Art & Development

This is all just rehearsal for the big gig in the sky…

In case you were wondering, even art world types can object to baseless arty jargon. New York Times critic Roberta Smith lodges her complaints with “What We Talk About When We Talk About Art” (December 23, 2007). She calls out the oft-loftified terms “reference” (in place of “refer”) and “privilege” (over “favor”).

I sympathize with Smith’s overall point — I have always felt a little fake using the terms “moment” (as in, “Longo’s drawings reflected the anxiety of the historical moment”). And my ears prick up with irritation whenever I hear the word “rubric.”

[While I’m on this point, let me clarify: not all art jargon, as much as some common-sense belly-achers like to say, is B.S. For example, you could say, “how the painting is laid out,” but why would you, when “composition” is concise, coherent and unambiguous? More often than not, jargon is purposeful.]

Still, I disagree with Smith when she argues that “practice” is a destructive, misleading characterization of what an artist does. Smith associates an artist’s “practice” to a doctor’s or lawyer’s practice, with the implications that (1) artists must be sanctioned, (2) art making is “depersonalized” and controlled, and (3) practice “sanitizes a very messy process.”

But Smith doesn’t acknowledge the other use of “practice” — the one I embrace — suggesting a rehearsal or exercise. For example, I maintain an art practice. That’s not to say I’m open for business like a doctor or lawyer. It means I’m committed to keeping up this activity against the odds; with or without external validation, without predetermined outcomes. It also suggests that I’m not out to make my magnum opus today or tomorrow, but am confident that achievements are arrived at through repeated engagement.

Furthermore, Smith suggested alternatives to some phrases, but not for “practice.” Despite its divergent interpretations, I think “practice” is the best we’ve got for now. It serves an important function: to distinguish between “the Work” (as in outcome or product) and an artist’s “work” (as in labor or process).

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