So what is this thing you call Socially Engaged Art?

I find it distracting when I’m teaching and the students are so busy taking notes about what you’re saying that they don’t hear the words. My new tactic is to put the topic in writing, hand it out and tell them everything I am saying is in the summary so please listen up to what I’m saying and give your pen a rest. Of course this only works for specific topics and not when you get into exploring the meat of an issue and want to follow those intriguing threads. But for introductions, it helps. And so here is my blurb on this topic. What is this thing you call Socially Engaged Art?

Layers of the Hijab artist panel

Simply put, It is an art that makes use of artistic methodology to engage with a community to address social issues of importance.

It may be useful to ask what is it not? It’s not commercially viable and it does not hang well or even belong in a gallery or museum. It’s not a single discipline. It hasn’t been documented as other art forms have, either by the critics or the historians. Consequently it has little documented art historical context.

When social engagement works, it’s not an art that represents, it’s an art that is. The art, the process, is the thing. It’s roots lie in happenings, performance art, conceptual art, installation, post minimalism, and relational aesthetics. It’s often called public art or community art, especially in Europe. It is a timeless phenomenon although some of the most successful contemporary artists adhere to the form. Similar to much contemporary art, the aesthetic lens is about methodology. It’s difficult to present it out of context, it’s site specific, and as it’s community based. It is also people specific and social specific. It balances ethical standards with aesthetic standards and therein lays both its value and it’s challenge. A myopic view can see it simply as social action.

Socially engaged artworks often result in a relationship between the artist and the community. Successful work is not appropriation. The work focuses on process and the artist works from within the community, embedded and immersed in the project and the community culture. When social practice works, it is an art that grows exponentially through collaboration.

The socially engaged artist considers their artistic intentions within the social realm, as well as the artistic world, with intention to contribute to social change. With this professed aim to shift social strategy, you may ask how is it different than political engagement?

It is through the lens of the artist that a shift occurs. An artist’s perspective draws from metaphor and interprets in innovative ways. By seeking engagement with the audience and making use of creative problem solving, ideas emerge. Symbols are used. Symbolic allegorical works evolve to speak to our social conscience through our aesthetic voice.

When work moves you visually, spiritually, viscerally, beyond the intellectual, you can ask yourself what’s going on here? If you look deeper into this meaning, you will find the vocabulary of the art world, and the vocabulary of socially engaged art.