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We Need to Talk About Social Practice


At Art Practical, manuel arturo abreu critiques the political blindspots and ethical failures of social practice art. Emphasizing that good intentions do not “make inherently good acts,” abreu shows how social practice artworks usually fail to make any lasting impact in the communities they supposedly serve, and stresses that aesthetics and art-market value are the wrong criteria for measuring social good. Here’s an excerpt:

So the scales can tip toward harm fairly quickly, and it’s easy to see how social practice falls into the paradigm of what George Lipsitz calls the “white spatial imaginary,” where white intervention continues to present itself as an ethical act rather than as a facet of Black and Brown oppression. Were the veil of art to be taken away in Hirschhorn’s project, residents might see their collective activity as unpaid labor rather than as the creativity of the social made manifest. People on the street, being approached to talk about race, might see it as harassment from a stranger rather than as art. Consider one of the worst examples: In an attempt to address racism, Joe Scanlan invented a Black woman artist, rather than materially support Black women and organizations for and by Black women. Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford project is one of the most ethically contentious artworks of the past ten years.

More than anything, social practice reveals the strong desire for a malleable public: one that is open to be changed, that wants to participate or contribute labor, that accepts the terms of engagement, and that believes in the transformative power of Western art. The idea of a public is so fractured in this hyper-corporate, digital era that one can see where this yearning comes from, as well as the more general yearning for what people describe as “art that makes a difference.” But if one is simply instrumentalizing people as raw material for one’s art, the art world and the capitalist powers that guide it have equal responsibility to critically and ethically evaluate the longer-term stakes. Otherwise, the do-gooder veneer falls away to reveal the same quarterly, value-focused framework we see in other sectors of capitalist markets.

Image: Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013. Via Art Practical.


How true. During FRONT International in Cleveland last summer, I witnessed first hand how neoliberal rationality* worked subtly in and on arts organizations to manage images, social practice gestures, and to effectively limit ahead of time the critical potential of social practice pedagogy and activism. Funding and media concerns, gallery direction and management, and the indulgent culture of enabling the arbitrary vanity of artists led organizations and artists self-servingly away from linking up the intense imaginative space of installation with any serious policy activism or even with truly hard discussions between people.

Yet to be fair, this is a problem of social practice art as damaged by its art-biz framing. It’s not a problem with its potential, unless one is overblown about that potential to begin with. Social practice art can in principle link pedagogy, activism, and policy work – can have that minimal but helpful role – but it needs to take the first risk of not being part of art biz, including biennial/triennial biz. It has to situate itself as autonomous organizing and action, however that can be done, and with teleological linkages to social policy critique or other truly critical ends.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Cleveland, Ohio

*FRONT generated $31 mil. for the Cleveland-Akron region. In 2021, it will likely generate more. This seems a lasting impact on some communities. But whose? Does it, e.g., translate into lasting impact on the Cuddell Commons neighborhood, or does it instead involve creeping gentrification along the Detroit Shoreway all the way into Lakewood, slowly squeezing the poorer community in its midst? The executive director of FRONT lives in a newly branded area of Cleveland called “Hingetown” by real estate developers. He lives on top of SPACES, where the project around Tamir Rice’s death was housed. Hingetown is filling with new condos and is, as anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy says, “bro-ifying” - the step before and alongside gentrification when galleries, coffee shops, and other “cool” stuff come into an area, softening it up and testing it out for condo building. Meanwhile, on the yards of older, single family homes in “Hingetown” in recent memory are signs against gentrification, protesting it. The $31 mil. does not seem to impact these homeowners or the folks of Cuddell Commons, except negatively, if it does at all.