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Socially Engaged Art - Adrienne Chaplin

Socially Engaged Art 

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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To read John's Skillen reaction, click here.