Critiques of Socially Engaged Practice


Starting where I left off in the last post I want to consider some of the critique that comes up with Socially engaged practice/art.

There is a very interesting article from the Guardian in 2008 here. It considers how Socially Engaged Art is/has been seen as activism,  combines with activism and at times suggests that it is ‘changing the world’ without any real influence. Artists appear to argue on both sides of this, many choosing to work outside of the ‘artworld’ in order to possibly make more effective change than they feel they can make by staying within it.

My initial feeling is that I think it is problematic for me as an artist to work with an assumption that I can change the world or that my work can! Optimism is always something I hold onto and I work with many others who do the same. I also work with many activists and campaigners, policy makers and those working within social and health arenas. What I am very aware of though is ‘Power’ and this is where I feel I need to be careful. There are assumptions made when you make statements about wanting change. An assumption that you have power over others who do not. That you hold power and can use it ‘FOR’ people who do not have power. Art can be ‘powerful’, as can advertising, propaganda, media and almost anything that communicates. But I am interested in how this power is held and with whom.

Coming from a working class background I am very aware that there are groups of us within society who speak out, and there are groups of us in society who are spoken for. I have been a part of both of these at different parts of my life.

Should Artists ‘speak’ for others? What I try to do in some of my own practice is give space for voices that may not always be heard. I am not trying to change the world. In my work I am interested in listening and seeing, observing and being present with, talking and debating with others.

I AM interested in working with groups both within and without the art world. To guage debate, to see the societal micro structures and to bring them into open discussion if possible.

I have just ordered a copy of Art and Activism so that I can consider this further.

I know I also need to mention Bourriard here, and relational aesthetics. What I’m going to do for now is remind myself of what Claire Bishop says in Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics and also the counter letter by Liam Gillick.  (After reading Gillick’s response I will separately re-read Bourriard’s text myself as Bishop’s essay seems far less impartial than  I originally believed)

Relational Aesthetics is the term used by Bourriard to describe works based upon communication and exchange. In turn Grant Kester uses the term dialogical art practice and his article Conversation pieces examines the role of Dialogue in Socially Engaged Art.

Kester’s main points are:

Modern Art (Avante Garde) worked under the premise that our knowledge was in no way objective and the audience should be shocked out of their world into seeing what structures were underlying it…. so the idea that the artists would work ‘with’ and use discourse in their work with its inherent structural problems and socio-linguistic issues turns this on its head.

Dialogue Aesthetics

The legitimacy of the discourse is not the knowledge that comes out of the discoure, but the process of the discourse itself. (Jurgen Habermas, who also first used the idea of ‘public sphere’)

Based on Habermas’s theory Dialogic Aesthetics according to Kester, are different from traditional aesthetics in two ways: through the work not making any claims at universality; and in that traditional aesthetics asks of an audience to open their mind after the encounter, while Dialogic aesthetics asks the audience to use their mind and subjectivity within/during the discourse itself. It is the discourse that forms the subject. A criticism of this is a lack of acknowledgement of the power relations in play within discourse.

Kester also interestingly for me talks about ‘Womens Ways Of Knowing’ by Belenkey (1986), which seemingly according to Kester more accurately recognises the social relations that occur within conversations and discussions including acknowledging the power structures in place. This area also considers the power of empathy within discursive work, and how important listening is as well as arguing/agreeing with others.

Claire Bishop’s main points

  •  Post 1990s Idea of work as being open ended – or in constant flux is problematic to Bishop as it is essentially ‘created’ to be this way. As are the lab style studio/galleries, where they are still constrained by institution but made to ‘look’ like ‘real art studio activity’.
  • Bourriard summarizes the attitude of relational work as ‘It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows’, meaning that contemporary artists have been more concerned with functioning participation or groups, rather than ‘changing the world’.
  • British work of 90s had more visual impact and references of mass culture – easily recognised whilst the european work of relational nature of the same time had a lower impact visually, with an emphasis on use rather then installation. (Gillick refutes this)
  • Discussion of the work that Bourriard illustrates: specifically Rirkrit Tiravanija, Phillipe Parreno, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, Casten Holler, Christine Hill, Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan and Jorge Pardo.
  • Tiravanji’s work was less concerned with the stuido/institutional space, but more with the artist and viewer boundaries (power!). Again with an emphasis on use over contemplation (but is the use an action that initiates contemplation? For example I always have most of my ideas when I a doing something non-art, like driving, cooking, taking a bath or sleeping! And Gillick disputes this, arguing that Bishop misreads their work and hadnt seen the work in person).
  • Gillick ‘s work was often structural or an installation but again it was intended for use by others eg. large table with drawers. Or even for use as a backdrop to contemplation and discussion e.g. structures made to resemble bus shelters, office rooms etc.
  • Question: What types of relations are being produced, for whom and why? (Bishop 2004)
  • Illusion of the democratic (like politics)
  • It is important if not necessary to discuss the conditions of the environment/sphere/dialogue

For me this last point is essential. It is vital that I acknowledge the conditions under and in which my projects come about and exist… and engage… Bishop suggests that to be truly democratic we need antagonism. Antagonism creates debate and discussion, democracy needs debate and discussion (Bishop and Lacan argue) in order to allow for ideology and change. Is it democracy that I am seeking?

Bishop goes on to talk about Artists left out in Bourriards work, Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschorn. These artists retain the tension, the antaonism wthin the relations… which is more honest and far more democratic in her opinion.

So in my own work, especially the workshops, is it the tension that will exist due to my being the outsider  that is as important to the practice as the workshops themselves.

I was going to end with a quote from Bishop in her conclusion,

The tasks facing us today are to analyze how contemporary art addresses the viewer and to assess the quality of the audience relations it produces: the subject position that any work presupposes and the democratic notions it upholds, and how these are manifested in our experience of the work’. 

However I then went on to read Liam Gillick’s letter in response to Bishops’s essay. It is very interesting and creates great debate and challenge to Bishops writing n the subject. It can be found in full here

Kocur, Z and Leung, S (Eds) (2013) Theories in Contemporary Art Since 1985. Wiley-Blackwell