Social Practice ‘Art’?
In the review, Ben Davis explores the phenomena of ‘Social Practice Art’ and its legitimacy, motivations and efficacy. He highlights how much of Social Practice ‘Art’ in some way, is a resistance or revolt against the commodifying and capitalist nature of contemporary art as we know it today — paintings auctioned off for exorbitant prices etc. Works like f’or the love of God’ by Damien Hirst arguably is a grotesquely ideal example of the exclusive, inaccessible and gate keeping characteristic of contemporary art and its associated audience.
With this in mind, one must be careful not to conflate ‘Art’ with ‘Capitalism’ just because of the way it has grown to be propagated or characterised via mainstream channels and popular culture. If we were to do so, then ‘Social Practice Art’ in essence would just be a fixation on capitalism and the politics associated with the system, and stand as a movement rather than an art form per se. ‘Art’ in itself is broad yet, we do not simply confer the term ‘art’ onto anything that is obscure, abstract, or is simply rebellious. Art is some sort of meaningful manifestation of a concept, culture or just personal expression. Its medium is fluid and continues to be increasingly non conforming with the age of technology on the rise — open source art etc. The boundaries that define ‘Art’ continue to expand. Yet there is a certain discipline that governs ‘Art’. And it is important to understand that this ‘discipline’ is not one that requires luxury, privilege or an esteemed fine arts background. Rather — this discipline is rooted in the motivations of the concept, and the approach in which it is executed. Ben Davies states in his review how Nato Thompson calls the gathering by Obama supporters ‘Art’ (“to include the spontaneous eruption of jubilation in Harlem that followed the 2008 election of Barack Obama as a work of street theater.”) The spontaneity of it could be considered as an artistic demonstration — only because there is a pre existing notion or knowledge on what constitutes ‘performance art’ or theatre.
‘Art’ mirrors society — it is not just meaningless or spontaneous events and occurrences (as powerful or controversial as they might be), rather it is the internalising, re interpretation and expression of such events in meaningful ways that reach a wider or targeted audience that makes it art. One does not simply look at a protest or a demonstration and think — this is ‘Social Art’. Rather, only when it is approached, re packaged and then integrated into the circle of ‘Art’ — even through the subtle form of a poster or book, it becomes ‘Art’. This then makes us question the very terminology and legitimacy of ‘Social Practice Art’. However ‘Social Practice Art’ can also be characterised as a probable culture of art and artists who’s intention is to contribute to the ‘betterment’ of society, the critique of social issues, and the integration of the community into Art or rather making the subjects of Art, part of the Art itself. This idea then can also be alluded to Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Poliscar’ in which the ‘Art Work’ in question became a means of communication for the marginalised.
However as in seen in his work, a very tangible ‘product’ or ‘object’ was conceptualised and then used as the vehicle or vessel for the people and the community to be integrated into the work — organically and naturally. To some extent the control is still in the hands of the artist and starts ‘at the table’. It is a top-down process that cascades from artist to art to society — closing the loop back to art, and its inspiration on the other hand is more natural and non linear process — one that requires the Artist himself/herself to very much involved and in touch with social issues they are interested in. To prevent ‘Social Practice Art’ from became a facade — in the way it potentially can become a performative critique of social issues for the sake of appealing to the trends of social justice, there has to be some sort of approach or ‘theory’ to its practice.
The looseness of its term and the lack of any sort of strict criteria — as antithetical as this may sound, will only complicate or jeopardise the idea of contributing back to society. As detailed by the example of the ‘Project Row Houses’ that was intended to decrease homelessness in Houston, but inherently led to increased gentrification, while also having to be supported by huge funds — which essentially are paid by Society through taxes etc, ‘Social Practice’ Art Projects as they are or claim to be, are flawed or rather fallible. Though ‘Art’ should be accessible to all to be practiced, and anyone should be able to ethically engage in some form of project that critiques or highlights an issue they believe deems urgency or awareness, we should not intuitively characterise them by the term ‘Social Practice Art’ due to the very lack of clear definition or efficacy in it as an art form. Any targeted art can be a critique on society but can all ‘Social Practice Art’ (the term as we speak of in this context) Artworks be deemed effective critiques of Society’s Issues?