Practical Knowledge for Art and Design


The basis for this essay was a response to a call for papers on the topic Design as a Critical (Non-productive) Practice. The call draws attention to the status of the relationship of art and design, described as a dysfunctional binary relationship of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ art. Art and design seemingly move in opposing directions: “Contemporary art asks any question, down to the very grounds of thinking and doing. Design ‘builds’ to fulfill any brief or program…Design doesn’t do failure and art deliberately problematizes notions of ‘usability’.” [1] The intent is to raise the question of what ‘criticality’ means in the context of design practice.

My response to the issue is complicated because I am not entirely sure that we commonly understand what ‘criticality’ means in art practice and therefore I am not convinced that art and design exist in the kind of relationship as described. In my view the practice of art ought to be distinguished from works of art. While there appears to be general consensus about what criticality means for works of art, there is little discussion about what criticality means for art practice. In the first part of this essay I will show that our commonly held view of what criticality means for art works does not at all emerge from the practice of art but derives in large part from aesthetic theory. In the second part I will pose the question of what a theory of art practice could possibly be.

The call for papers generally concerns the teaching of art and design, that is, the passing down of knowledge from one generation to another. I belong to a generation that was privileged to experience the transformation of the dominant model within the arts and sciences as it manifested within the fine art disciplines. Following Frederic Jameson [2], let us recall the passing from the model of the organism to that of language. The Bauhaus movement of the 20s and 30s, which gave us the concept of ‘visual art’, developed its programs of art and design based on the model of the organism and the then current scientific research based in it: gestalt theory. Modernist aesthetic theory from Pater to Greenberg would be unthinkable without the focus on perception that was governed by the metaphor of the organism. Both the model and the science that operated at the time had great influence on the teaching of art right through the sixties, culminating in the phenomenological defence of minimalist art in the US.

However, by the end of the sixties the new model of language was in ascendancy as well as structuralism, the scientific theory that accompanied it. Within the university arts and sciences, the social sciences began to occupy the pride of place over the empirical sciences. Within philosophical circles, metaphysics now appeared more subversive than epistemology. Within society as a whole, the mass media now appeared to exemplify the character of technological societies. The major shift in focus, from perception to communication, was traumatic for art schools and university art departments. One aspect of the trauma for teaching easily recalled is the sudden relevance of photographic reproduction and the abrupt loss of interest in painting; but this was no more traumatic than the new interest in literary theory and the dumping of the psychology of perception.

The above anecdotal recollection of the transformation of the dominant model is intended to underline that what counts as ‘critical’ is visible because of the dominant model. Frankfurt School critical theory and cultural studies appear ‘critical’ because they make sense within the dominant metaphor. But the previous dominant metaphor produced its own version of criticality. Thus while at the turn of the 20th century Picasso and Braque could be styled as empirical researchers of visual perception, today’s artists are more likely seen as social researchers of an image economy.

One thing that has not changed with the transformation of the dominant model and the subsequent transformation of the teaching of art is the role of aesthetic theory in the academy. Since the early days of the French Academy, aesthetic theory has been used as a rhetoric. It was used to legitimate the practice of fine art in aristocratic society and to distinguish it from the practice of craft. Simply put, aesthetic theory argues that the practice of art primarily concerns strategic knowledge, not tactical skill. The same holds true today. Knowledge of aesthetic theory implicitly underpins art and design programs in degree-granting institutions. Aesthetic theory defends art practice and legitimates it. At the same time, aesthetic theory does not know what art practice is. The object of any aesthetic theory is always the art work, always the object that is received (by an audience, by a public). While there are always discussions and mentions of practices, there is very little attempt to theorize such practices. It is as if theories of art are being offered to student artists as theories of practice. But this would be like offering courses in the theories of yoga without ever thematically theorizing the practice of yoga. The theories of yoga are only of slight interest without corresponding theories of the way yoga can be practiced. The only knowledge we have of artistic practices, apart from works, are collections of artist writings and interviews with artists. However, artist writings and interviews rarely thematize or theorize practice and more often than not focus on the artist’s production or on aesthetic theory.

As universities and other degree-granting organizations develop new business models to grow as institutions, they develop new lines of rhetoric to attract funding. The model of research-creation is simply this. While the model does work to support some art practices and help articulate new forms of relationships in practice, the aim is to create new ‘applications’ for art, usually user-friendly front-ends for what would be otherwise obscure practices in science and technology. The research model does nothing to support the connection between generations of artists. There is no business benefit for universities in theorizing the practices of art precisely because they now look to the market place for ‘solutions’ rather than to the future of art practices.

I am not convinced that this situation differs much between the teaching of art and the teaching of design. The aesthetic theory that is taught may be different but it should be kept in mind that the function of aesthetic theory in art practice is primarily rhetorical and intended for a specific public or audience. The public for art is comprised of professionals whereas the audience for design is created by business interests.

It is presumed that previous generations of artists were able to pass down practical knowledge by mentorship and other less formal means. The present situation that has been coming since the previous mid-century is an age of mass education and the education of relatively massive numbers of artists. Yet because there are huge numbers of artists, we cannot take the transmission of practical knowledge for granted. For this we need now to focus on theories of practices to meet the needs of large numbers of artists to help them sustain their artistic concerns, especially when the current business climate does not support them. The organization of artist communities around political identities and short-term political goals has been and continues to be useful but there are other art practices that will not be supported in this way.

What I mean by the practice of art is the practical knowledge of art, what Aristotle distinguished from sophia as phronesis. Aristotle says that phronesis “is not simply a skill…as it involves not only the ability to decide how to achieve a certain end, but also the ability to reflect upon and determine good ends consistent with the aim of living well overall.” [3] The trouble is that practical knowledge in art practice has been generally bound up and confused with making things (techne), i.e. the production of art works.

The question arises that even if there is such a thing as practical knowledge in art, why should we care about it? What we look to the artist for is works of some kind (obviously I am including immaterial works, performances, etc.). Artists may have certain ways of doing things but why should we care since what affects us is the works they produce? The question conceals the assumption that there is nothing inherently critical in the practice of art. The ideas of criticality that we have and that we talk about are generated solely on the basis of aesthetic theory and not on the basis of experience with the particulars of practices.

What kind of statements reflect on practice? Here is one often quoted statement attributed to Picasso: I do not seek, I find. [4] Picasso is of course the most prolific of modern artists and yet he characterizes his practice in terms of finding, not making. Here is another statement, this by Marcel Duchamp: I like living, breathing better than working. [5] Although it is well known that some of Duchamp’s works are meticulously crafted, his statement suggests that he would prefer not making anything at all. His selection of things and naming them ‘Readymade’ implicitly argues against understanding his gesture as a kind of making.

Of course the statements by Picasso and Duchamp were not offered as theoretical statements on practice, even if they are. The statements were made in the context of conversations with perceptive and analytical critics who selected and publicized them. Closer to our time are statements coming out of the conceptual art movement. The difference between art theory and a theory of practice could not be better illustrated than by a comparison of contributions by Joseph Kosuth  and Lawrence Weiner to the anthology of artist writings put together by H. von Gerd de Vries in 1974. Kosuth contributed ‘Art After Philosophy’. [6]  Weiner contributed his then untitled statement:


1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The work may be fabricated.
3. The work need not be built.


Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist. The decision
as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership. [7]


Kosuth’s writing focuses on art as it is received: “works of art are analytic propositions”. Even though he is offering a polemic against aesthetics, he is essentially still writing a theory of art works. Weiner is not doing that. His statement is not about works as they are received but about the approach to aesthetic experience that may or may not lead to the production of a work. This is consistent with the statements of Picasso and Duchamp quoted above. Practice is only an openness to the realization of an aesthetic experience in a work, which may, from the artist’s perspective, be realized without it. Though it sounds paradoxical, practice is not the same thing as making and practice does not necessarily lead to making. Most revealing of our current situation is the institution of the ‘artist talk’. The artist talk is so named because we look to the artist to speak candidly about their practice. We already have the works but we look to the artist to get their take on what they do. However, in reality, the artist talk is almost inevitably a mishmash of production talk, art history and art theory accompanied by studio anecdotes. There can be no conversation with an artist about practice because practice has not been observed thematically and as a subject of deliberation. If the particulars of practice are ever addressed by an audience, the question rarely reaches beyond “how did you do that?, strictly a question about production and having nothing to do with the task of ‘living well’.

I am not suggesting that the task of observing one’s own practice and theorizing it at least to the extent of organizing talking points concerning it is easy to do. It is unlikely that such theorizations can be as attractive as the compact and often incisive theories of art works that we have had the pleasure to come across. However humble such activity is, it has the advantage of coming from actual experience and by its nature will lead to conversations rather than demonstrations of competencies.

How can theorizing one’s practice bear on the task of critical thinking? We have artists who are now graduating from doctoral programs. We know that many of these artists are extremely competent. They know their aesthetic theory. They know their art history. Many of them know complex technological processes. And many of them already produce engaged and occasionally exciting works. What more can one want from an educational program? Is there any serious problem here? The answer is yes, there is a serious problem. Despite these many competencies, which are undoubtably important and critical, there is no concern for how experience is passed from one generation to another. Experience in practice reflects the lives of people as artists and bears on the life and death of individuals and generations. That is critical. Practical knowledge of art is at once the most transitory and yet the most durable kind of knowledge. It is bound to outlast even this, what Jameson, quoting Nietzsche, referred to as the ‘prison house of language’.


1. Excerpt from the call for papers, Design as a Critical (Non-productive) Practice (session chair: Andrew Forster); University Arts Association of Canada Conference, Montreal, October, 2012.

2. See Jameson, Fredric. “Preface.” The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. 1 ed. Princeton University Press, 1975. v-xi.

3. “Phronesis.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 March 2013. Web. 13 April 2013.  See also Gadamer, Hans Georg. “What is Practice? The Conditions of Social Reason.” Trans. Frederick G. Lawrence. Reason in the Age of Science. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 1981. 69-87.

4. Quoted in Graham Sutherland, “A Trend in English Draughtsmanship”, Signature, III (1936), pp. 7-13. Sourced by Wikiquotes.

5. Cabanne, Pierre. Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp. Viking Press, 1971. 72.

6. Kosuth, Joseph. “Art After Philosophy.” Über Kunst; Künstlertexte Zum Veränderten Kunstverständnis Nach 1965. On Art; Artist’s Writing on the Changed Notion of Art After 1965. Ed. Gerd de  Vries. [Köln]: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1974. 136-75.

7. Weiner, Lawrence. “Untitled.” Über Kunst; Künstlertexte Zum Veränderten Kunstverständnis Nach 1965. On Art; Artist’s Writing on the Changed Notion of Art After 1965. Ed. Gerd de Vries. [Köln]: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1974. 248-49.