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Luis Camnitzer on the Steven Salaita affair


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This mock wall was erected by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in opposition to Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the firing of professor Steven Salaita.

The February 2014 issue of e-flux journal features a reprint of a talk that artist and educator Luis Camnitzer delivered at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign last fall. In the talk, Camnizer addresses the “Salaita affair,” in which the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign fired professor Steven Salaita for pro-Palestinian remarks he made on Twitter. Camnizer sees the incident as evidence of a trouble development in higher education, with administrators making decisions about hiring and firing faculty based on PR concerns rather than scholarly qualifications:

Another serious implication of the Salaita affair is that the Board usurped academic monitoring duties that belong to the faculty and students. By doing this, the Board confused opinion with policy. I know that the word “opinion” is ambiguous, so I will give it some precision. By “opinion” I refer to a form of gut feeling, an unmediated thought that, because it’s based on beliefs and unconscious sentiments, is not fully examined or proven. In fact, this connection between opinion and gut feeling raises the question of whether the gut accommodates the head, or whether the head conforms to the gut. Either way, the final result is the same. When the opinions of the Board of Trustees inform policies that should be monitored by those in charge of academic matters, there is reason for alarm.

Camnitzer suggests that art—or more precisely, “art-thinking”—can be a useful guide for not only artists, but also for universities:

We may keep on polluting the world with things called “art,” and more particularly with “my art,” but we should understand that we are ultimately preparing the space for the development of collective policies that generate the freest and most empowering form of what we call “culture.” We must accept this responsibility and act accordingly.

Read the talk here.