LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: While it is still possible: criticism

First of all, power to the students. Images of armed police storming campuses to evict peaceful protesters at the invitation of administrators whose primary responsibility is to protect academic freedoms hardly need parsing their meaning here, other than to point out that these are only the most visible manifestations of a broader action. But a few details might justify the closer attention that art criticism publications could usefully provide.

The first was a statement from Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, in which, among a lopsided list of priorities, he cited the need to “prevent loud protests at night when other students are trying to sleep or prepare for exams. ” Set aside how unfair this is – Shafik later makes her case for those students who are “the first in their families to get a college degree,” and thus are supposed to (because they are less wealthy than their peers?) have picturesque graduation ceremonies about their intellectual freedoms – and ask: what kind of education is this, based on the total exclusion of the horrors of the world?

One answer was given by John McWhorter, an associate professor at Columbia, whose recent article attracted attention from Aruna D’Souza. McWhorter complains that he was prevented from playing John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) in his music-humanities class for fear that the noise of “protesters outside the building” might have overwhelmed the sounds of “birds or people walking by in the hallway.” It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent summary of the means by which dissenting viewpoints are excluded from artistic discourse. What gives McWhorter the right to decide what is the “right” kind of sound for his students to hear? It is left implicit.

In a recent review of Raven Chacon’s exhibition at the Swiss Institute, Rômulo Moraes reflects on how Cage’s principles can be adapted to a new “repertoire of political challenges” precisely because they challenge the conventions of what constitutes meaningful sound . If the listener is only willing to hear what he wants to hear, Cage’s work loses its power to change the perception of the world. This of course applies to any experience with art. The first challenge facing the critic is to get rid of prejudices so that the work can act on them. That’s easier said than done, especially in a curatorial culture that prefers to tell audiences what a work means before they have a chance to experience it.

This month’s program offers several examples of how a more open and sustained attention could change our understanding of our environment. That listening and seeing in this way can open up much broader vistas than expected – as a surprisingly comprehensive survey of Vija Celmins’ paintings shows – and that the most revealing information about the underlying fears of any society is often in the least explored places located. We will publish more in our series of responses to the Venice Biennale, alongside reviews of exhibitions in Australasia, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. All this said, we are also preparing a substantive essay that focuses more directly on the attack on academic freedoms for which the continued spread of campus protests provides such a powerful image. Because, to paraphrase Félix Guattari, isn’t it a good idea to talk about it freely while we still can?