We Need to Talk About Social Practice


We Need to Talk About Social Practice

By manuel arturo abreu March 6, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

Here’s a hot take: Social practice is antisocial—not all of it, but a large-enough segment to prompt questions about the use of people’s lives (social, economic, and otherwise) as raw material. Through this assessment, I do not pretend to engineer a new argument, but instead revive an old critical discourse that social practice is effectively institutional. At their worst, contemporary social practices reinforce the idea that aesthetics trump all else: art, even unconsciously, acts within the market.1 Art historian Claire Bishop extends this argument and points out that social practice dovetails nicely with the neoliberal gutting of social services to replace experienced staffers with naive volunteers and rapacious, so-called “creative” entrepreneurial solutions.2

The premise of many early Modernist movements was the transformative power of art in the face of a repressive society. The idea of social-practice art embodies this form of engagement in the contemporary context. The New York Times defines social practice as follows:

[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.

The term was adopted institutionally in 2005 with the creation of the Social Practice MFA concentration at the California College of the Arts, to denote this subset of participatory art that focused on the sociopolitical context as material and content. The school’s website states: “Learn to refine and sustain a critical art practice that’s interdisciplinary and socially engaged.”3

Process-oriented and ephemeral aspects of a work, unfortunately, can’t always escape the commercial market. Since the rise of conceptualism in the late 1950s, process-based components have become new kinds of commodities. All art and all media are already social.

Meaning is created socially, in a network of contemplation and action. Focalizing art’s social component is at best redundant and at worst exploitative of the marginalized communities from which it so often draws.4 Its foundational structure as a terminology and presumably contemporary praxis is steeped in whiteness: in many Black and Brown cultures, the idea of social engagement having aesthetic dimensions is very old (just as abstraction, the aniconic, tropical color palettes, automatism, spirit possession, and other art techniques are very old and nonwhite in origin and were refashioned as new by modernism5).

Suzanne Lacy. Between the Door and the Street, 2013. Photo: Patti Friday.

Social engagement doesn’t need to be framed as art. Why not engage actual society instead, without the vague glint in one’s eye of the possibility of grants and institutional access? An example may be instructive: Consider Suzanne Lacy’s Between the Door and the Street, staged in 2013 by Creative Time and the Brooklyn Museum.6 In this performance, four hundred participants, mostly women, were said to have “activated” a Brooklyn block by discussing issues of gender, race, and class with pedestrians while wearing yellow scarves. A question for critics and the institutions that would leverage this gesture is: By what criteria can we measure the aesthetic success of social-practice art? By the work’s intent, its social impact, its aesthetic qualities, or the buzz it generates? Lacy herself wrote in 1995, in a book she edited on the critical issues of “new genre public art” (as she called it then): “Critics must inevitably enter the discussion personally and philosophically when approaching work that intends toward social meaning.”7 The critique of the work of necessity becomes a shibboleth for the critic’s subjective politics; any attempt to get at the work itself becomes a discussion about surrounding issues, since the aesthetic content of the work lies precisely in these social issues and presumed engagement with them, allowing a kind of do-gooder paper tiger to arise against criticality.

Partly as a result of the echo chamber this dynamic creates, socially engaged art wants the art world to be a veritable one-stop shop for all manner of social gesture and commentary. Further, it wants sociality to be valuated on the terms of capitalism and popular media. The social is what is being shopped. Writing in the context of the Defend Boyle Heights movement in Los Angeles—a community-catalyzed movement against art-gallery gentrification—a pseudonymous writer, Asmodeus, wrote that many artists “want their participation in the art world to function as a complete package. In other words, you can get your aesthetics, your ethics, and your politics in the same place, by doing the same stuff. Your art is your resistance, or your academic research is your resistance, or whatever.”8

Consider another example: In 2013, the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn constructed Gramsci Monument at the Forest Houses public-housing towers in the Bronx. Drawing on Beuysian social sculpture, the work was said to have “activated” the community over the course of a summer with a glut of discursive and multimedia engagements. Much of the legwork was done by the Forest Houses community. Hirschhorn states in an Art21 video about the project, “I don’t do something for the community; I do something, I hope, for art.”9 Are we to presume that the hundreds of hours of the community's labor were appropriately acknowledged and compensated within the guise of art as well? How are we to digest community-powered work that presumably is not done for the community? Further, the renowned artist Glenn Ligon, a former resident of Forest Houses, wrote in Artforum in November 2013, “What if instead of building the Gramsci Monument, Hirschhorn had proposed building the Gramsci Charter School?…Far-fetched, I know, but one of the many possible projects that might have resulted in a deeper collaboration between Hirschhorn and the residents of the Forest Houses.”

Thomas Hirschhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Forest Houses housing projects, Bronx, NY. Photo courtesy of Ángel Franco for the New York Times.

Yasmil Raymond, who curated the Gramsci Monument project for the Dia Art Foundation, responded that Hirschhorn “wanted to create a monument that didn’t burden anyone with the fascism of permanence.” What Ligon is proposing is that other options were available, where the community and the artist would receive equal benefit. Instead, once the project ended, the housing projects went back to their previous struggles, with nothing to show for the work of co-establishing the project. The idea that a lasting, equitable benefit between a socially engaged artist and the community would be described as a “fascism of permanence” is exactly the kind of antisocial attitude that deserves greater scrutiny by those who would otherwise herald contemporary social practice as art with real-world implications beyond gallery walls.

What kind of aesthetic structures can we come up with, to interchange a “fascism of permanence” with the foundations of something that is permanently useful? In reality, the art world isn’t set up to make this kind of lasting positive impact on communities, given that many institutions hoard their colonially gained resources10 and lend an artwashing framework to gentrification.11 As reductive as it sounds, a reasonable strategy would entail undertaking this work as an engaged citizen rather than as an artist and avoiding the market entirely, given that any attempt to broach sociopolitical issues through the market will center the generation of value.

Further, it is difficult to imagine collective and socially engaged projects that see every collaborator compensated fairly, precisely because the art world has some of the worst labor practices of any market.12 Even with a project like Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ decades-long unpaid artist residence at the New York City Sanitation Department, few would argue that the sanitation workers have benefited as much as Ukeles. It’s a start, though: forgoing a salary is a gesture toward acknowledging the value of the community with which the socially engaged artist works. It’s just never enough. For example, all the positive impact of Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses seemed to cause property values to rise in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, prompting Lowe’s organization to found the separate Row House Community Development Corporation in 2003, with a mission to keep the area mixed-income.13

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the NYC Sanitation Department’s official artist in residence, chats with a sanitation worker, circa 1979–80. Photo: Robin Holland. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

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.14 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.15

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.

Social-practice artworks with a commitment to sociopolitical change have the inexplicable potential to be valued as morally good works, regardless of the impact of the project as measured by the community’s criteria. They allow sociopolitical issues to be subsumed into aesthetic issues, such that a work can fail a community but still be considered good art. An external evaluation by a subset of persons with niche concerns just seems like replicating art-market dynamics at a smaller, more interpersonal scale. These harmful dynamics hope to activate some long-lost concept of polis while securing some social-justice clout on the side. This is no argument for authenticity or unmediated access to marginal communities; rather, if access to such communities is predicated on one’s ability to procure white-cube resources from the encounter, maybe one’s priorities are off.

Perhaps the takeaway is: The limited attention span for art is not enough. Do the work, and do it whether it’s in the context of art or not. Don’t pretend that doing good as part of a creative practice is better than just doing good. And definitely don’t pretend that good intentions make inherently good acts.

[Editor's Note: Art Practical's publisher is the California College of the Arts. Art Practical retains its core mission, editorial vision, and autonomy in all areas, including content, staffing, and programming.]


  1. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012).
  2. Randy Kennedy, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture,” New York Times, March 20, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/arts/design/outside-the-citadel-social-practice-art-is-intended-to-nurture.html.
  3. “MFA Fine Arts,” California College of the Arts, https://www.cca.edu/fine-arts/mfa-fine-arts/.
  4. Ken Chen, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” Asian American Writers workshop, June 11, 2015, https://aaww.org/authenticity-obsession/
  5. Manuel Arturo Abreu, “Against the Supremacy of Thought,” Rhizome, January 8, 2018, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2018/jan/08/against-the-supremacy-of-thought/.
  6. “Between the Door and the Street,” Creative Time, http://creativetime.org/projects/between-the-door-and-the-street/.
  7. Suzanne Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 182.
  8. “About Hating Art,” Ediciones Ineditos, April 12, 2018, https://ediciones-ineditos.com/2018/04/12/about-hating-art/.
  9. “Thomas Hirschhorn: ‘Gramsci Monument’—Art21 ‘Extended Play,’” YouTube, May 22, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5yyegM2u88.
  10. Danielle Kwateng-Clark, “Art Museums Need to Address Colonialist Theft– Not Diversity,” Broadly, Feb 8, 2019, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/nexemx/moma-new-york-closing-inclusion
  11. Magally Miranda and Kyle Lane-McKinley, “Artwashing, or, Between Social Practice and Social Reproduction,” A Blade of Grass, February 1, 2017, http://www.abladeofgrass.org/fertile-ground/artwashing-social-practice-social-reproduction/.
  12. “Art World Addicted to Unpaid Labor, Survey Finds,” Frieze, February 15, 2019, https://frieze.com/article/art-world-addicted-unpaid-work-survey-finds
  13. “Our Mission Statement,” Row House CDC, https://www.rowhousecdc.org/mission.
  14. George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race,” Landscape Journal 26(1):10–23.
  15. Felicia R. Lee, “Racially Themed Work Stirs Conflict at Whitney Biennial,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/arts/design/racially-themed-work-stirs-conflict-at-whitney-biennial.html.

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