Praxis Makes Perfect

Praxis Makes Perfect | A is for Aphorism

I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to clichés. Also idioms, memes, and platitudes. I love all kinds of overused, trite, or essentially meaningless language. (Let me just take this moment to apologize to all of the college professors who had to read my pathetically lame paper titles, many of which used the aforementioned expressions.) The subheadings in this post are an homage to the aphorism, which I think is an appropriate device to use in a column that’s essentially life advice for ex-students like me, at sea in the real world for the first time ever or the first time in a while.

1. Practice Makes Perfect

A little more than a month ago, I wrote my last post for Open Enrollment as a grad student blogger. I had yet to print, collate, and submit my master’s thesis to my department; I had yet to move out of the apartment in which I had written the thesis; and I had yet to begin my first job as an “emerging museum professional.”

I’ve done all of those things now, but of course, it was only a month ago. Not that much has changed.

In fact, in that last post that I wrote, I mused about Paulo Freire’s advice regarding the imbalance of reflection and action in cultural practice. I didn’t use the word, but I was referring to his ideas about praxis: the process of enacting theory, or the embodied combination of reflection and action. How fitting. Practice Praxis does indeed make perfect.

2. Don’t Give Up the Ship

In the space between my life as a student and the beginning of my journey toward permanent employment, I took a brief trip to New York. After a long train ride from Chicago to D.C., the site of my summer internship, I dropped off a large suitcase and caught a bus north to the City. There, I reunited with my friend Lauren for three days of museum and gallery hopping. One stop on the tour and the real reason for our holiday was the Cindy Sherman retrospective, which we caught on its final weekend at MoMA.

Cindy Sherman. "Untitled Film Still #10," 1978. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both of us thought the best part of the show was the room dedicated to Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. Still, even though my favorite pictures were in the first gallery, not once did I get tired of looking at her work while walking through the rest of the exhibition. No one around me seemed to be bored, either.

What made the Sherman retrospective so interesting to me was seeing her work laid out by series. Although she has mostly adhered to one essential formula throughout her career, Sherman finds ways to endlessly innovate with and contemporize her work by frequently redefining her criteria–shifting her focus from centerfolds to fairy tales; transitioning from history paintings to society portraits.

The idea of the singular series or project within an artist’s body of work is something that several museums have latched onto lately. At the New Museum, the third floor galleries have housed “focus shows” for the past year. Up now is a fascinating installation of (mostly video) portraits of five American artists and thinkers by the British artist Tacita Dean. At the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the current photography exhibition I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010 spotlights street photography projects of five artists, from Walker Evans to Philip Lorca-diCorcia.

"Tacita Dean: Five Americans," 2012. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

I find this idea of the project, and specifically the side project, very appealing in these post-graduate days. I realize that projects may be responsible for both preserving my sanity and keeping me connected to the art world in the coming year. Like I imagine most of my peers are doing, I’m allowing myself a couple of months to look for and apply to art-related jobs. When that time is up, all bets are off, and I’ll start looking for any gig that will pay the rent.

So what happens if I end up working outside of the field of art education? Like a muscle that atrophies when it is no longer exercised, will my knowledge of–and passion for–art and museums shrink in size and strength with every day I don’t employ it? Not if I can help it. Not if I have the side project.

3. Know Thyself

I’ve only recently wrapped my head around the likelihood that I’m going to have to temporarily shelve my goal of finding full-time employment in an art museum. Jobs in museums tend to arise sporadically and with little warning, and everyone seriously interested in this line of work knows that a willingness to relocate is prerequisite number one. My plan was to get my degree, and then go wherever I could find a museum that would pay me to teach in it.

For someone for whom geography and sense of place are extremely important factors in her happiness, I’ve never been much of a homebody. I get to know a city or town, become comfortable, get restless, and then move on. When I came to Chicago for grad school, I figured it would be a two-year stint and nothing more. But then something unexpected happened: I finished school, and I didn’t want to leave.

There are a several good reasons for me to bid farewell to the Windy City, the top two being weather and topography. I was born and raised in West Virginia, and I went to college in Vermont. I crave the sight of mountains day in, day out, so I know that I can’t stick around the Prairie State forever.

Google image search results for "Vermont mountains," from

There are, however, equally compelling reasons for me to stay. Yes, one is my boyfriend, but there are many more, including but not limited to: the wonderful peer group that I found in grad school, the close-knittedness of the art community, the affordable cost of living, the number and diverse character of neighborhoods, and the plethora of opportunities for up-and-coming artists and art workers.

What is most persuasive is the feeling that not only am I not yet done with Chicago, but Chicago is not yet done with me. I have this sense that the city has more to offer me, and that if I can step outside of my comfort zone and stay in limbo for a while, I’ll be rewarded in the end. I know myself well enough to recognize that I thrive in structured environments and need to be kept busy, but I also know deep down that now is the time to test my limits.

4. Opportunity Never Knocks Twice

And so, as I expand my idea of what kind of work I could find fulfilling and begin to brainstorm side projects with other eager and anxious new graduates, I am trying to heed the advice given to my intern group the other day, which was to make room for serendipity. What a lovely word, serendipity. It’s more than luck, less than destiny–it’s being in the right place at the right time, but also knowing a good opportunity when you see it and being willing to risk failure in pursuit of it. If I don’t leave space for serendipity at this point in my life, who knows if the possibilities I pass up will ever present themselves again.

5. Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Which might explain why, after all that talk about staying in Chicago, I just applied to a job in New York. Who knows if I would actually take it, if by some stroke of luck it was offered to me. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

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