What is the relationship between theory and practice? The idea of theory and practice certainly dominates art education and criticism. In common parlance one can say, “In theory that should work…” Meaning that the thing may or may not work theoretically. Live circumstances could muck up what looked solid on paper. When someone says, “In practice that works…” it holds a kind of testable solidity. In our Cartesian binary-obsessed culture, the two get set against each other like pit bulls in a back alley. Theory and practice need each other. You can’t have one without the other. As words– and words are slippery indicators of ideas –they both are freighted with a lot of baggage. Much of that baggage comes from the pretentiousness of academic one-upmanship. Theory involves talking about doing. Practice is doing.
I teach two classes that are called Theory and Practice. One uses mythology as a controlling metaphor to explore all kinds of ideas floating around in the tides of culture. The other is called Homeland: The American Landscape created just after 9/11. Ostensibly it concerns itself with landscape theory and environmentalism, but it is really about the stories we tell around place and cultural identity. When I started these classes I took it on face value what theory and practice mean in theory. After teaching the classes for 12 years I now have a much clearer sense of the whole enterprise in practice.
Practice is a sticky word. In 2007 in The New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote a terrific piece called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Art” riffing off of the Raymond Carver short story. Smith says, “Finally, practice sanitizes a very messy process. It suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally. It converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making. It suggests that materials are not the point of art at all — when they are, on some level, the only point.” It is true that the way it’s thrown about like the feces of angry chimps in grad programs drains the word “practice” of meaning. Contemporary art writers and academics could really trounce perfectly innocent words. (“notion” is currently being crushed under academic boot heels). In a “post-studio” or “deskilled” atmosphere the actual bone knowledge of manipulating material is seen as suspiciously anti-intellectual. Practice often gets confused with “bad habit” or “thing I’m doing until I get a clue”. The word practice whitewashes over an anxiety that the artist has no idea what the hell he’s up to and he’s a millimeter away from being exposed as a sham. Practice dignifies such shenanigans. I agree with Smith that the misuse of the word is in part the taming and professionalism of art making. I disagree that the word itself should be chucked.
In Peter Korn’s excellent new book Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman he describes the intellectual and physical intelligence that arises from creative practice. He says, “There is a deep centeredness in trusting one’s hands, mind and imagination to work a single, well-tuned instrument.” This comes from years and years of practice in the truest sense. Experimenting with forms and materials, learning the tools and histories of a medium until you get to the point where your consciousness is attuned to the present. Of course, Korn’s craft of furniture making is based in a very material utilitarianism. It anchors him to the contingencies of wood and practicality. It doesn’t mean that any other artistic endeavor such as performance art, site-specific sculpture or video can’t have a similar sense of practice– one steeped in the hard work of manipulating material in response to a set of formal considerations, histories and physical skill.
Theory it seems has become practice in many quarters of the art world. Theory is often seen as an ultimate authority. If one more grad student casually quotes Barthes’s idea of punctum there will be some puncturing you can bet on it. Theory is a matrix of ideas that bolster a structure of belief. It creates a set of philosophical questions grounding a particular aesthetic stance. Theory, especially French theory, is treated as unassailable scripture. In order for theory to be truly viable, it must be tested and used. Like Peter Korn’s knowledge of the various species and states of wood, theory is something to mold but also understand its breaking points, its plastic ability and its native beauty.
Concept or “conceptual” is often used as a replacement for theory. This is wrongheaded. Conceptualism, a movement started in the sixties by practitioners such as Lawrence Weiner and Daniel Buren operates with a set of theories about art. Conceptualism has offshoots that include Social Practice and Institutional Critique. A “concept” is simply an idea. Everything has an idea. A potter making simple tea bowls is full of ideas. That potter may also be working in a particular theory field. But the potter is not engaged in Conceptualism. Fear drives the academic gobbledygook that passes for writing and criticism in contemporary art. I think there’s an inferiority complex sometimes stated, often submerged, that art just isn’t up to intellectual snuff. So the theory gets plastered on thick. This doesn’t recognize the true intelligence of art making and art looking. Not all conceptual art is smart and not all object based art dumb. Camps emerge with recalcitrant makers of objects thumbing their noses at anything smacking of concept and on the other side effetes who pity the poor backward sculptors and painters for their backwoods lack.
Let me get back to the relationship between theory and practice. Karen Armstrong in her 2009 book The Case for God speaks to an ancient relationship between myth and ritual. She says human beings would more rightly be called “homo religiousus” instead of “homo sapien” (the man who believes vs. the man who knows). Religiosity, myth and art– all the trappings of a rich symbolic life– seem to be the qualities that separated us from the doomed Neanderthal. Our current dichotomy of fundamentalist/atheist would be foreign to our prehistoric ancestors. They were able to understand that the seeming absurdity of myth was not a mandate from a rigid god (those atrocity plagued blooms blossomed throughout the human narrative but seem more the norm in recent memory) but a set of images through which to see the unseeable. Myth was kept alive through ritual. Ritual gave a physical manifestation to the myth and the myth gave relevancy to the ritual. Unlike fundamentalists who cling to absolutist readings of their scriptures our ancestors practiced religion to interrogate and renew the scripture. Contradiction is embraced.
The current bifurcation of theory and practice arises out of the same historical soil that sprouted the Enlightenment and the attendant religious wars, global capitalism and colonialism. In all cases the hard line drawn between mind and body, individual and state, god and human leads to cultural schizophrenia. The material world becomes a dead zone occupied by lesser beings. The life of the mind is exalted over all others. These assumptions guide everything from economics to politics to religion. I am aware that many artists would be uncomfortable with any comparison of contemporary art to religion but I think it is apt. For one thing art until recently was almost exclusively associated with spiritual belief. For another art as an ironist’s endless echo chamber is doomed to die of malnourishment.
The mistrust of art as religion is well founded. Religions in historic memory do not have a good track record. Religions serve the purpose of propagating the beliefs and regulating the rituals of the culture. Like all institutions, religious institutions over time become petri dishes of political corruption. The structure begins to protect itself and build its own bulwarks in opposition to the good health of the beliefs it was meant to maintain. Priests, popes, imams, rabbis etc. have a tendency to follow power for its own sake. When this happens the internal rot eventually collapses the structure allowing space for either renewal or extinction. So with the art world. Art cannot, indeed human life cannot continue with such top-heavy structures cleaving our minds and bodies. I have no problem thinking of art as an experience that can lead to transcendence. In fact it’s why I keep doing it– the pay being what it is.
Like myth and ritual, theory and practice is the dance between mind and body. The two push and prod against each other, sometimes conjoined sometimes in antagonism. Structural integrity is constantly tested. Bones learn stories through repetition producing objects of transcendence. True belief is shot through with doubt. Doubt keeps us from blind acquiescence. When the scripture or theory becomes calcified it will die. It requires practice for its living breath. The breath– so necessary for life– requires the physical organ for its manifestation in the world.