The Practicing Artist

A couple of Sundays ago, the NY Times Magazine included a feature on Jeffrey Deitch, formerly the owner and director of Deitch Projects, and now the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. When asked what “artspeak” he finds most annoying, he answered “When people refer to an artist’s ‘practice.’ Would you refer to Rauschenberg’s work as his practice?” This is a complaint I’ve heard before. In her 2007 article for the Times, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Art,” Roberta Smith also rails against the use of the word “practice” in reference to an artist’s work:

Another lamentable creeping usage is not only pretentious, but it distorts and narrows what artists do. I refer to — rather than reference — the word practice, as in “Duchamp’s practice,” “Picasso’s studio practice” and worst of all, especially from the mouths of graduate students, “my practice.” Things were bad enough in the 1980s, when artists sometimes referred to their work as “production,” but at least that had a kind of grease-monkey grit to it.

Smith objects to the term “practice,” as it relates artists to professionals such as doctors and lawyers, who have been trained to fix an external problem, and are licensed to practice. She argues that for artists, the use of the word practice “depersonalized the urgency of art making,” and “suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally.” I disagree. The issue here is that Deitch and Smith (neither of whom are makers of anything but taste) are both focused on the artist’s final product, and they seem to feel that the term practice denigrates the value of that product, as though a true artist is above practicing. However, the term “practice” relates not just to the work, but to the working: the process in which a work is made.

Oxford Dictionaries defines practice as:

(noun)  1. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it

2. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something

3. repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it

(verb)   1. perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it

2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly

If we look at these definitions, it’s very easy to apply the first definition to an artist’s process. Practice is the application of an idea. It’s experiential. In fact we can trace this notion of practice to Karl Marx. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he asserts:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

Practice is revolutionary, bringing together consciousness and reality; it’s the application of a theory. When we speak of an artist’s practice, we’re not merely speaking of the finished painting, the sculpture, the photograph, the performance, the exhibition, but the application of the concept that brings us to the finished work. Whereas medium emphasizes the material end, practice acknowledges the conceptual approach to making. Indeed, studying the practice, rather than the product, can give us greater insight into the work. Art as practice includes cultural, political, social, conceptual, and aesthetic components.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Untitled (the map and the land of feeling) I-III”

Earlier this year at MoMA, there were two Rirkrit Tiravanija pieces on view: Untitled (Free/ Still)in which free rice and Thai curry was served to museum goers, and, in the Print/ Out exhibitionUntitled (the map of the land of feeling) I-III,  a series of three scrolls made from digital prints of the artist’s passport, with lithographs and screen prints  of the his drawings and notes layered on top. On the surface, these two works seem disconnected. It’s only in examining Tiravanija’s practice, which includes extensive travel and the creation of social situations, that the relationship between the works becomes clearer. Untitled (Free/ Still) is the more typical manifestation of the artist’s practice, but the scrolls are a physical representation of it. What’s more, the process in which these scrolls were created involved dozens of laborers, which in itself was a social construct. (Full discloser: I was among the dozens who worked on these prints.) Tiravanija is, in every sense, a practicing artist.

So too is Francis Alÿs, an ex-patriated Belgian artist now based in Mexico City.  He has walked through Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Jerusalem; he has chased tornadoes, recruited volunteers to shovel the sand of a dune from one side to another, and collected images of Saint Fabiola– all of these actions are simultaneously the making of his work and the work itself. This is practice.

An unrealized water-driven design from Leonardo’s journals

Indeed, why would it seem ridiculous to speak of Leonardo’s practice? Although a renowned artist, arguably unparalleled during the Renaissance, he was not prolific, if one only considers his finished paintings. But his practice included writing, drawing, sketching, cartography, scientific study, anatomical study including dissection of corpses, engineering, and  designing inventions that would never be realized.

And if we return to the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of practice, and also look at practice as a verb, to “carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly,” this too, can ultimately be applied to a creative practice. I recently listened to an interview on WHYY’s Radio Times with Thomas M. Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind, the premise of which is that we can become more successful if we focus less on the goal, and more on the journey, or process. I was struck by his comment about practice and the arts: “Practice is akin to breathing…. Breath is to life, as practice is to art.” That is, the artist, whether a visual artist or dancer or musician, necessarily spends a great deal of time performing an activity, whether it be drawing, painting, sculpting, photographing, dancing, stretching, listening, singing and/ or playing. This practice isn’t being performed to master a skill, but rather, is the regular exercising of a skill that is integral to the process of making.

To disregard practice is to pretend that the artist works in a vacuum, locking herself in a room, and  emotionally flinging paint at a canvas until she emerges, exhausted, having created a masterpiece. This is the artist of movies. There is, indeed, an urgency to art making, and the latter description may even be a component of one’s process, but there is also thinking, research, preparatory work– practice. The nature of being an artist is not to have created some thing, but to always be looking, considering, theorizing, making, doing, practicing.


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Filed under Art, Education, Social Implications

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