Research by Stephen Pritchard

What exactly is this social art? And how is art being used?

In The Social Production of Art, first published in 1981, art historian, Janet Wolff, described art as ‘a social product’, stating that is was ‘not useful to think of artistic work as essentially different from other kinds of work’ (Wolff, 1993 [1981], pp. 1-2). Her Neo-Marxist perspective was that all art is socially constructed and that studying the arts from a sociological perspective revealed ‘many of the extra-aesthetic elements involved in aesthetic judgement – the values of class, or the influence of political or moral ideas, for example’ (Wolff, 1993 [1981], p. 7). She proposed that artists never ‘worked in isolation from social and political constraints of a direct or indirect kind’ (Wolff, 1993 [1981], p. 27).

Artist, critic and art historian, Suzi Gablik, stated in Has Modernism Failed? (1984), that art should ‘forgo the artifice of the gallery’ to make art for and with the public, not just other artists or a ‘dwindling elite’ (Gablik, 1984, p. 28). Later, in The Reenchantment of Art, published in 1992, she described ‘radical art’ as being capable of organising ‘people who can speak for themselves, but lack the vehicles to do so’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 112). Gablik’s belief that social participation in the arts involved ‘a significant shift from objects to relationships’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 7) is, perhaps, as salient today as when first written. She insisted that socially engaged practice must be founded upon firm notions of community and ‘new modes of relatedness’ with the aim of enabling a paradigm-shift from ‘individual genius’ to ‘social consciousness’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 114). Again, this is a position still strongly relevant to contemporary debates within the arts. For Gablik, it was essential that ‘competitive modes of institutionalised aesthetics’ should be discarded by the arts to avoid further proliferation of an already entrenched ‘dominator system’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 144).

Huyssen sought to end modernism’s dominant ‘dead-end dichotomy of politics and aesthetics… including the aestheticist trend within poststructuralism’ and replace it with a ‘productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’ (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], pp. 336-337). His position perhaps relates more to contemporary discussions about socially engaged art by practitioners than by many sociologists; offering alternative ways of envisioning art and social change rather than historicising it.

Art critic, Nicolas Bourriaud, coined the phrase ‘relational aesthetics’ in 1996 in an attempt to define arts practice that centred on ‘the whole of human relations and their social context’ rather than the artist (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 113). He described relational art as a participatory form of creating ‘ways of living and models of action within the existing real’ on ‘whatever scale chosen by the artist’ (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 13). Although Bourriaud’s concept claimed to remove the artist from the centre of the artwork, the previous quotation reveals that the artist remained central to relational art. He also disparaged radical activist arts practice as ‘futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible, not to say regressive’, denying the possibility of art being capable of creating ‘social utopias and revolutionary hopes’ (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 31).

In 2005, three artists, Stephan Dillemuth, Anthony Davies and Jakob Jakobsen, co-authored a deeply critical essay entitled There is no alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED. The provocative essay suggested that many contemporary cultural and education institutions were ‘nothing more than legal and administrative organs of the dominant system’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). The authors described these institutions as utilising a socially acceptable façade that purports to represent society whilst secretly working to ‘become even more obscure, more unreliable and more exclusive’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 378). Their contestation was that the cultural and education sectors had betrayed their responsibilities to society in favour of survival by submission to the state (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, p. 379). For Dillemuth et al., self-organisation was the only means of avoiding state control. Their manifesto culminated in a call for a fluidly flexible, agile ‘non-identity’ that was incompatible with the structures of traditional institutions by remaining ‘[m]utually reinforcing, self-valorising, self-empowering, self-historicising’ (Dillemuth, et al., 2005, pp. 380-381). This was, perhaps, social change, radically reimagined.

In his most recent book, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, written in 2011, Grant H. Kester described the rise of socially engaged (or collaborative) art practice as a direct response to a socio-political milieu dominated by ‘a powerful neoliberal economic order dedicated to eliminating all forms of collective or public resistance (institutional, ideological, and organizational) to the primacy of capital’ (Kester, 2011, p. 5). He saw this ‘as a time of both peril and opportunity’, similar to other similar moments in the history of modernism, when ‘the dominant political narratives used to explain and justify social and economic inequality, the distribution of resources and opportunities within society, and the relative responsibility of the state to the public at large, are being contested and destabilized’ (ibid., pp. 6-7). Kester suggested that contemporary socially engaged practice could disrupt traditional notions of autonomy and aesthetics. His concern was that ethical values were often displaced by some critics in favour of ‘distanciation and destabilization’ (ibid., pp. 9-10). Kester believed that art theory and criticism must adapt to meet specific modes of production associated with socially engaged practice, utilising techniques from social sciences to assist in evaluating projects (ibid., pp. 10-11). He was, however, wary of post-structuralism because its ‘concept of a textual politics (centered on a process of critical reading, or decoding)’ might insulate ‘the act of critique’ from the demands of socially engaged practice (ibid., p. 13). Political opposition, activism and site-specificity were, for Kester, at the heart of a challenging socially engaged practice based upon ‘immersive interaction and a referential orientation to specific sites of social production’ (ibid., p. 37). He believe this multi-faceted, collaborative approach to practice was challenging to many art historians (ibid., p. 59).

Unlike Kester, who was critical of Bourriaud, Bishop believed that the participatory arts had ‘emerged in the wake of Relational Aesthetics’ (ibid., p. 2). Bishop, like Kester and many other writers, associated the ‘return to the social’ with a renewed focus on collaboration, project-based practice and participation; a continuum of ‘attempts to rethink art collectively’ (ibid., pp. 2-3). She situated contemporary social practice as existing within the ‘tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions’ (ibid., p. 3). Bishop was concerned about forms of participatory art that emphasised ‘process over a definitive image, concept or object’, preferring instead ‘to value what is invisible: a group dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised consciousness’ (ibid., p. 6). She explained that criticism needed to find ‘new ways of analysing art that are no longer linked solely to visuality’ – an interdisciplinary approach in which the aesthetics of ‘form’ and ‘reflections on quality’ were not subjugated by policy-driven, outcome-based, positivist approaches (ibid., p. 7); a position that developed ‘art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change’ as well as critiquing participatory art ‘as art, since this is the institutional field in which it is endorsed and disseminated’ (ibid., p. 12-13).

Bishop claimed that Kester tended to compassionately identify with the ‘other’ and favoured ‘a generalised set of ethical precepts’ over ‘the disruptive specificity of a given practice’ (ibid, pp. 23-25). She feared that a normative stance, based upon consensus and respect for difference, may repress social practice that explored ‘disruption, intervention or over-identification’ by labelling them as unethical (ibid., p. 25). A central position for Bishop, in Artificial Hells, was that socially engaged art should exist ‘in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society’, by redefining traditional notions of the aesthetic as ‘aisthesis: an autonomous regime of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality’ (ibid., pp. 16-18). Her proposition was that ‘unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact’ (ibid., p. 26). By developing Rancière’s revision of the aesthetic as aisthesis (Ranciere, 2013 [2011]), Bishop proposed a solution to her assertion that socially engaged art had a ‘disavowed relationship to the aesthetic’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 26-27).

Perhaps, then, socially engaged art can, by incorporating approaches inherent in critical pedagogical and critical participatory action research, help people discover their own sense of understanding; their own independent forms of ‘expertise’? In discussion with Paulo Freire in 1990, civil rights campaigner and founder of the Highlander Folk School, Myles Horton, warned that some organisers believe education by experts is empowerment when it often disempowered people (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 120). Instead, Horton explained that ‘expert knowledge is different from having the expert telling people what to do’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 130). The position of Horton and Freire was central to Helguera’s Transpedagogical approach to socially engaged practice and also supported by Bishop, who reflected upon critical pedagogy’s inherent ‘insistence on the breakdown of teacher/ pupil hierarchy and participation as a route to empowerment’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 267).

To curator and writer, Maria Lind, socially engaged art was reflective of ‘people’ rather than ‘objects’; the intention was ‘social and political change’; a practice better sited ‘outside traditional art institutions’ yet ‘not entirely foreign to them (Lind, 2012, p. 49). She described social practice as a minor element of the arts ecosystem that retained its independence by opposing ‘the spectacularized and consumption-oriented mainstream institutions’ (ibid., p. 55). For Teddy Cruz, an architect specialising in radical urban design, the prevailing socio-economic situation helped cultivate a broader approach to artistic practice that encompassed other disciplines and ‘new conceptions of cultural and economic production (Cruz, 2012, pp. 57-60). He, like Bishop, supported radical activism that produced ‘new aesthetic categories that can problematize the relationship of the social, the political, and the formal’ by coupling activists with autonomous artists (Cruz, 2012, pp. 60-61). Arts and cultural theorist, Carol Becker presented a more idealistic argument, claiming that socially engaged artists were ‘creating microutopian interventions that allow us to dream back the communities we fear we have lost’ (Becker, 2012, p. 71). To cultural philosopher, Brian Holmes, socially engaged art was one element in a ‘mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities’ in a quest to ‘change the forms in which we are living’ (Holmes, 2012, pp. 73-74). His essay, in Living as Form, suggested this might be achieved using a four-pronged approach incorporating: ‘critical research’; ‘participatory art’; ‘networked communications and strategies of mass-media penetration’; and ‘collaborative coordination or “self-organisation”’ (ibid., p. 74). Holmes manifesto chimes with that of Dillemuth et al. (2005) discussed earlier. Finally, arts and humanities academic and writer, Shannon Jackson offered a more conciliatory position, making clear that, for her, the fundamental question for the future of socially engaged art was ‘whether it should be “self-governing” or commit to governance by “external rules”’ (Jackson, 2012, pp. 90-91).

Becker, C., 2012. Microutopias: Public Practice in the Public Sphere. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011. New York: Creative Time Books.
Bishop, C., 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London: Verso.
Bourriaud, N., 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.
Cruz, T., 2012. Democratizing Urbanization and the Search for a New Civic Imagination. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011. New York: Creative Time Books.
Dillemuth, S., Davies, A. & Jakobsen, J., 2005. There Is No Alternative: The Future is Self-Organised. In: W. Bradley & C. Esche, eds. Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader. London: Tate Publishing, 2007.
Gablik, S., 1984. Has Modernism Failed?. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Gablik, S., 1992. The Reenchantment of Art. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Holmes, B., 2012. Eventwork: The Fourfold Matrix of Contemporary Social Movements. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011. New York: Creative Time Books.
Horton, M. & Freire, P., 1990. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Huyssen, A., 1998 [1984]. Mapping the Postmodern. In: D. Preziosi, ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jackson, S., 2012. Living Takes Many Forms. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011. New York: Creative Time Books.
Kester, G. H., 2011. The One and The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Lind, M., 2012. Returning on Bikes: Notes of Social Practice. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011. New York: Creative Time Books.
Ranciere, J., 2013 [2011]. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. London: Verso.
Wolff, J., 1993 [1981]. The Social Production of Art. Second ed. Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.