For most artists who go to art school to study art and produce what the outside world calls “art” it doesn’t suffice to say “this is my art” or “I am an artist.” Clearly, those wordings are just too clear.
Some straw men would say those phrases smack of pomposity and they would go on to repeat “I am an artist” using the French “artiste” to make everyone aware of the pretentiousness it entails. But if avoiding pretentiousness is the goal of avoiding the word “art” one would think the term “maker,” as it is one step away from the godly “creator,” would seem a bit inflated. But no, “maker” is trending toward ubiquity on art school campuses and “a creative” is already mainstream terminology. It seems anything – as long as it is not “art” and “artist” – is fine to call art and artists.
For those in the unlucky position of having to talk to the products of the artist-intellectual complex, those unwashed masses “looking for funding” because they are “working on a project,” you will be all too familiar with the following terms, which are usually preceded by a “my.”
“piece” “practice” “work” “project”
“Piece” started innocently enough, as it was attached to the “art” that is at the heart of the matter. “My art piece” or “my piece of art” was standard phrasing in the 1960s and 70s. But now, thanks to generations of shortening, we have the untethered, “my piece.” That phrases like “my work” and “my practice” have somewhat superseded “ my piece” could speak to the changing nature of art production since 1960, where actions, ideas, and performances are as likely to be “art” as specific objects like a sculpture or a painting, which “piece” seems – at face value - to point toward.
Or perhaps not, as “a piece” is often used as a synonym for “a score” in music (though even here, objecthood is implicated by piece – it seems more unnatural to refer to an “improvisational piece” or a “noise piece” meaning that perhaps the music must be written down first). Perhaps usage of “piece” by fine artists arose exactly because of 60s and 70s artists like Yoko Ono who wrote instructions that were to be “played” like music.
“Piece” can also be read as necessitating “practice” or “oeuvre” since it suggests that each new instance, or “piece,” of art is just a part of a larger whole. “Piece” seems to say that “art” can be cut apart and stored or that whatever “piece” is made is not exactly the art – just a piece of it. Though, judging from its everyday usage, this is not an obvious intention.
“Piece” is essentially always needless. Any student defending his art at critique can just as easily say “my art is…” instead of “my piece is…” Is not every “piece” art? If the phrase “my art is...” seems clunky, why not refer directly to the type of art? There seems to be a reflexive aversion to using terms like “painting” or “sculpture” even when the “piece” clearly is a painting or sculpture. By generalizing through the vagueness of “piece” the artist implicitly puffs up his art as challenging conventional boundaries though it is truly a rare instance when art cannot be easily categorized into pre-negotiated classifications.
While the usage of “piece” has an unsettled relationship with physicality as it either directly implies an object or arises out of a need to embrace performance, “practice” clearly has cast its lot with the process orientated artists of today who have picked the lock of a singular focus and escaped into territory where they are no longer able to say that they are just “painters” or “photographers.” No, these artists have “practices.”
This makes sense in that most of these artists also believe they are putting “theory” into “practice.” (Because - I guess - you can’t be deeply theoretical while also being just a “painter.”) Since putting theory into practice is the Holy Grail of political thought and that Holy Grail is particularly dangerous, artists who wish they were really revolutionaries but don’t have the stomach for being shot can safely enact their wildest theories in the sanctuary of their studio. Or rather they can “practice” doing so.
But “practice” is more insidious than that as a comparison with “work” shows. Both terms are propelled by the deep class anxiety felt especially by artists. Paul Fussell classifies artists in his book “Class: A Guide through the American Status System” as being in “Class X,” a caste outside of castes. This is true in some sense - few people who make such little money as artists do are exalted by and rub shoulders with those who make so much money as art buyers do. But not having a fixed social class does not stop class anxiety. “Practice” can be seen as a claim for upper-middle respectability. Doctors have practices. Lawyers have practices. And if you repeat “practice” enough, maybe artists can too. But the same revolutionary “theory into practice” mentality also runs at a cross purpose to “practice” as we can see with “work.” “Work” is the word for those who wish for blue collar respectability, for proletariat accreditation. It gives artists a feeling of affinity for and brotherhood with “the workers” whose cause they have, as a group, always been politically and theoretically aligned with. The use of “my work” also changes what has historically been viewed as a largely frivolous activity into an activity undifferentiated from “productive” work. This is a useful reimagining for artists, after all, it is difficult to make most people who do not come from money agree that being an artist is a worthwhile career aspiration. If you say “work” enough, perhaps you can finally relate to your father who actually labored for you to get to the pampered place of being able to be an artist. And convincing the people who control the purse strings of your art school education of art’s worth is obviously a foremost priority.
But “work?” Really? Few people who work outside of artistic vocations would continue their occupational duties if they weren’t making money from them. Being able to indulge your curiosity, “make a statement,” and be viewed with the odd reverence that artists often receive, is not “work.” It is “art.” And it is “art” because nothing else is quite like it. Calling it “work” demeans not only your art since it denies the totality of what is happening but it demeans the actual work of everyone else. People that build things – they do work. The artist, a person who does what other people do in their leisure time (Sunday painters), does not do work.
“Work” and “practice” play off on another in one more way. “Practice” seems to say that the art is in the process, that the end result is never the end. It is iteration, a practice of an activity, a saying of a mantra. “Work” connotes commerce and a process which is invested in an end result. Once a “work” is done, through that artist’s “work,” that is all – you can clock out and ship the product. “Practice” seems to imply that the art ends when the artist dies and that nothing was ever made which truly captured what the art was about. After all, it’s not practice if it’s the real thing.
And finally, that early 2000s bromide, given by the layabout to obfuscate their actual doings - “I’m working on a project.” Of course you are. “Project,” a word that used to be attached to “Municipal,” does not describe your painting, sculpture, photograph, drawing, performance, film, music, or writing. Projects are something important and useful to a larger community, which we all know is a bridge too far for describing your “work.” Project’s homonym actually makes more sense to describe art. “Project,” as in projection, can be taken to mean materialization of thought, which is as clean of a definition of “art” as you are likely to hear.
By calling on the language of government endeavors and academic research, “project” strives for a respectability and impact that is supposedly beyond the reach of mere “art.” The insistence to attach added meaning to “art” by using upper-class “practice,” working-class “work,” and governmental “project” makes one wonder what exactly makes “art” perceived to be such a deficient term. There were the sophists whose “art” was essentially lying. “Art” was often used in conjunction with any learned skill – the art of public speaking or the art of pick pocketing – an altogether too broad usage. Of course the term “artifice” doesn’t help. Neither do the synonyms that are usually offered: cunning and guile. And there is the popular caricature of the artist as someone who is eccentric and out of touch or shaman-like and, above all, poor. But, more than anything, what makes “art” seem so frivolous a word and a career is that artists are consistently evading it. If artists don’t even respect themselves in their own speech, why should anyone respect an artist?
An artist isn’t a sociologist, a geographer, a politician, an historian, an archeologist, an anthropologist, an environmentalist, an activist, a theoretician, an academic, a philosopher, or a scientist. An artist is not a doctor, dentist, or lawyer. An artist is not a day laborer, a construction worker, or a factory worker. An artist is an artist. An artist makes art.