If there is confusion regarding what constitutes art in the emerging realm of socially engaged art, that is understandable. As not only artists, but architects, city planners, grassroots organizers, environmentalists, graphic designers, and many others grab at the numerous tool sets made available through the arts, we find ourselves in a jumbled realm where the descriptions of what things are seem to be turned around. As many artists in contemporary art have begun to turn their attention toward that thing we call the social, we find that, as a matter of necessity, they must borrow equally from disciplines in order to make their work more effective.
Let’s take an example. The artist Rick Lowe has made an intricate piece that is instructive in demonstrating the complexity we are talking about here. His work, located in Houston’s Third Ward, is called Project Row Houses. It is a series of shotgun row houses that he purchased in a low-income, predominately African-American neighborhood. Over the course of 15 years, Lowe has slowly developed an artist residency and resource program that has inspired the neighborhood to converse with visiting artists, and vice versa. Project Row House then, in essence, is a long-term, socially engaged artwork that works across city agencies to provide much-needed cultural resources from the bottom up. At the same time, it conflates many traditional ideas of what constitutes an art practice because of its (at times) utilitarian nature, its entanglement with economics, and its hands-on approach to issues of poverty and race that are a central part of the American story. (Project Row Houses is an important progenitor of two more-recent projects featured in Spontaneous Interventions: Power House by Design 99 in Detroit and 1415 by Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation in St. Louis.)
This is the kind of artwork that makes cynics roll their eyes, because they feel that it limits what is often described as “the autonomy of art.” Referencing the pioneering beliefs of skeptics such as Theodor Adorno, they often voice a concern that this kind of work is neither good politics nor good art. Such critiques should be expected, for socially engaged artwork certainly does defy one of art’s most longstanding principles: uselessness.
But let’s not assume that we know what art is. Whether or not we agree with this mode of working—a mode we could summarize as people working with culture in the realm of the social—you should understand that this kind of engagement is a growing, global phenomenon. Putting their heads in the sand will not save the critics from the inevitable tide of cultural producers who are frustrated with art’s impotence and who are eager to make a tangible change in the world. What scares these artists more than art losing its supposed autonomy is the possibility that the world will keep going the way it is.
This is muddy territory. Escaping the rules of formalism, social works must encounter the complicated terrain of people—in all of their complexity. From language to sociology, from pedagogy to urban planning, the skill sets needed for this way of working are vast, while rigor is understandably lacking. What are the criteria for a successful socially engaged artwork? Who is the work for? What does it do? Are aesthetics even a consideration?
Instead of trying to lump all of this work into one large pile, it might be helpful to see the works as more of a range of affinities of methods. In grabbing skill sets from numerous disciplines, what truly binds socially engaged artwork together is more of an ecology of affinities that spreads out like a web. Some works might be more poetic and focus on intimate personal encounters. Some works thrive in the public sphere. Some works attempt to tackle policy and thus encounter the limitations and compromises that come from interacting with government. Some works are participatory; some are not. There is a wide array of methods as the realm of the social and the cultural continues to encompass a preponderance of what we consider our everyday life.
The mistake is to think of this as a trend. This is not a trend. It is more a reflection of the evolving nature of making meaning in the built environment. Even more than making art, artists want to make meaning. In order to do that, radically new methods are being produced that push across the social and into the sphere of lived existence. This is not simply the work of artists, but also the work of marketers, politicians, and communications industries all of whom are eager to gain our attention. In the war for meaning, people from every discipline have something at stake in finding the right way to reach and produce the civic.
Nato Thompson is a curator at the New York–based public arts institution Creative Time. His most recent exhibition was Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991–2011. Previously, at MASS MoCA, he curated The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere (2004).