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The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. T.S. Eliot

Socially Engaged Art

Socially Engaged Art – a discussion starter

by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led many artists to rethink their practices and purposes. Some of them have turned to make what is now often termed ‘socially engaged art’ but has also been known under the names ‘social practice art,’ ‘interventionist art,’ ‘participatory art’ or ‘new genre public art.’ The latter term was coined by Susanne Lacy in the collection of essays she edited under the title Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art in 1994. Unlike traditional forms of art which are typically produced by one individual artist for the aesthetic contemplation by, so it is said, a ‘passive’ audience, socially engaged art involves a high level of collaboration with members of a community in its process of production and an active engagement with its audience in its final presentation or performance. It raises issues that are of direct relevance to people’s lives and empowers marginalised communities by giving them a public voice. Socially engaged art intervenes in public spaces by transforming them into sites of interactive communication that invites open-ended conversation and exploration of various issues.

One of the earliest expressions of socially engaged art was Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party in 1979, which took five years to prepare and involved hundreds of women and several men to research women’s contributions to science, culture and society at large. The final product consisted of a large triangular dinner table with 39 elaborate place settings celebrating famous women in history. For an elaborate video about this work, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yMtdWxAc60

In 1987 Susanne Lacy recruited over four hundred women over the age of 60 for her project The Crystal Quilt which resulted in a live performance in a public space in Minneapolis in 1987. The work took three years to prepare and involved numerous interviews and recordings of women’s life stories that highlighted the status of women in society. The performance was filmed and can currently be seen at the Tate Modern in London.  

Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has been involved in socially engaged art for most part of his career, working with marginalised communities, in particular the homeless.  Many of his projects centre around issues of conflict, war and trauma. For his work War Veterans he interviewed war veterans from all parts of the world and uses their voices and the texts of their stories in large scale projections on the facades of iconic buildings in major cities around the world. Often employing converted armoured vehicles as a platform for his projector, the texts and voices are projected in a staccato style reminiscent of military fire as could be seen in his installation in Krakow in July 2013, click here. In November of the same year he did a project in Derry, which was at the time UK’s City of Culture. Working closely with people from different communities, the projection involved people’s testimonies of The Troubles as experienced by both sides of the divide, click here.

Arguably one of the best-known artists also known for his socially engaged art is Ai WeiWei.  For his Sunflower Seeds installation in 2010 he employed a large team of local artisans in Jingdezhen to create over hundred million hand-crafted and hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that were spread out on the floor of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. In this project the process of production was an integral part of the installation, by drawing attention to the fact that many of China’s small porcelain workshops were being put out of business by China’s large mass production factories. For more about this work, click here.

For his more recent installation Straight Ai WeiWei employed another large team to straighten the steel bars that had been retrieved from the site of an earthquake in Sichuan killing over 5000 schoolchildren. The twisted steel rods were the remains of twenty poorly built schools that had collapsed during the quake. In its final product the 150 tons of straightened steel bars were laid out on the floor of the Royal Academy in London as a minimalist sculpture in the shape of a rolling landscape. Challenging the governments’ cover-up of its corrupt building industry Ai WeiWei collected as many names as he could of the children who had died and displayed those on the walls of the gallery around the steel bars. During the two years it took to prepare for the exhibition he was detained for a period of 81 days. For more about this work, click here.

One final example of socially engaged art are the surprise winners of the 2015 Turner Prize, an eighteen-member collective of young architects and designers called Assemble. They won the award for their work on the Grandy Four Streets project in Liverpool where they collaborated with residents of a rundown council housing estate to clean up the neighbourhood and rejuvenate it with handcraft design and products.

Socially engaged art is in many ways a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture. It aims to connect art with ordinary people and addresses issue that are relevant for today. It has an ethical focus by raising awareness of matters of injustice and by providing a voice for marginalized communities.

Yet some also raise questions. Some critics fear that the collaborative nature of socially engaged art risks lowering the artistic professional quality of the work or turns them into second rate community projects. They also fear that the line between so-called ‘autonomous art’ and ‘applied art’ is no longer sufficiently clear and they feel uncomfortable with that. In response to that one may be reminded that the whole idea of ‘autonomous art’ only emerged in the eighteenth century and that prior to that most art served some kind of function or institution.

In his book Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art (2015) Nicholas Wolterstorff talks about this idea of autonomous art as the ‘grand narrative’ for art, i.e. the idea that art is predominantly meant to serve as an object of passive aesthetic contemplation rather than an instrument for action or a practice such as, for example, commemorating, protesting or honoring someone. Calvin Seerveld speaks in that connection about ‘double-duty’ art. While some art is indeed meant to be attended to for its own sake, other kinds of art can serve different purposes, such as hymns in church worship. (For a review by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin of Art Rethought, click here)

Other critics raise concerns that socially engaged art is driven by a social or political agenda.  They fear that this risks compromising a work’s overall artistic integrity by turning it into   overly prescriptive or message oriented art. This is one of the concerns raised by Claire Bishop in her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012).  This anxiety is not motivated by a traditionalist formalist bias, but by the view that art that follows a particular political agenda ultimately fails to achieve what is sets out to do in terms of its transformative aspirations. As Lambert Zuidervaart argues in his book Art in Public: Politics, Economics and a Democratic Culture (2011), art that is overly political and issue oriented loses its potential for the kind of imaginative artistic and explorative experimentation that is essential for the fostering of free and independent thinking.  

This concern reminds us of the debates in Marxist and neo-Marxist circles in the 1930’s over the relative merits and failures of autonomous and non-autonomous art. While all participants in this debate shared the strong conviction that art should be socially and critically engaged, exposing and critiquing oppressive structures and systemic injustices, they disagreed on the way in which art could do so most effectively. For Sartre and Brecht, for instance, art could only become seriously socially ‘committed’ by serving as a political tool in the struggle for change. For Adorno and Marcuse, by contrast, art’s autonomy was a precondition for artistic integrity and truth and so for its capacity to be socially relevant.

Ironically, we are also reminded of the ongoing debate in some Christian circles about the question whether art made by Christians should be primarily overtly evangelistic and devotional or whether it could also be about the world at large and human experience in general. This question was addressed as early as 1978 by the late art historian Hans Rookmaaker in his booklet Art Needs no Justification (1978).

All that said, there is no real formula for socially engaged art and it occurs in a large variety of forms and guises. Some projects are very open-ended and elusive while others address very concrete ills or other issues. There is, I suggest, place for both. But perhaps this can serve as a discussion starter to hear some other views and opinions.

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Reaction by John Skillen:

Appreciative response to Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin’s blog post on socially-engaged art in ArtWay

Many thanks to Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin for her concise but thorough overview of the growing movement of “socially engaged art” (with plenty of tips for further reading).  Taking up her invitation to ArtWay readers to use her blog-post as a “discussion starter,” I would like to expand on her reminder “that the whole idea of ‘autonomous art’ only emerged in the eighteenth century and that prior to that most art served some kind of function or institution.”

My own recent book Putting Art (back) in its Place provides an account (for non-academic readers) of a long period of European civilization (with a focus on central Italy from about 1250 to 1520) when visual art framed the places in which people gathered, did their work, and experienced their own part in purposeful stories. Pretty much all art operated as part of both the social fabric and the encompassing architectural fabric of towns and cities. Art existed as a “socially engaged” enterprise. 

During this period, everyone wanted art! Monastic communities ate their suppers in front of the Last Supper, frescoed on the end-wall of the refectory by artists whose skill in perspective could dovetail actual with fictive space. Town councils, such as the committee of Nine in Siena, debated and decided policy under the frescoed gaze of images exploring the sources and effects of good and bad government, a constant reminder to the councilmen of their duty to the public welfare. People received the Eucharist before altarpieces that clarified precise aspects of the Real Presence of Christ to be embodied in the lives of the faithful as in his mother and in the saints of the past. 

Not only churches and the palazzi of the ruling classes, but hospitals, orphanages, confraternity clubhouses and guild halls, baptisteries and bell towers, sacristies where the clergy vested for the Mass, chapter houses and cloisters in monasteries, civic fountains and public squares, were all zones of serious decoration and design. No sphere of civic and religious life was alien from the desire for imagery able to instruct, to prompt memory, and to inspire the community to action. (These three terms were repeated over many centuries in defenses of art.) 

The briefer history belongs to the Romantic-modernist paradigm for art-making with its privileging of the Artist as free to make what he wants in the privacy of his own studio, pictured as a counter-cultural figure unconstrained by bourgeois conventions, answerable to no one (and yet with no assured means of making a living apart from the gallerists who might take on the work for a cut). As Chaplin comments, “Socially engaged art is in many ways a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture. It aims to connect art with ordinary people and addresses issues that are relevant for today.”

In an earlier epoch works of art were almost always commissioned and designed for the use of a particular community in a particular place, assisting that community in the performance of those actions that defined its work and identity. To ensure the relevance and adequacy of artworks to their purpose and setting, the production of art typically involved collaboration among what we might call the four parties of art: representation from the community for which the artwork was made, a commissioning patron responsible for funding, advisors who articulated the thematic matter to the artist hired and trusted to give astute visual embodiment to the assigned themes and narratives. The sophistication with which complex topics in ethics and politics, theology and philosophy were given visual elaboration (think of Raphael’s frescoes commissioned for Pope Julius’s library in the Vatican) is partly the product of expecting artists to work with scholarly advisors.

My hunch is that it will be less productive to try to define socially-engaged art as a new direction within a still-modernist paradigm, or even as a reaction against or “refreshing counterpart to” the aestheticized (non)engagement of modernist gallery gazing. Such approaches can keep in place the assumed autonomy and counter-conventional identity of the artist. (Chaplin’s account strings together a list of single artists—with the exception of the multi-member Assemble—keeping the focus on the artist as the initiator of socially-engaged collaborative artworks.)

More productive in laying a positive social framework for socially-engaged art is to couch it as a creative revisiting of a long tradition, when (a) the very means and process of production involved the community, and answerability among the four parties was baked into the scheme, when (b) the community itself and certainly the commissioning agents were concerned with the “artistic integrity” of the artwork (rather than such concern being borne only by the aesthetically-sensitive artist), and when (c) the limits to the artist’s total autonomy were more than offset by the respected role that artists held in society, along with means of making a living.

To Chaplin’s comment that “socially engaged art involves a high level of collaboration with members of a community in its process of production and an active engagement with its audience in its final presentation or performance,” I would add the hope that such collaboration can provide the grounds for high artistic integrity rather than necessarily jeopardizing aesthetic care. I like her example of Assemble, who won the 2015 Turner Prize, “for their work on the Grandy Four Streets project in Liverpool where they collaborated with residents of a rundown council housing estate to clean up the neighbourhood and rejuvenate it with handcraft design and products.”


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