropriate resistance to indoctrination, develop a political awareness, and prepare to speculate and create alternative systems of order. This requires that we envision our own Utopia and fight for it, rather than serve somebody else’s Utopia that fosters and increases our alienation.

Over decades I have made the mistake of only thinking about my own Utopia and trying to hone it. In my case this Utopia is based on the equal distribution of power (if not its complete abolition) and on equal access to creativity. In the process I failed to acknowledge that exceptionalists, hegemonists and oligarchs are complex enemies that have and follow their own Utopias, and that neither my Utopia nor theirs is an actual place. Utopias are processes. They clash in their development whenever there is incompatibility and they find themselves on the same political road failing to convince each other. The “other” is as much an identity as “we.” There are, however, other separate roads as well, and these are defined and affected by identity.

One shared problem is that true identities are not tags but qualities only identifiable after the fact. Identities reflect past experience and conditions. They offer the same type of information the wrinkles on an aging face do. They are only useful to define one’s own otherness and to distill methodologies to help resist forms of intrusion rightly or wrongly perceived as destructive. Identities may help strategize the future, but they don’t predict it. When this is not clearly taken into account we fall into static and reactionary patterns that are expressed in essentialism, chauvinism, and indoctrination. As a negative pedagogical effect, these expressions make us stick to educational methods that are rooted in the past and disconnected from reality, creating a ground seeded for fundamentalism. A decade ago educator Karl Fisch stated that education today, rooted as it is in the past, is misused, “for jobs that don’t yet exist” hoping to “solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

Poverty and affluence are strong identity markers for the divide between hegemonic and peripheral cultures. Metropolis/colony, center/periphery, North/South, have been different wordings for economy rather than nationally based identities. On first view it would make one think that affluence prepares people better for the future than poverty might, yet there is at least one quality that might disprove this impression. It is what we may call the “ingenuity of poverty.” In its extreme form it’s a quality developed under duress and during the struggle for survival. It resorts to the making of connections to fill gaps in availability. At its most trivial but illustrative level, when lacking a hammer, the “poor” may use a stone and sometimes a previously used nail that first has to be unbent. In the absence of a hammer, the “rich” waits for the hardware store to open (to buy one then and maybe also a box of nails) because that is what had been learned and there is no room to imagine other options. The “poor” uses tentacular forms of knowledge, bypassing linear connections that bear any earlier specific design. The common sense employed has a flexibility within which knowledge works better by connecting than by accumulating units of information. This pattern-oriented environment defines the world we are all starting to live in. Entitlement and complacency stagnate the culture of affluence and therefore exacerbate even more the domination by force and repression.

A series of entrepreneurial studies sponsored by GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) has divided national economies in three categories: those that focus on survival, the ones that seek industrial improvement, and the affluent and post-industrial ones that try to innovate on things they are already producing. The interesting thing is that the percentage of creative initiatives for them is respectively 43%, 23%, and 2%. Creative ideas seem to be better generated by despair than by satisfaction.[5] (There is a parallel here with art, even though the quality of despair may be different.) One would think that this categorization might have an impact on the self-awareness of identity and correspondingly affect the educational system.

The generalized tendency, however, is to not to. Regardless of context there is the favoring of the hegemonic competitive belief in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and meritocracy, hoping that national success will be reflected in the PISA index (the Program for International Student Assessment). The emphasis on the arts and humanities that lead to individual betterment is increasingly reduced by cuts initiated by both educational institutions and governments. A few years ago a Spanish Minister of Education declared that “the study of the arts distracts from other studies,” and more recently his colleague in Japan asked for the abolition of these courses in the 86 public Japanese universities (26 of them complied).

The policy, crude as in the examples, or subtle in the way funding is allocated, fails to see that it only serves an obsolete definition of identity based on Malcolm Forbes dictum: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” The arts and the humanities, inasmuch as they promote opening of thought, are the tools that ensure our sanity. As part of cognition rather than production, they may help share the ingenuity of poverty, open access to creativity, and better people rather than serve to identify the best for the sake of national abstractions. Identity then will lose its dogma and maintain flexibility. Since Utopia is not a place, the poverty/affluence rift will in all likelihood remain. It may do so, however, as a repository of history and traditions rather than as a tool to justify exploitation and wars. All these thoughts apply to much more than what we call Latin America. However I’m not so sure that my views on Utopia, identity, art, education and Latin America itself would be the same had I been educated somewhere else.


[1] Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, “Maquila despide a más de 90 obreros en Juárez por pedir 6 pesos más al día en su salario,” http://www.sinembargo.mx/11-12-2015/1576074, accessed 12/12/2015.

[2] Ricardo de Querol, “Zygmunt Bauman: ‘Las redes sociales son una trampa’,” Babelia, El País, Madrid, 9/1/2015.

[3] In December 2013 Amazon patented an algorithm that promises “anticipatory shipping”: the delivery of products before customers become aware of their own wish to buy it. A critique of the project and a drawing from the patent may be found in http://www.mainstreethost.com/blog/amazons-anticipatory-shipping-terrible-idea, accessed 8/31/2014.

[4] “Pizza Hut Chief Now Says ‘Easy’ beats ‘Better’,” The New York Times, 12/12/2015, p. B2

[5] Yong Zhao, “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students,” Corwin, 2012, p. 86-88


See more articles tagged:  
Fertile GroundIdentityIdeologyLuis Camnitzerutopia

By Luis Camnitzer
More Articles Like This One
  • Crafting a Space to Write, Cook, and Celebrate Black Women’s History
  • How Artists and City Officials Imagine a Bordertown’s Future
  • Art and Social Death