I claim socially engaged art is DEAD. (Whether it ever lived or even existed beyond a category description is, of course, another question.) The Art World is DEAD. So, when the Art World subsumes the category description “socially engaged art” (and “social practice” and many more, for that matter) it must KILL the category description – the words.
Practice (the doing that arises from being) is beyond names, titles, descriptors, signs and signifiers. Attempts to categorise and measure the individual doing that arises from individual being (whether in the form of individual or group or culture-wide practice) always impose falsely limiting frameworks upon our innumerable acts of individual living; are always reductionist. Mapping, naming and measuring things (including practices) are not only acts of reductionism but also the first steps to empire and colonisation. Divide and rule. Dominate, exploit, displace, destroy. The aim of this (capitalist) game is to conquer everything whilst retaining individual words, emptied of their original meanings: meaningless words.
So, when I playfully suggest that socially engaged art is DEAD, I mean the words have been subsumed then repurposed by the Art World; by the Establishment. This is not new. THEY have always appropriated radical art practices in this way. (Was socially engaged art ever really radical anyway?) THEY steal the words and depoliticise the practice. THEY (revealing their total uncreativeness and dependency upon artists) institutionalise and sanitise EVERYTHING. Culturally, that is the role of Arts and Cultural institutions; their duty. THEY do it very well, even encouraging cohorts of new devotees who skip happily along, “delivering” the newly appropriated and totally depoliticised practices as commanded. (Of course, depoliticisation is one of the most politically aggressive acts possible – a negation of our rights, our freedoms.) THEY play by the rules of capitalism. WE must never forget this. Arts and Cultural institutions, with or without their Creative Industries branding, are part of the capitalist system.
Socially engaged art was said to be anti-institutional, politically motivated and subversive. It was, for a long time, dismissed as poor quality art or even ‘not-art’. Then suddenly it became BIG NEWS. Everyone’s socially engaged nowadays, aren’t they? Why? Socially engaged art, like community arts and many forms of avant-garde practice, left itself wide open to appropriation. (Perhaps, many in the field secretly wanted to be accepted by the Art World?) It expanded to include more and more interpretations. It did not define itself as a movement. It allowed itself to be courted by the same Art World that once despised it. It celebrated its recognition and celebrated the creation of ‘poster boys (and girls?) for socially engaged art’. It bought into government agendas like wellbeing, inclusion and education. It wanted a slice of arts funding. In short, it was bought. The writing was on the wall for socially engaged art for a long time. Its death should come as little surprise.
DEATH: Socially engaged art created increasingly expensive and exclusive conferences culminating in outrage by many grassroots practitioners illustrated, for example, in this excellent recent article responding to OPEN ENGAGEMENT 2016 which claimed to focus on ‘power’ whilst actually reproducing hierarchies of power within the field.
DEATH: Socially engaged art wins the 2015 Turner Prize. (Are Assemble socially engaged artists anyway?) Tate describe Assemble as ‘a perfect example of artists using socially engaged practise because they collaborate with residents to improve their local area’ in their glossary of art terms. I wrote about the not so collaborative commissioning of Assemble recently.
DEATH: (Linked to the point above.) Tate describe socially engaged art as ‘art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work’! They go on to say that the practice can ‘often be organised as the result of an outreach or education program’! They mention activism but limit the intentionality to helping a ‘community work towards a common goal, raise awareness and encourage conversation around issues, or perhaps to improve their physical or psychological conditions’. DEPOLITICISED and INSTITUTIONALISED.
DEATH: Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places initiatives now often claim to work with socially engaged art/ practice (in place of the now virtually buried ‘participatory arts’).
DEATH: Guggenheim Museum announce a new Social Practice Art initiative funded with a significant award from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations (the philanthropic arm of the international private banker with some very unsavoury global investments). Of course, the Guggenheim themselves are widely recognised as one of the major arts institutions of the 1% as well as abusing the rights of workers employed to build its new museum in Abu Dhabi.
DEATH: Socially engaged artists are employed at the service of housing associations intent on social cleansing and gentrification. For example, here at Balfron Tower, London in this excellent article by Balfron Social Club.
I could go on. Perhaps you would like to suggest your own causes of the death of socially engaged art?
What does this mean for radical social praxis, activist art practices, socially and politically targeted interventionist art? Nothing. This practice continues as normal. In fact, it is growing. The tedious sublimation of radical practice pushes the practice forward; strengthens its resolve. THEY are always playing catch up.
Is it time for a new radical avant-garde?
It is time, I argue, that we stand against the Art World and wider Establishment status quos and expose their intricate links to neoliberalism and neo-colonialism whenever and wherever we find them! In leading member of the Situationist International Raoul Vaneigem’s words, The Revolution of Everyday Life.
More on the growth of anti-institutional, activist and revolutionary art practices soon…