On ‘Practice’

This feature on usage of the term ‘practice’ as a generic expression for what it is artists do was published in Art Monthly issue 357 , 2013

The battle for plain speaking in the English language rages with a curious hermetic intensity in the art world. Unfettered by journalistic ideals of concision and economy, untroubled by hysterical pedants of grammar, the mediators of ideas and events in this field – curators, writers, artists, theorists and publicists – are largely free to write and say what they please. What makes the resulting internal disputes distinct from external concerns of verbal superfluity and estuary corruption is the absence of any set rules governing art writing, or for that matter speaking. In effect, today’s is plain speaker is tomorrow’s obscurantist; it all depends on who’s being addressed and what arbitrary system of rules is in play.

The evolving state of art language and its all-important units of terminology compound this problem of continually shifting registers in the field. Words are constantly being pushed into and squeezed out of the lexicon, so accusations of deliberate opacity can be built up on a perceived misuse of words. But as definitions of new and appropriated terms are themselves fluid, essential meanings vary between individuals so that theoretical arguments are often founded on shaky semantic grounds. Use of the word ‘practice’ is indicative of this grey linguistic territory. For some it is the least problematic way of referring to what artists do, a benign descriptor replacing the Marxist ring of ‘art work’ and the romantic ostentation of having to refer to ‘my art’. For others it is a cold, sterile and officious term, embodying a certain managerial nebulousness that, in the words of Dan Fox, ‘skirts too close to being arts and culture’s equivalent to the language of financiers’. On the surface of things these positions represent two fronts: one side battling for semantic vindication, the other for anti-obfuscation. The reality is a far muddier and much less valiant state of affairs. Practice is not a term simply used to replace outmoded, clunky expressions with a cool, bespectacled and thoroughly modern neutrality. Though many people use it unawares, it is a word which accurately describes the conditions of the majority of contemporary artists’ modern working methods, and those of perhaps all cultural producers, that are clear and distinct from methods of the past – broadly speaking we are talking about pre and post-Conceptual Art periods.
Practice is not a counterfeit term appropriated from the medical field by intellectual charlatans or by those inhabiting the precarious world of verbal affectation; those individuals exist, but the term does not belong to, or originate with them. The fact is that intellectual affectation and opacity has always been part of the art world, and the custom of distorting words in the mangled verbiage of nonsensical statements remains undiminished. If these ways of being are now reinforced with language patterns borrowed from the brochures and mission statements of corporations, then perhaps this is symptomatic of the unprecedented alignment of artists and institutions with the goals and ambitions of the corporate world. This relationship, alongside the absurd exercise of obscurantism, should be the proper target of critical energies, not the red herring of semantics. But to separate these negative associations from what should be a simple and innocuous descriptor, to release practice from the bad taste it may leave in some peoples’ mouths, it is necessary to start at the bottom and define the term.

To begin at the beginning, practice, according to An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1884, arrived at its current usage via a process of filtration. Trickling down through Greek, Latin, French and Middle English, the Oxford English Dictionary currently defines practice as being ‘the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it’. There are a number of meaningful derivations that can be applied to the word – in reference to the rehearsal of some skill until it is perfected, for instance – but at the base of each application lies the root of actual activity, or the doing of something as opposed to nothing. The use of the term to describe what artists do in making artworks is, of course, also about activity but, in contrast to the OED’s implied hierarchical relationship in which theory could be seen as a rarefied activity estranged from the actual business of doing, practice in the field of art is locked in a recursive and symbiotic relationship with theory. They are almost one and the same thing.

In this sense it is possible that it is being used as a derivation of praxis: the process by which theory is tested against the reality it addresses through the activity it informs, and vice versa. With a lineage of usage stretching back to Aristotle and Plato, praxis has perhaps metamorphosed into the more palatable practice via inherited readings of Karl Marx. In her book Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 2009, US anthropological theorist Catherine Bell separates Marx’s usage of the term into two domains of signification, with separate descriptive and prescriptive senses. Marx uses practice to refer to the OED’s standard of practical activity, but he also defines it in identical terms to praxis. Bell writes: ‘the second, or prescriptive, sense emerges in Marx’s other analyses, where practice is seen as inextricably related to theory. Theirs is a dialectical relationship in which practice both actualises and tests theory while also providing the data for ongoing theory.’ But how does this idea of practice relate to what contemporary artists are doing now – haven’t artists been engaged in testing and applying theory against activity at least since Modernism? Perhaps. But the issue is not whether or not the term can be applied retroactively, it is about whether it legitimately describes the current mode of artists’ creative activity, a creative activity that first superseded the dominance of aesthetics in the second half of the 20th Century.

Before the mid 1960s, Kantian idealism, or derivations of it, had grown dominant and artists were driven to produce works in search of some aesthetic ideal. It was not until the emergence of Conceptual Art that the idea of tying art to more grounded and culturally oriented philosophies gained currency while critical and psychoanalytic approaches to the creative process reached a critical mass. Work by Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham and others seemed to cultivate a demonstrative relationship to the texts that informed them, which in some ways laid the blueprint for successive generations wielding textbooks in one hand and a paintbrush, pencil, camera, microphone or computer mouse in the other. Graham’s reading of Jacques Lacan, for instance, resulted in Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1975, and Nauman’s reading of the later works by Ludwig Wittgenstein resulted in A Rose Has No Teeth, 1966. To simplify things for brevity’s sake, the scope of theoretical associations beyond the 1960s preoccupation with art and the phenomenological broadened to incorporate art and feminism, psychoanalysis and Michel Foucault in the 1970s and 80s, and art and postructuralist theory in the mid 1980s into the 90s. In each period there were artists whose operative mode was practice based, that is to say founded on the circulatory relationship between theory – in relation to one or more of the fields above – and practical activity, and artists whose operative mode was not –Mary Kelley’s Post-Partum Document, 1973-79, for example, has a practice-based relationship to theory (psychoanalysis), while Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings do not. Soon afterwards the term practice became official. In the latter part of the 20th century, institutions brought diffuse critical positions together under the banner of critical or in some places cultural, theory, and praxis as practice became the pedagogical model for art education. Much to the chagrin of students in the 1980s and 90s, wading through stacks of esoterica became a necessity, as was the ability to legitimise your work in reference to it.

Today the gods of critical theory and their staple texts are not as revered. But despite the fact that Jacques Derrida and co have been decentred, practice remains the dominant operative mode. Today, however – and this is the crucial evolutionary difference – artists are choosing for themselves which sets of ideas constitute the theoretical body of knowledge to be tested and re-informed by activity. This does not equate with what Hal Foster characterised as the post-critical condition: the place where ‘bullied by conservative commentators, most academics no longer stress the importance of critical thinking for an engaged citizenry, and most curators, dependent on corporate sponsors, no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of art’. For the same reason physicists do not periodically decry the fact Newton’s Principia Mathematica is not a staple text in schools, one should not worry about a crisis of criticality in the art world just because the dominance of critical theory has abated; the idea of gravity has permeated popular consciousness, just as key critical ideas are now hardwired into the artistic conscious – even if Derrida’s Writing and Difference cannot be quoted verbatim.

However, this new relationship to a body of theory constituted by the artist is not just the substitution of one collection of texts for another. What comprises these self-assembled theoretical frameworks can come from computational theory, astrology, sub-cultural history, electronics, social anthropology, or any other socially constructed or institutionally sanctioned set of ideas or precepts. The artist has simply been liberated from the conservatism of an institutional syllabus. Take Corey Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, 2002. Behind Arcangel’s erasure, save for the blue sky and clouds, of the entire graphical content of Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers game lies the theory of computer game emulation as developed by enthusiasts who reverse engineered games and posted their findings in forums on the internet. The same can be said for the many incarnations of datamoshing – the deliberate removal of data in digital moving image files to produce glitch-like effects – used by artists like Takeshi Murata, Sven Konig and Paul B Davis.

Practice is not just confined to those involved in technological processes either. Catherine Sullivan, a Chicago-based artist who works primarily with video and performance, gives us an example of artistic practice rooted in the more familiar academic territory of historical and traditional theoretical research. Triangle of Need, 2007, her multichannel video installation, formed the central core for practice-based activity on a grand scale; the work was informed by theories of Neanderthal man, the culture of African scam letters, gypsy folklore and the history of American industrialist James Deering. Then there is British artist Katie Paterson’s ongoing relationship with astronomy,  Marcus Coates’s relationship with Shamanism and Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken’s relationship with negativity. It could be argued that these examples are not praxis as practice because they do not test out canonical ideas of philosophy and critical theory by embodying them in artworks that restate, deconstruct or communicate what is already written. But this is exactly the point. Practice is no longer characterised by a narrow and demonstrative relationship to set texts. It is the correct descriptor for artists whose works – underpinned by a conscious or unconscious founding in the legacy of critical and cultural theory – arise from idiosyncratic sets of ideas that they seek to embody, test, represent or critique in some way. This is the contemporary artistic sensibility. Perhaps that is why Adam Curtis, the documentarian whose practice of testing theories of power through multimedia essays linking subjects as remote as Bikram yoga and peace and stability in Iraq, has become so popular.

Part of the problem in constituting idiosyncratic theoretical frameworks is that unfamiliar ideas need to be explained. This is where confusion arises and obscurantism can often be found. Although explanations of artists’ practices and projects are often necessarily complex, language can also be used to drape a blanket of opacity across ideas full of holes. The results are abstruse statements like this: ‘[BAS7] looks at art being produced today that complicates the structures that we think we know, demanding an engagement with the “now”, a process that requires risky engagement with unfounded speculations’, Lisa Le Feuvre’s explanation of her and Tom Morton’s attempt to transform British Art Show 7 from a straight survey show into a thematic jumble allowing the inclusion of non-British nationals. And last year’s ‘11 Statements Around Art Writing’, a set of pseudo-koans issued by Goldsmiths art writing department, published by Frieze and demolished by Fox, demonstrated a remarkable flair for abstruse quasi-theoretical nonsense – what exactly does ‘Art Writing is in the situation of a fulcrum’ actually mean?

Alongside this habit of using language to mystify questionable practices sits an incarnation of political doublespeak which seeks to obscure the real nature of a thing by titling it as its complete opposite. This summer, under the title of ‘Wide Open School’, the Hayward Gallery will stage what it calls ‘an experiment in public learning’. In fact there is little that is ‘wide’ or ‘open’ about it. Hayward’s attempt to mimic grassroots, community education organisations like Patio Maravillas in Madrid, and artist-led free school initiatives like the Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York is actually a series of pay-to-enter lectures. Why, despite the fact that the RIBA and the Architecture Association offer free graduate-level lectures in London, and Yale University even offers entire courses online – courses on literary theory and economics that include a download pack of video lectures, notes, reading materials, essay questions and tests – does ‘extending far beyond the scope of conventional education’ still include Hayward charging the public? The answer is that the institution’s laggardly process of co-option is about the accumulation of revenue, not civic responsibility, and its remit seemed to have had an effect on Jeremy Deller’s recent exhibition programme. As part of ‘Joy In People’ Deller staged a panel discussion chaired by Jon Snow titled ‘Different Class’. The panel featured Owen Jones, author of Chavs, and Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company. Although a large part of the evening’s discussion would inevitably turn to last summer’s riots and London’s working class, a hefty fee of £8 meant this community would be safely excluded, with entry to the actual exhibition priced at £10 performing the same function. Deller, an artist who ostensibly specialises in foregrounding uncomfortable socio-political situations, was conspicuously silent about this potential hypocrisy, despite guest editing Time Out.

It is tempting to go back to Foster’s statement and conclude that trysts with corporate sponsors are responsible for a change in institutional behaviour. But the reality – in London anyway – is that large institutions are adopting corporate behaviours of their own volition, despite bookshelves stacked with, and symposia featuring key proponents of, critical theory. Quibbling about the price of a talk or lax programming might seem petty, but these are the symptomatic behaviours of institutions performing tokenistic gestures of criticality, civic responsibility and political awareness. Allowing this sort of thing to go unchecked will have dire ramifications for smaller institutions that lack huge advertising budgets and secure ACE funding, and are struggling to stay afloat – a situation soon to be exacerbated by philanthropic reticence caused by proposed government legislation.

Practice, then, is not the proper target for critical energies. It is a term that legitimately describes modern working methods, referring to the system of testing theory through practical activity. If that is too problematic then its use as a verb, simply describing activity, is equally justified. In many ways small and mid-sized galleries are where artistic practice is practiced before it stagnates into art work – that is the repetition and reapplication of a method, like Andy Warhol’s celebrity prints, Yayoi Kusama’s spots or Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. If these spaces and the activity they foster are to continue then practice, the term and the action it describes, should be celebrated and separated from obscurantism and corporate-tinged nebulousness, which ought to be the true targets of critical focus.

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