The Praxis of “Practice”


Michael Kowalski

My practice is try, try, try. Fail, fail, fail. Boom, find something new and exciting.

“Terri,” an MFA student1

My practice as a critic of contemporary art had begun in Artforum in 1964 under the brilliant tutelage of Philip Leider …

art critic Rosalind E. Krauss

Anytime I hear the phrase my practice in an art context I have to stifle a scream. A faint groan is all that remains audible to those seated nearby. Bear in mind that:

The practice of the profession of medicine is defined as diagnosing, treating, operating or prescribing for any human disease, pain, injury, deformity or physical condition.

New York State Education Law

In those [Buddhist] traditions, the development of practice is focused on increased intensity of mindfulness.

cognitive scientist Francisco J. Varela

The advantage of reading a book while practicing for pure technique alone is that it enables us to forget the boredom of playing a passage over and over again, a dozen, or fifty or a hundred times until the body has absorbed it.

pianist Charles Rosen

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.

Karl Marx

Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another.

philosopher Gilles Deleuze

In moments of relative calm, I can manage a more sanguine take on the presumptions of artists and critics, something along the lines of:

Yes, the richness of language derives in no small part from multiple, often oblique, if not downright conflicting senses of the same word, so stop being such a stodge and a scold, and let Terri identify with the traditions of the physician, the religious adept, the political philosopher, and the soloist at Lincoln Center. Where’s the harm?

This essay was composed in moments of relative calm.


Polysemy, or Having It Both Ways

  Buzzwords come and go in the fine arts no less than in corporate boardrooms oozing gravitas. And much writing about art these days, whether by critics, curators, or the artists themselves, often comes across—at least to this reader2 —as the province of purple prose, solipsism, fourth-hand philosophy, logrolling, and plain silliness. So, why get worked up by this art generation’s mantra-du-jour? Won’t practice fall out of fashion when the next wave of Theory comes crashing into Montauk from the other side of the Atlantic? One hopes against current evidence that it will die the death of all fads, since its reflexive use has pernicious implications for anyone who cares about the credibility of the ennobling project affectionately known as “art.”
  Styles of making art have changed with every passing generation, at least in the West since about 1800, but the explicit devaluation of the craft of making objects, so-called “de-skilling,” really only got going in a serious (as in, “I take myself seriously”) way with the manifestos and career postures of John Cage and Allan Kaprow. As Cage proclaimed in his musically structured “Lecture on Nothing” (1949-1950):

    I have nothing to say

and I am saying it     and that is

  poetry       as I need it.

While Cage’s arrangement of his text on the page lends it a certain oracular strangeness in the manner of E.E. Cummings, his continuing references back to the phrase in the 50s and 60s left little doubt that, amidst any possible ironic readings, he also intended it to be understood literally. Of course, logically speaking, in the act of saying, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,” one is clearly saying something. This kind of paradox has kept spiritual seekers of all faiths busy for millennia. Consider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: it is and it isn’t. For Cage, it is and it isn’t nothing that constitutes a poetry adequate for his needs. Now, if there were truly nothing behind his nothing, then his epigram would have considerable bite bordering on shock value. But unless there is something behind his nothing, then Cage’s maniacally fastidious working methods in generating, for instance, the Music of Changes via the I Ching begin to look like eloquently articulated fetishism. It’s not disrespecting Cage’s legacy to point out that he was a good career tactician. He knew that he needed both readings, the impossibly literal nothing and the looser, metaphorically conditional nothing, the former being good PR and the latter serving as a more useful foundation for his work. Cage managed this straddle, but the need to remain simultaneously within and outside of one’s own metaphors has crippled a less brilliant generation of artists and critics who came of age after Cage’s death in 1992.
  Practice is an unusually rich word in English. As the opening quotes of this essay illustrate, practice can refer to the entire history of a physician’s work treating patients, or to an immersion in a religious or meditative discipline, to a performing artist’s daily training regimen, to a key notion in Marxism, to an extension of Marxism into the infinitely fungible analytic lexicon of poststructuralism and its progeny, or it may serve as a simple way of dressing up any description of what I do. In the latter case practice is equally at the service of the forty-year veteran critic or the neophyte whose professional persona has yet to emerge. The landscape becomes even richer when one adds nuances from French and German, the native idioms of so much of the Critical Theory that’s profoundly influenced the training of American artists, art historians, critics, and curators since the 1960s. Even in translation, the traditions of German and French political philosophy, sociology, and poststructural criticism lend an aura of offhand profundity to the most banal deployments of practice, aka la pratique, aka die Praxis.
  But impugning motives is a nasty and pointless business. Still, one ought to confront the communicative effects—whether intended, subconscious, or inadvertent—of constant trading in the multiple meanings of practice. Considering the complex history of the vernacular and esoteric senses of practice, the indiscriminate use of such a value-laden term carries a high risk of confusion at best, deception at worst. Or is creative confusion the point? After all, there’s an element of play in speech, and the speaker will roam where the speaker pleases. But there are limits, as in cooking. Too much polysemic spice ruins the dish. My intentionally overloading a single utterance of the word practice to imply that the three hours I spent last night preparing for my next MFA crit session are directly comparable to a ballet student working thirty hours at the barre is pushing the boundaries of—shall we say?—good taste.
  Polysemy can be thought of as a compression of metaphor, as the distillation of metaphoric resonances into a single word. Habitual users of this highly evocative potion can hardly afford to be ignorant of its side effects, but who bothers to read the warnings in fine print on the side of the bottle of hip rhetoric? A hundred years ago Saussure, the seminal figure in the twentieth century’s study of the social use of verbal signs, reminded his students that all language is inherited and that the binding of a word to a concept is a social phenomenon that one can theorize about but not directly observe. The corollary is that a preferred binding can’t be enforced by the speaker. The rhetorical force of the play among the various senses of a single word is impossible to control, but this very inability can also be turned to the speaker’s advantage. When I point out that your use of practice to describe an activity that you only undertook in earnest last month is an insult to physicians, attorneys, ballet soloists, and practitioners of tantra yoga, you may of course object that such an equivalence was neither stated nor implied. And you would be right, but you also remain free to reap the rewards of a certain benefit to your reputation for seriousness. Building upon Saussure’s early basic precautions, writers in all of the fine arts ought to bear in mind the warning of the contemporary Swedish cognitive scientist Peter Gärdenfors that a metaphor does not come alone. It compares the structures of two domains of meaning, not just two isolated definitions.
  There’s a lot lurking below the waterline. Navigating multiple connotations is not a game for novice swimmers. As in any lively debate, the danger posed by frequent recourse to overloaded meanings for rhetorical effect—whether calculated or inadvertent—is that the gambit will begin to use the user. The artist/critic/curator’s recourse to philosophy to defend the myriad conflicting nuances of artistic practice is similarly foolish. As Wittgenstein pointed out, philosophy is a fight against the fascination that forms of expression exert upon us. It certainly shouldn’t be a surrender to them.


The Case for Practice as an Anti-description

  As in any fight, it pays to understand both sides from their respective points of view. There’s a good case to be made for the widespread use of practice to describe artistic, critical, and curatorial work. For starters, it satisfies the need for an aura of necessity and value in a field that seems to have lost confidence in itself.
  The elephant in the gallery of canonic European and American art is the stylistic chaos into which painting plunged with the appearance of photography and that has never really let up, although it’s been camouflaged with varying degrees of success for close to two hundred years. The roughly eighty years separating the mature work of Edouard Manet and Jackson Pollock generated more divergent styles than art lovers could reasonably be expected to assimilate without rethinking the very nature of their love. When artists ironically obliged the audience’s disquiet with reductionist all-black and all-white canvasses and Duchamp’s endgame position that what the artist stipulates as art must be understood as such, the seeds were sown for a full-blown crisis of faith by the middle of the twentieth century, one that impacted the whole community of fine art: the artists themselves, their teachers, critics, curators, and their hapless audience—with everyone slightly tipsy from the accumulated effect of a hundred fifty years of épater le bourgeois. The overstory (with a nod to Richard Powers’ novel of trees), is well-known: in the wake of the exhaustion of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s came Pop, Op, Performance Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Neo-Expressionism, and now, with the global turn in art exemplified by international fairs, a wave of bien pensant agitprop—variously indirect, mediated, or raw. The associated understory is less remarked upon, at least in public: two generations into the related critical endorsement of Conceptualism and the acceptance of the movement to de-emphasize if not denigrate the craft of making objects, the principal task of apprentice artists has been reduced to defining what art is, as per Cage, for their personal needs.
  To draw an analogy to the predicament of art music as I outlined it back in the 1980s in Perspectives of New Music,3 the emergent artist or critic or curator now faces the incredible burden of understanding every new body of work as a law unto itself. The only way to do this is to combine an intimate familiarity with all of the procedures of all of the art of the world with a devil-may-care willingness to throw all or part of that knowledge overboard when the work at hand makes known the context in which it wishes to be understood. It’s small wonder that an entering MFA student with a good hand and eye has so little time to refine her drafting skills; the task of reinventing art from scratch is time consuming. To make matters worse—and in the absence of a satisfactory answer to the haut bourgeois buyer who quaintly insists upon being amazed by signs of virtuosity in his portable decorative wall hangings4 —there has to be some sort of authority trotted out to justify, if not sanctify, what meets the eye. But it’s unlikely that the viewer can be coaxed into a close reading of the Cliff Notes aka signage on the gallery wall. So, what then? In the absence of the implied standards of a style consensus—clearly nonexistent today—and in the absence of obvious, overwhelming, and mesmerizing craft, one is left with the authority imbued by references to my practice. Since no one can agree on what good technique really entails these days, the use of practice is a plausible substitute for any term which would have denoted a specific craft before, say, 1990. My practice certainly conforms to the general descriptive norms of today’s art profession when referring to itself; moreover, the phrase possesses the not inconsiderable charm and honesty of being simultaneously modest (as in, “I don’t claim to be a painter”), helpful (as in, “I want you to understand what I really do”) and gently presumptive (as in, “What I do is more disciplined and important than what you might do as a Sunday painter”). Pity the poor 22-year-old who loves Fragonard and Gerhard Richter equally, who can draw, and just wants to exercise those talents professionally. Of course, there are always programs in Industrial and Commercial Design for such talented idealists.
  The situation of contemporary music sheds an interesting light on the credibility conundrum in what is still for the time being known as the visual arts. The esoteric field of concert-aka-classical music faced a similar crisis of self-confidence in the United States when the opaque structure and astringent sound of twelve-tone music, inexorably dwindling audiences, and rapidly changing standards for improvising combined to drive a large cadre of thinking musicians into a few decades of stylistic groping that was usually offered to audiences under the self-conscious banner of experimental music. At the same time—and quite apart from aesthetics—the whole notion, or even the possibility, of a career in music was radically redefined by successive revolutions—one or two per generation—in the way that music was experienced: from the theater, concert hall or saloon to the phonograph to radio to tape to the Walkman to the CD to streaming. Nowadays, to add insult to the prevailing chaos in the music industry, the cozy sound blanket of 24/7 streaming, far from ushering in a golden age, has struck a lot of freelancers as the ultimate triumph of elevator music: the second coming of the infamous piped-in Muzak of 1950s department stores. But the craft of music-making has survived in the midst of this profound aesthetic and economic confusion, mainly because it’s almost impossible to fake musical technique onstage. As a result, and in contrast to the visual arts, musicians don’t usually feel compelled to explain in program notes why their music should be taken seriously. In fact, many musicians really don’t care whether you read program notes or reviews, if indeed there are any to read in the first place. If the group’s tight ensemble playing, the soloist’s brilliance, or the composer’s harmonies blow you away, then that’s probably enough for you and your friends to kick up a buzz on social media. Explanations from the performer, critic, or producer amount to gilding the lily.
  The contrast with the fine arts is stark. Art objects whose unremarkable fabrication leaves the viewer unmoved simply die in the absence of accompanying verbiage. Extensive signage, brochures, and lushly illustrated catalogs may try to redress this deficit of wonder, but it’s a tough balancing act. The art explicator has to combine a vernacular touch that engages the lay audience while simultaneously demonstrating fluency in the professional lingo of the art press and academic critical establishment. The last thing an art writer wants is to sound like a naïve provincial, but the second last thing the art writer wants is to sound like a bicoastal snob. In such a bind a word like practice ends up being especially useful as a bridge between the vernacular and the professional: an apparently banal, well-understood word with an esoteric spin so subtle that it’s hardly noticed. Nowadays the very absence ofpractice in descriptions of art marks the writer as an apprentice at best—certainly no one certified by one of the better MFA programs. What’s fascinating is that complex descriptions of art work and aesthetics were regularly written thirty-five years ago with virtually no recourse to the practice mantra. So what gives today? What exactly is this newly discovered communicative imperative? Is it just a verbal tic, or are we looking at an agenda? Let’s assume the latter for sake of argument.
  The materials of art are whatever comes to hand, naturally—or especially—including the latest technology and its products. As new materials and means of shaping and transmitting image and sound proliferate, the inherited vocabularies for describing art making have to grow or be abandoned. In the last thirty or forty years practice has become accepted as the language bucket that refers to the entire exploding repertoire of art making methods and, where meaningful, to their associated materials. The primacy of describing methods without reference to results frees practice to serve in critical discussions where process is elevated over product, or as artist Dara Birnbaum put it, where one wants to emphasize “the continuously shifting and uncertain event over the definitive object and statement.”5 Art theorist Rosalind E. Krauss has done us the favor of succinctly defining what the aforementioned process consists of: “… practice is not defined in relation to a given medium—[e.g.,] sculpture—but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium … might be used.”6
  The convenience of practice as an infinitely expandable bucket for a vast array of techniques—ranging from the most delicate working of oil on canvas to the computer skills needed to conceive and mount a curated internet display of, say, color preferences for running shoes among teenagers in the developing world—is only part of its appeal. The substitution of an apparently anodyne substantive such as practice for historically-freighted positivist terms such as painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, and video can also help to insulate artmaking from a tendency to fetishize the object, whether as a masterpiece, as a collectible, an alternate asset class, or a passport to A-list parties. Practice emphasizes process, and process is transient, hard to monetize, hard to catalog, and just possibly kitsch-resistant. So far, so good.
  But often an art work that’s conceived of primarily as a process leaves only unforeseen, purposely accidental, or incomplete traces. These traces often fail to constitute an object that’s interesting in its own right. Most of us have probably tried without success to sit through the interminable video documentation of processes that sounded great on paper but simply didn’t yield anything remotely watchable, notwithstanding the cozy comfort of a darkened mini-theater. The general curatorial and critical acceptance of such traces makes it clear that the elegance or entertainment value of the traces per se is not the point of the art work. The ephemeral process, now concluded, was the point—and not the documentation. But—and here’s where the going gets confusing for all parties to the process-art bargain—the trace or the documentation, however unremarkable it may be, still retains an essential function. It serves as tangible evidence that an art work did in fact occur, and should anyone wish to own the work in question and refer to it after the action that constituted its essence has already run its course, then the trace begins to assume an importance equal to that of the event which supposedly constituted its essence. At this stage the art work’s documentation, including descriptions of the artist’s practice, comes into its own, functioning in a manner somewhat analogous to a corporate annual report. It’s a certificate that’s carefully composed, absolutely necessary as a guarantee of the integrity of the deal, but more often than not left substantially unread by the investor at the point of purchase.
  On the other hand, chipping away at the lore of the expertise of white male artist “masters” could certainly be seen as a positive side effect of adopting the generic and democratic term practice in discussions of art technique. As Richard Rorty pointed out, with a nod to Thomas Kuhn, America’s philosopher of paradigm shifts, revolutions don’t succeed if they only employ an inherited vocabulary that makes unequivocal use of terms shared with traditional wisdom. And of course breaking down the gender politics of the male Euro-American fine art world is only the beginning. It can be thought of as a wedge issue that will lead naturally to an examination of all manners of hegemony, from the religious to the ethnic to the economic to the regional to class systems in general.
  Understood in the light of these quite plausible rationales, the rhetoric of practice begins to resemble an ingenious tactic of anti-description. The word has come to function as a shorthand for the post-post-modernist trope that the notion of a medium is a secondary property of an art work: an infinitely expandable derived category that no longer constitutes the work’s foundation. Instead of determining a work’s character, the choice of medium encapsulated by the notion of practice now proceeds from the work’s primary character, which has come to be located at some unstable intersection of the artist’s autobiography, his or her creative mood of late, optional but highly recommended politics, a sublimated concern for possible exchange value, and residual, esoteric references to older work from around the world. The way in which practice functions not as description, but rather as anti-description, now becomes clear: no matter how specific and even traditional a description of my practice is, the very use of the term ties the description to a program of art politics in which the medium, far from being the message, really doesn’t matter all that much. Why, then, does the term practice persist at all? Its unsettling bivalency—the fact that practice both reminds the art audience of the importance of the art medium in the past while trying to denigrate the importance of the choice of medium in the present—may point to cracks in the façade of art critical orthodoxy in the Anglophone art world. In addition to describing my current art-making activities, my practice, upon second examination, can reveal my uneasiness—perhaps even my embarrassment—about my place in the world beyond art.

Composer, essayist, and software engineer Michael Kowalski’s essays have appeared in Perspectives of New Music, Cybernetics and Human Knowing, and Contemporary Aesthetics. His music is available on the Einstein and Equilibrium CD labels.  He is the former head of software development at Askari Risk Management Solutions.  In the print issue od Salmagundi #216-217 his essay, “The Praxis of Practice,” was misattributed to a professor in California.  We apologize for the error.