Praxis Makes Perfect: A Survival Guide for Talking About Contemporary Art
It’s one of the beautiful things about art: when you look at a piece of work, any interpretation is valid, any reading acceptable. Meaning is created in a pas de deux between the artist and the viewer. Talking about art, however, can be a different and much dicier thing. Depending on the context and who you’re talking to (a German art dealer, say, or a Margiela-clad academic), certain words become freighted with unexpected meanings, accrued because someone somewhere wrote an important, discourse-changing essay that you never even heard about. Sometimes, the most basic terms are the most fraught.
To help negotiate with this strange lexical terrain, here is the first part in a new series, in which we will unpack loaded words of their tangled meanings (sometimes further confusing things in the process).
So commonplace in the art discourse, “modern” is actually one of the squirreliest and most problematic words in the lexicon. Traditionally applied to European and American work made between the late 19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries, Modern art with a capital “M” was created by artists like van Gogh, Picasso, Malevich, Duchamp, and other famous figures in direct reaction to the tumultuous impact of the industrial revolution, the ideas of revolutionary thinkers (Marx, Hegel, Freud), and newly mechanized warfare.
However… this notion of modernity is starkly Western-centric. For one thing, in their search for access to “primitive” pre-industrial touchstones, the Moderns cast a colonial view on artworks from Africa, Polynesia, Japan, and other distant places, copying elements of their aesthetic into their work. This did not go unnoticed by non-Western artists at the time—in fact, a group of artists in Brazil in the 1920s declared that they would reverse this power dynamic and copy elements of European art to make their own Brazilian amalgam (they called themselves the Anthropophagics, or cannibals).
Nowadays, a more globalized worldview and a half century of progressivism in the academies has led to an increasingly embrasive view of modernism, with the Museum of Modern Art devoting enormous resources to recuperating non-Western art histories into its canon. But one should note that while these other cultures are being recognized for their modern art, the convention still restricts capital “M” Modernism to the West.
Compared to “modern,” which at least can be vaguely situated as a historical period of industrial modernization, the term “contemporary” has a simple problem: it doesn’t make sense. Essentially meaning that the artwork was made at the same time as the term is being applied, contemporary has somehow escaped its necessarily narrow literal meaning to encapsulate an ongoing era of contemporaneity.
Just look at the categories that the auction houses use to describe their sales of art made after the 1950s (or thereabouts): Christie’s calls theirs “postwar and contemporary,” suggesting that there is a point where the postwar era ends and a contemporary epoch begins, while Sotheby’s simply calls theirs “contemporary,” demarcating the past 70 years as a period of continuous now. This temporal slippage poses a quandary for future art historians—either they will have to demarcate our current era as a finite “Contemporary” period or create a new term altogether.
Perhaps you’ve heard an artist talk about their “practice” before, spied the word used in an issue of Artforum (or, heaven forfend, October), or caught it tossed around in a professorial art talk. So, what exactly are they talking about? One of the more polarizing words in the argot of professional art, “practice” is intended to encompass every aspect of an artist’s creative output, from their concepting to their process to their positional essays to, finally, the works of art themselves. It also, sneakily, equates the artist with a highly trained specialist, such as a dentist or psychiatrist, who runs a small business in an clinical environment that is intended to help patients or clients in a specific way.
This implicit comparison embedded in the term has rubbed many art lovers the wrong way, including New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who in a much-read 2007 article bemoaned that its usage “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.” As such, “practice”—or, worse, its infinitely more pretentious Greek cognate “praxis”— has become something of a shibboleth, marking its user as an enthusiast of an academically driven way of viewing and talking about art. Another way to say the same thing, incidentally, is to talk about an artist’s “approach.”
Talking about contemporary art ain’t easy—it’s a language of many dialects, secretly freighted words, and voluminous assumptions packed into seemingly innocuous phrases. To negotiate these linguistic shoals, here’s the second edition of our “Survival Guide for Talking About Contemporary Art” series, looking at some of the tricky terms used by curators, artists, critics, and other art muckety-mucks today.
“ART WORLD” (ärt wərld)
“Art world, music business. What does that tell us?” quips a Venice Biennale partygoer in Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The eponymous Jeff doesn’t give the comment much thought—he’s too busy observing the art-world codes and customs himself at its epicenter, swilling back bellinis amid the pandemonium of the vernissage. But baked into the term “art world” are a complex network of social and theoretical factors that deserve some examination.
Originally, the term had nothing (or at least little) to do with parties—in fact, it marked a radical new philosophical paradigm. The late critic and academic Arthur Danto coined it in a 1964 essay in the Journal of Philosophy called “The Artworld,” written after seeing Andy Warhol’s Brillo box at New York’s Stable Gallery and asking what distinguished this particular soap box from any other old soap box.
His answer did nothing less than challenge 2,000 years of Platonist thought that defined art as mimetic. Artworks, Danto said, take on properties in relation to a parallel world of art—”an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote paintings”—whose denizens can locate a work within a linneage invisible to the uninitiated. In other words, where the ordinary viewer might not be able to see the difference between the two Brillo boxes, those in the artworld know it. “The artworld stands to the real world in something like the relationship in which the City of God stands to the Earthly City,” Danto wrote. Well, then.
In the following decades, the term caught on with anthropologists like Howard Becker, who separated “artworld” into two words and described it as a complex subculture built around contemporary art. In 2007, Sarah Thorton’s ethnography, Seven Days in the Art World, likewise defined it broadly as a cultish league united by a “belief in art,” composed of many separate pieces moving together as a giant sorting mechanism. But in truth, the way the term “art world” is employed most commonly today is far closer to the way Jeff’s interlocutor in Venice uses it: to describe the social milieu inhabited by people connected to the art business, be it through art-dealing, collecting, journalism, curation, or the like.
So why “world” rather than “industry”? Simple: because the art business is so small, relative to other sectors of its profitability, and because so much of its unregulated business is governed by handshake deals and mutural understandings, the social factor is dramatically pronounced. The same people will see each other at the same art fairs, parties, shows, and other events year after year, so a premium is placed on comity—something that leads to an echo chamber of consensus around which art of the moment is hot (“That Brillo box is AMAZING“) and what is not (“Painting is dead”). As a result, whenever a critic strikes with a bad review, or, better yet, some (often anonymous) acid-tongued contrarian emerges—like ICallB on Instagram these days—it immediately becomes the talk of the town.
At the core of this network, Danto’s definition holds strong: placing a Brillo box in a gallery defines and groups those who understand it as art in the same way that Wallace Stevens’s jar situates the slovenly Tennessee wilderness surrounding it. Outsider artists are “outsiders” precisely because they aren’t in the art world—they’re on their own separate wavelength, both socially and, often, theoretically. Ironically, members of the art world are often themselves seen as outsiders from society at large. But no surprise there: the very brain-stretching complexities embedded within the term “art world” guarantee that its citizens are a bunch of weirdos.