Saturday, March 30, 2013

Social Practice Art, St. Louis and the NY Times

There is a piece in the New York Times that brings St. Louis to the fore of 'Social Practice Art.' Here is a quote from the piece that explains its make-up:
Known primarily as social practice, its practitioners freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system. And in so doing, they push an old question — “Why is it art?” — as close to the breaking point as contemporary art ever has.

Regina Martinez for The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
A town-hall meeting on racial and economic issues at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis.

Here is another quote about The Pulitzer's role:
At the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a private institution founded by the collector and philanthropist Emily Rauh Pulitzer that opened in St. Louis in 2001, the staff for many years included two full-time social workers who helped former prison inmates and homeless veterans as part of the curatorial program. And in December the foundation, responding to a 2012 BBC report about racial and economic disparities in St. Louis, held a town-hall meeting on the issue. The goal was to open a dialogue with people who live near the institution, which sits near a stark north-south divide between mostly white and African-American neighborhoods.
“We hoped maybe 100 people would show up, and more than 350 did,” said Kristina Van Dyke, the foundation’s director, who collaborated with the Missouri History Museum in organizing the event. As the foundation approached its 10th anniversary, she said, “we wanted to start envisioning art more broadly, as a place where ideas can happen and action might be able to take place.”
“The question became: Could we effect social change through art, plain and simple?” she said, adding that the foundation is now exploring ways to orient its programming toward design projects that would help the poor, for example. “To me art is elastic. It can respond to many different demands made on it. At the same time I have to say that I don’t believe all institutions have to do these kinds of things, or should.”

There are artists and other groups working along these lines in St. Louis, often collaborating in ways that will unite more than one circle of concern for a project.  Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation have been a part of this in Hyde Park and Pagedale here. The St. Louis Artists' Guild held an exhibit (that included a piece from me) on Sustainability and the Built Environment that united artists, architects and the green building crowd in 2011.

This is not something that is met with universal acceptance by any means. Check out this manifesto, of sorts, and the reader comments from this blog hosted by Portland State University


Canadian artist and art and social practice educator, Justin Langlois offers a list of critique questions for artists developing socially engaged work.  This post is included as part of a series of practical tools for artists making socially engaged work:  

  1. Did your artwork involve other people?
  2. Are you uncomfortable with calling your artwork an artwork?
  3. Would you rather discuss this as a project?
  4. Did you refer to the other people involved as a community?
  5. Have you tried to explain at length the ways in which you are defining the terms 'involved' and 'other people' and 'community'?
  6. Are you painfully aware that there are unavoidable power imbalances at play in this project?
  7. Did you document the results or process of this project using a digital SLR, a camera phone, or Instagram?
  8. Are there obvious formal possibilities for exhibiting this documentation?
  9. Did you wonder if it would it be inappropriate to sell this documentation?
  10. Are there power struggles immediately evident when viewing the documentation?
  11. Have you considered trying to present this work as a book, documentary, or play?
  12. How much pressure did you feel to defend the work as tackling political change?
  13. Did you assume that your project needed to continue indefinitely towards achieving some political end in order for it to be successful?
  14. Were you asked about success, measurable outcomes, attendance levels, or evidence of change?
  15. Did you expect there to be answers to those questions?
  16. Did your research for this project lead you to briefly attend a series of parallel community meetings at which you felt the need to excuse a comment or thought as coming from the perspective of an artist?
  17. Did your project dissolve after a public presentation / workshop / town hall meeting / charette / or screening?
  18. Did you feel an unresolved guilt around its dissolution?
  19. Can you work be critiqued by a painter?
  20. Did you feel belittled when approached by a visual artist, theoretician, or architect?
  21. Have there been discussions of 'radical' theory offered from a great distance to the work?
  22. If your project was a math equation, did the sum always end up as a critique of capitalism?
  23. Is your project illegible enough to likely never be printed in Art Forum or your local newspaper?
  24. Can you imagine yourself being awarded a large-scale prize some years after the launch of your project that you didn't necessarily locate as an art project in the first place?
  25. Could your work easily be mistaken for a project found in surveys of Fluxus, Conceptual Art, or Dada?
  26. Did this project align itself to a set of political goals that have already been articulated?
  27. Is there form evident in the project that would allow it to most easily fit into an identified granting opportunity?
  28. Could your project be mistaken for a restaurant, social service, after-school program, or a guerrilla marketing campaign?
  29. Could your role in the project being defined as that of a facilitator, organizer, or teacher?
  30. Were you asked to explain the reason you think your project is art?


I find these questions circuitous and perhaps misleading, bordering on disingenuous. The very fact that this one person thinks it necessary to teach social art by presenting single-minded analytic criteria indicates to me that the rigidity of the person asking the questions counters the spontaneity and original communal effort in any project that is truly collaborative and whose questions need to be decided and agreed on by those who are collaborating. A process I would use is to focus on developing a common set of values among participants who also happen to be those who pay (or not) but come to witness something they are attracted to. Surely the debate about public life of art is part of the process and, in my opinion, should include a broader community. Emphasis is on the concept "community" which is not a substitute for words such as witness or audience, or consumer. In my opinion, any art that is concerned with social justice has to start with the unwavering belief that all humans are part of the process, and that it's necessary to engage all humans in the process.
March 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterstephan geras
What used to be called Philanthropy, or Social Activism, which always had a large creative input, with journals and performances, costumes, depictions, buildings, and manifestos, and was practiced by regular people, even poor people, not just the rich - is now being called Social Practice Art by people with MFAs. I feel this is Special Snowflakism. Trying to say "Look At Me!" while I help poor people. I don't question whether it's art or not. For me the question, as it is for all aesthetic hybridizations: "Something" + "Art" - is it good "Something"? is it good "Art"? because the mediocre stuff isn't cherished or protected, it doesn't last, and when our civilization leaves only the ephemeral behind, then who we are won't be understood or appreciated or criticized. We won't be regarded. And we should be regarded - if only for what sort of people help or destroy the earth and other people.
March 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott Bodenheimer
Did you ever consider that a monotonous focus on "social justice" might limit your art?
Do you think that you are being brave, "transgressive", and radical with your art?
Do you understand that mindlessly parroting the beliefs of your peers, teachers, advisers, and the entire art "community" is in fact neither brave, transgressive, or radical?
Do you think that there is stodgy bourgeois that must be shocked out of their complacency, and you are just the artist to do it?
Do you think you deserve a government grant?
Do you think that people who object to paying for art they don't like are philistines?
What if they called themselves a "community"?
March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve links to a funded artist's residency in Windsor, Ontario for 'socially-engaged' work.

Though it might not state it overtly this is, essentially, what the St. Louis Sustainable Land Lab Competition is about as well.

At the end of it all I come back to some of my basic questions for any kind of project involvement: What is the goal/product for the end user? Does it serve the people intended to be served by the project? If it only serves the artist it becomes a PR/profit center - the same way retail architecture is can never rise to the level of art - because it does not serve the end user but the retailer whose primary objective is to get you to open your wallet.