In a leaflet of the project Arte e Esfera Pública we find the proposal for a workshop with the curious name of “context as practice”, and in the activity description you can read: “(…) oficina de cinco dias focada em princípios teóricos e aspectos práticos da prática artística contextualmente embasada”. Roughly translated, it reads as: “the five-day workshop will focus on theoretic principles and practical aspects of site-specific artistic practice”.
Now, in portuguese the misconception is clearer: practice of practice. You can’t have it. This simply does not make sense.
And, obviously, i had the longest discussion about this with a (very good) friend. So, as you might be getting used to, i’ll bring my not-won discussion over to the blog. But it has now a different form, for i have discovered something that i had not considered before.
You can’t have practice of practice, as i was very sure of, and remain firm about. But i found out you can have theory of theory. In fact, you can also have practice of theory. Also, every theory is implicitly a theory of some practice. Want it in a table? OK.
|Theory of Practice||this is like saying just “theory”, for every theory is just meaningful if it analyses and helps us understand something we have actually lived and experienced, which is another way of saying “practice”|
|Practice of Theory||to theorize means to think about something, which is itself an action (thinking is an action), but as time goes by theory starts to require writing, graph-making, statistics, and all sorts of actions which we can lump into a type of action separate from the practice this particular theory does refer to (but notice it is still part of the same whole)|
|Theory of Theory||when the body of concepts that form the theory is well-formed enough, you can begin to think not only about the practice it refers to, but to the theory itself. this doesn’t mean that we are thinking about something that is not a practice, instead, we are thinking about the practice of making a theory|
|Practice of Practice||this is the same as saying just “practice”|
Theory is an activity related to another activity, namely it’s practice. There isn’t practice nor theory in general. You can’t pick up “theory” and you can’t touch “practice” either. We use these two words to talk about forms of human behaviour. For instance, we can talk about the theory and practice of Art, theory and practice of Bakery, of teaching, and so on. This is pretty familiar, so much so that sometimes we let ourselves speak of practice in general, and theory in general, as we explore the similar effects that theory can have in dissimilar activities.
Why the hell would anyone talk about something instead of doing it? Anyone prefers talking about sex to actually shagging?
This is a good question, but it is also equal to asking why is theory necessary at all? And the obvious answer is that talking about the activity can help us perform better in it. For example, when you say to a beginner basketball player “instead of aiming at the basket, aim at the square in the backboard” you are not directly doing anything, nor actually showing him anything, but (if he follows the advice) you will improve his accuracy.
Now these two ideas (Practice and Theory) should work as proto-advice into our lives. That is, through manipulating those two words, we should be able to deal better with the world. And i guess we do, but the idea of “practice of practice” actually makes our lives harder instead.
Why? Because it cripples our mode-of-behaviour. Let me explain.
Thinking is not different from living, it is part of living. You can’t stop thinking and be just doing, in the same sense that you can’t stop breathing. I wouldn’t say “right now i am breathing and processing fat in my liver and typing this blog post”. You cut the unneeded. Just say “i am writing this blog post”. In the same vein, you are always thinking (having front-lobe activity in the brain) regardless if you are “an exclusively practical artist and performer”.
In the same way, any activity has theoretic aspects involved all the time. And this does not mean that we are always following strict and abstract rules from the isolated “realm of theory”. It just means that you have ideas on your mind about what you are doing. You probably have a name for it, and reasons, and explanations. You might even have a story to tell about what you are doing. This is theory, even if it does not prescribe anything.
Theory does not have to impose rules upon practice. Theory has to help you doing what you want to do. If sometimes it says “hydrophilic paint can’t be used in offset printing” it is not an alien rule or a tyrannical dogma, it is simply an short cut between trial and error. Theory is not something that you MUST FOLLOW, and it never was. This is what ideologies do, not theory.
When an artistic practitioner starts to “deny the theory” he is actually shielding himself from criticism. And this is not always a bad thing, but in the long run, if this behaviour becomes common and frequent, it becomes autistic. It impoverishes the behaviour-of-making-art because it diminishes the amount of ideas available to the artist. It cuts the dialogues.
Denying theory is like putting your fingers in your ear and pretending you do not listen.
When artists claim to “abandon theory” (and this is a very common claim) they are actually trying to oppose one specific set of ideas. They are not against theory (in general) but against one ideology (in specific).
And it is even worse, because usually those same artists are not disregarding said ideology, they are opposing it.
This means that they are still bound to it: if the “theory” says “2” instead of “23” or “3” or “G”, they will say “-2”. What i mean is, instead of not caring about such “theory” they are actually wasting their energies into trying to find something that is not this theory — which is good for the theory (for reasons not very interesting right now).
Theory of theory (which we could call metatheory) allows us to develop ideas faster. It is good, but not necessary. It does indeed run the risk of focusing in irrelevant ideas and models, and therefore becoming useless (though this is much rarer than usually believed).
But even when metatheory becomes irrelevant, it can never be contrary to the practice it used to relate to much time ago. The reason is simply that when practice and theory fight, practice always win. In other words, if the theory says “B” and the practice says “A”, the theory is wrong. It is flawed. It has to be abandoned of reformed. Not the practice, just the theory.
Therefore, when the feeling that a theory “is wrong” or “invalid” is raised, as is so common in the arts and in other fields, what this means is that there are new issues at hand. What was important before (and consequently target for reflection and then theorization) has become less important or secondary, and new issues have been raised. Many times, this happens exactly because the theory has allowed the artists to better explore their limits.
The path, then, is not to abandon theory, but to explore the new frontiers. To do it, let’s use all the tools and means we have at our disposal! Including reflection and theory, in the sense of formulating new ideas and models and graphics and recipes. Obviously, dealing with the new is always difficult, and many times it simply doesn’t work to come up with ideas before you do things, that is you simply have to roll up your sleeves and plunge into doing things, and this is completely OK. And in the long run, those experiments will help us understand the world and the art a little better. And they will also enhance the limits of what we do.
[This is for Shima. We are all his fans, and the bastard knows it! But in any case, i do not think he will be convinced by my arguments, anyway… ]