Defining socially engaged art

“All art, inasmuch as it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others, is social (...) a social interaction that proclaims itself as art – that is, socially engaged art.”
— Pablo Heguera

While all kinds of art may be socially responsive, whether or not an art production can be termed “socially engaged art” depends on a few things, including the role of the audience, the role of the artist, and relevance to social issues specific to the community in which the piece exists. To elaborate, the following describes a basic hierarchy of audience involvement, from least to most. It is not my intention to trivialize the first three categories, but rather to provide a clear hierarchy of audience involvement to differentiate between traditional visual art, participatory art, community arts, and socially engaged art. The role of the audience is key in this sort of categorization; meanwhile much room remains for variation within each category as far as how projects may be carried out.

The audience as viewer

This would be the most common way that we experience art. While the art piece may engage the audience intellectually, the piece itself is able to exist without an active audience. The viewer is what Pablo Helguera refers to as a “passive receptor.”1

Example: Temper Tot mural by Ron English in Manhattan

Example: Temper Tot mural by Ron English in Manhattan

The audience as participant

The audience or viewer is required to complete the piece. Participants may be directed in how to interact with the piece, or they may be asked to contribute to a project with little to no creativity; contributions are superficial. Artworks that fall into this structure are participatory art.

 

Example: Before I Die by Candy Chang

Example: Before I Die by Candy Chang

The audience as collaborator

The artist conceptualizes an idea, and completes it with the help of community members, in other words, the audience. Most community arts projects fall under this category.

Example: Guam's Liberation Day parade floats completed by the community

Example: Guam's Liberation Day parade floats completed by the community

Photo credit: unknown (that's my grandpa waving!)

Photo credit: unknown (that's my grandpa waving!)

The socially engaged audience

The artist works with community members to conceptualize and execute a final project. As Pablo Helguera explains in the introductory chapter of Education for Socially Engaged Art, socially engaged art grew out of feminist concept art of the 1960’s, into something that has similarities with conceptual art, installation art, process art, and performance art. It draws from the fields of anthropology, sociology, ethnography, and education. The artist uses the work to create an experience in service to ideas of the aforementioned disciplines. The artist takes on many roles: “teacher, leader, artistic director, boss, instigator, and benefactor(.)”2 The expertise of the artist in these projects is in the creation of meaningful experiences for participants, and in ensuring the quality of the project’s outcome, but the audience must be equally invested in and share equal responsibility in the work. The uniqueness of socially engaged art is that the process is more important than the product, and its success comes from those involved being empowered from their experience long after the project is done. With all of the above varying factors, there is a vastness of possibilities from one socially engaged artwork to another. 

Photo credit: conflictkitchen.org 

Photo credit: conflictkitchen.org 

This post is an excerpt from my 2014 MA thesis, Beyond Dialogue: Socially Engaged Art as Educational Platform. Random text sizes courtesy of Squarespace. 

1. Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art (New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011), 11.

2. Heguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art, 53.