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Sreshta Rit Premnath: Critique as Unlearning

This text was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.

Text by Sreshta Rit Premnath

I would like to consider what it might mean if we took Gayatri Spivak’s call to unlearn one’s learning and unlearn one’s privilege as the aim of studio critique.

Given that it is no longer possible for us to agree on criteria for aesthetic valuation and judgement in an era when postcolonial and feminist critiques have put into question the historical foundations and master narratives on which valuation and judgement depend, it would be prudent to take the contingency of one’s position as a given and use the framework of critique to reveal and examine the assumptions that underlie the creation and reception of artwork. A critique of this kind would arguably take on a meta-critical register in which critics and artists don’t simply engage in a discussion of the artwork in question, but also address the structures of power and judgement that frame the discussion at hand.

In many art departments, critical theory seminars have come to serve this function. The function of critical theory—a philosophical approach to cultural analysis—has always been to denaturalize our assumptions about the world. At best, the kinds of fundamental questions raised in critical theory seminars seep into the psyche of students and help them ask the kinds of meta-critical questions we hope will inform the direction of their studio practices. At worst this approach results in a kind of theoretical jargon that students apply to the description of their artwork, which has resulted in the proliferation of stilted and at times impenetrable artist statements and gallery press releases. Andrea Liu’s “Top Ten Words I am Sick of Seeing in Artist Statements”1 is a hilarious send-up of this phenomenon.

I would like to consider how we might avoid this instrumentalization of critical theory and instead use the studio critique to model and exercise a skeptical and analytical mindset that probes and questions what it sees. This is a task that feels all the more urgent at a time when political populism and the echo chambers of social media have resulted in a culture that is being called “post-fact.” In our field, which has historically been much more closely aligned with poetry and philosophy than the sciences, how do we couple the speculative enterprise of seeking truth, and giving voice to feelings, with the more pragmatic register of determining facts and formulating an active response to them? This desire to return to facts and analytical critique appears at first glance to contradict my initial assertion that uncertainty is at the core of the studio critique, given the absence of a stable or single ground for aesthetic judgement. However, we must remember that uncertainty is at the heart of the scientific method as well.

I would like to quote Gayatri Spivak from a 1993 interview:

Sara Danius: You speak of the necessity of unlearning one’s learning and unlearning one’s privileges, and you have also said that one must “learn to speak in such a way that the masses will not regard it as bullshit.” Speaking from your own experience as teacher, professor, and intellectual, how do you suggest we approach this project?

Spivak: […] I understand all my work as being in a sort of stream of learning how to unlearn and what to unlearn, because my positions are growing and changing so much; since I don’t really work from within an expertise, I have to really be on my feet learning new things all the time, and as I learn these new things, my positions change. It’s a bit embarrassing, but they do. Initially, if I remember right, when I started talking about “unlearning one’s learning,” I was really thinking more about how to behave as a subject of knowledge within the institution of neocolonial learning. I also thought about how to behave as a woman subject of knowledge—I am not even saying feminist—obliquely placed within access to the subjectship of learning […] I’m having to actually give a lot of time to just sort of hanging out with women who are as out of touch with what one normally thinks of as the possibility of ethics, as can be. And, you see, I can’t imagine myself there as someone who is going to write anything, because if I do that, then my relationship to the entire situation changes. […] Just as one doesn’t romanticize, one also doesn’t investigate, because one is trying to learn outside of the traditional instruments of learning, and also with the persistently asked question, “What is it to learn, what does it mean to learn?” In that situation, the suspension of learning […]2

I am drawn first of all to Spivak’s humble acknowledgement that she “doesn’t work from within an expertise” and that her ongoing learning results in a constantly shifting ground. Art educators in the age of the “post-medium condition,” as Rosalind Krauss called it, find themselves in a similar position. To doubt one’s own expertise and speak that doubt within the framework of a critique is to cleave a space for unlearning. Within the American education system, where students often rely on a teacher’s authority, making oneself vulnerable or performing uncertainty perturbs students. If a teacher is not the authority, then why should the student be paying good money for an education? Within the art school, the absence of specialization is replaced with referential knowledge. We point students to art practices that have been validated by the capitalist institutions of power (galleries, collectors, and art fairs) and produce an aspirational logic for their motivations. Rather than orienting a student’s desires towards an already available structure of power, how do we prolong the “suspension of learning” that Spivak speaks about, in the anticipation of something else, something other?

The monetization of the private university likewise creates a peculiar set of problems. Expensive private universities draw students who belong to a social class that is able to pay for such an education. While faculty are the dominant class within the university, their salaries—especially adjunct salaries—place them in a social class well below that of many of their students. This presents a set of contradictory power relations within the classroom. In order to unlearn privilege, we must create a space within the critique to articulate and recognize the power relations that structure the student-teacher relation. Making power and privilege visible is a step towards unlearning it.

Rancière provides Joseph Jacotot, his “ignorant schoolmaster,” as an example of someone dismantling the explicative order that separates teacher and student. He says that “One could learn by oneself and without a master explicator when one wanted to, propelled by one’s own desire or by the constraint of the situation.”3 While reimagining the purpose of the critique as creating the conditions of possibility for learning—rather than teaching—Rancière doesn’t go far enough. The first problem we encounter is that possibility has no ethical orientation and it falls upon someone—perhaps the teacher—to orient the possibilities of a student by providing the right information, by asking the right questions, by offering the kind of productive resistance against which a student tests and shapes their thinking. The aim of critique would be to teach the student how to critique and act as a counter-resistance to the teacher. In critique as unlearning the teacher and student create a space of debate wherein both positions have the potential to change. The second problem is that Jacotot does not make visible the class relations, race, and gender relations that structure his position as a teacher. Withdrawing and allowing learning to take its own self-directed course is not a strategy that confronts this problem; rather, it must once again be articulated, made visible, and actively unlearned.

We must return to the student’s valid question about the kind of uncertain academy that I’m imagining: “Why must I pay for unlearning?” Rather than asking what job or professional validation they will gain from their education, how do we help students focus on self-actualization—becoming better people who are able to explore the world with open curiosity, ask critical questions of their experiences, and seek answers beyond what is acceptable or prescribed? Certainly the cost of higher education in this country gets in the way of these core questions. How do we help art students unlearn a functionalist notion of education, in exchange for a critical and ethically oriented one that is capable of imagining and actively creating a society beyond the capitalist art world? In the absence of an autonomous sphere from which to speak, or towards which to direct production, teachers must take seriously Fred Moten’s call to be in but not of the university.4 We must not and cannot dissolve the academy, but we can use it as an “undercommons” that opens other spaces within, beneath, and beside it.

To conclude, I would suggest simply that in order for this reorientation to occur, teachers themselves must be focused on self-actualization rather than careerism. Teachers who themselves instrumentalize critical theory rather than asking the kinds of questions that might unground their own position perpetuate this problem. A reactive withdrawal from the questions posed by critical theory into the romantic non-position of art-for-art’s-sake is not the answer either. This would be, to extrapolate from Spivak, a suspension of unlearning rather than her recommendation that we must suspend learning. We must, as teachers, internalize the kinds of questions raised by critical theory and use the studio critique as an occasion to perform its resultant ungrounding and create the conditions of possibility for unlearning.


1 Andrea Liu, “Top Ten Words I Am Sick of Seeing on Artists Statements,” e-flux.com, October 24, 2012.
2 Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” Boundary 2, vol 20, no. 2 (1993): 24.
3 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 1991.
4 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013).

Image of Gayatri Spivak via biuponibeshayon.com.


Commenting on the beginning of the article; “unlearning one’s learning and unlearning one’s privileges, and you have also said that one must “learn to speak in such a way that the masses will not regard it as bullshit.” There’s something disingenuous here, considering that the masses are illiterate and regard all learned language as bullshit. As for unlearning one’s privilege, the very use of the word is a power guilting by someone claiming victim status and moral superiority, using these to dominate those innocent and gullible enough not to understand that they are being manipulated. Privileged are the educated, for without education is without income. Are we asked to descend to the level of those whose intelligence failed grade school? MOMA and Yale 's Rob Storr Robert Storr spoke of those who lost all sight of the common reader and created a cult of difficulty based on jargon - the words used like pieces in an erector set to reference their own theories to other theories rather than to factual existence. Ms. Sreshta Rit Premnath uses this complex academic language almost in a hypnotic way to lull the red ear into a cowed submission… As Walter Benjamin used a foliage of verbiage to intimidate the reader into a Marxist subjugation when he wrote that creativity is fascism and the only purpose of art is propaganda, and the only worthwhile art is made by a collective and never by an individual. I cannot really read Ms. Premnath’s article because my hackles rise, my antennas shriek an alarm at a dishonest complexity that is wrong, just plain wrong.

As an added comment I looked on this statement “it is no longer possible for us to agree on criteria for aesthetic valuation and judgement in an era when postcolonial and feminist critiques have put into question the historical foundations and master narratives”. This overt devaluation of “the other” is a typical imposition that I not only reject, but I question the assumptions of an academic to speak on creative values they have never experienced. For lack of a creative soul Premnath shifts the supposed purpose of art to the political realm, just as Benjamin did; “art can only be political since aesthetics is for pussies”. Aesthetics being a prerequisite for mental health, I now understand Premnath’s bitterness and yearning for power. Lacking feelings nor sense, power is all one has left to aim for. Artists, on the other hand, have a personal criteria and a spiritual narrative that has little to do with political discourse and everything to do with one’s souls, one’s culture. Unless we’re talking of those artists who do political illustration, which is rarely art.

The language of political correct stands on a pedestal to guilt others, looks down at them from the height of being right. It is a disingenuous domination strategy. Once you establish where good and evil lie, always to your benefit, it’s obvious at whom and by whom the finger points. Yet real evil is the tyranny of those who seek to dominate others using that language of moral control. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves”? The fallacy of those who fail aesthetics is rebuked by a science which shows that beauty and its complex differentiations are crucial for mental health. In the 1970s Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake analyzed links between beauty, information processing, and information theory. Physicist Paul Dirac is quoted saying “if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress”. Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In his book and Ted Talk called The Art Instinct, he suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. “There is evidence that perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined, that things, aspects of people and landscapes considered beautiful are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human’s genes.” Aesthetics and the personal narrative are not a pleasure principle, though the intellect cannot see beyond the nature of it’s own thoughts. The spiritual creative powers that impel an artist, one’s inner vision, and the embedded language of art (certainly not the type we read above), are linguistic processes outside the scope or realm of intellect, which is limited to the known. Creative thought is of the unknown, and always functions as a compensation for the limitations of the times. Thus it starts as an unconscious reaction to the language seen above, a language of domination calling for our submission, and we react with self-education, then with pitchforks and torches; the masses have learned to talk back and no longer allow themselves to be dictated to nor defined by those who hate life and seek power by limiting discourse to what fits their approval.

"unlearning one’s learning and unlearning one’s privileges”… After considerations of what it might mean, as Premnath advised, we note a denunciation of privilege by someone earning four times the typical wage. Few of us are rich, so as we learn to think, we see that regardless of age, race, gender, or creed, the truly privileged are the educated, the educati are the illuminati. One cannot unlearn one’s education nor should one wish to, those without an education are unemployed; without talent, no entitlement.

Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584 –1645) was a Japanese samurai who survived 60 duels at an age when duels ended in death. In The Book of Five Rings he wrote that demoralizing your opponent is the surest path to victory.09 In similar contexts the postmodern language of politicorrect is used to frighten the weak of heart. There is a kind of political activist who hijacks a cause to accuse, guilt, and dominate others; this is not activism but tyranny. We cannot end sexism by being sexist nor end racism by being racist. We do not improve the world by demonizing, terrorizing, or dominating others. Once you establish where good and evil lie, always to your benefit, it’s obvious at whom and by whom the finger points. The real evil is the tyranny of those who seek to dominate others. In any case, the scientific validation of art as biology tells us that Premnath is wrong, the historical foundations and master narratives on which art valuation and judgment depend are biology and the creative unconscious. Everything else is frosting on top of the history cake.