I’ve been asked many times for a short description for the term Art and Social Practice. There are various reasons why this is hard to produce, but maybe I’ll give it a try. It could be that it’s best to actually come up with a few different options. An aspect of Art and Social Practice, (or Socially Engaged Art, Public Practice, etc. all of which seem to be in the same ballpark) is that the term is used in somewhat different ways by different people and institutions. I’ll just try to describe my own take on it, which isn’t meant to prevent anyone else from having their own interpretation, but might be useful as something to bounce off of or dispute.

In some ways it is almost easiest to describe Social Practice by what it is not, given its minority status within an art world that already is filled with conventions and assumed expectations. But people always complain that describing Social Practice in opposition to the generally accepted studio/gallery model is not a great idea somehow, they see it as negative and implies that there is something wrong with the conventional approach. I don’t see it as any different than using the term non-fiction to describe writing that is essentially created with a very different approach than the dominant form of literary fiction. With that as my justification let me start with the non-studio/gallery description. I think it is useful because so many people (both people in the art world and outside of it) expect art to be made, take the form of, and be presented in very specific and simple terms, something like this: a solo artists works in a solitary studio (this usually isn’t the case once any kind of art world success occurs and real production needs to start happening, then assistants of various sorts are brought in, but art world success of that sort is relatively rare, and even commercial art gallery people are still very invested in the idea of the solo artist concept for sales purposes), objects (mostly paintings) are produced by that artist in the studio, a gallery person then takes the work to a white cube space where people interested in art go to view it, some of them who are collectors buy the objects, magazines write articles and reviews of the artist and the art, the artist is loved or scorned by the public for being brilliant and free thinking or a fraud and scammer. In the non-studio/gallery model artists don’t necessarily use galleries, and instead might do their work in a grade school, hospital, neighborhood, grocery store, or a wide variety of other locations including traditional art spaces, but in that case the gallery might be used as a temporary staging area in advance of a possibly dynamic and participatory exhibition. The “artist” may start as a collaborative team, or could create a temporary collaboration with people local to the site area. There might not be any salable objects produced for the project (though its possible, but usually making the objects for the purpose of selling is not the intention). The work can be displayed or presented in a non-gallery venue, and often times the location where the work was made is also the place where it is shown. Collectors rarely figure into the equation, though funding institutions (art centers, museums, public art organizations, or other non-profits) might have commissioned the project. If the work is reviewed or written about it is often in general publications like local newspapers, or possibly in very specific publications like a school or community center newsletter. Since commercial galleries are deemphasized in that scenario and they are the biggest source of ad revenue for art magazines there tends to be very little focus on non-gallery art projects in those types of publications.

That was a little complicated, so I can understand why someone would want a more concise description. One thought I’ve often had is that I could just use the promotional language of the university that I teach at (Portland State University) and tweak it a bit to fit well as a description for Art and Social Practice:

Art and Social Practice values its identity as an engaged art practice that promotes a reciprocal relationship between the community, artists, and institutions in which knowledge and culture serves society and society contributes to the knowledge and culture of artists and institutions.
Art and Social Practice values partnerships with non-art institutions, professional groups, the business community, and community organizations, and the talents and expertise these partnerships bring to artists and institutions that support art activities. Socially engaged artists embrace the role of being responsible citizens of the city, the state, the region, and the global community and foster actions, programs, and projects that will, hopefully, lead to a sustainable and interesting future.

If anyone wants to compare it to the original you can find that on this page:  http://www.pdx.edu/portland-state-university-mission

It’s not bad for a Social Practice description (especially for institutional and grant funding use), but its maybe a little vague, and probably too positive and community-ish, also a bit redundant here and there with all that reciprocity going on everywhere.

So here are a couple of other options:

Art and Social Practice is an artistic approach that emphasizes collaboration, shared authorship, public participation, site-specificity, and interdisciplinarity, is often presented in non-art locations, and has no media or formal boundaries.

Even that has a couple of negations in it, so some people might not like it, and unless you have some examples it’s still hard to get an exact sense of what that all means. Painters really have it made in that sense, everyone at least knows what paint and canvas and art galleries are.

So I guess I fall back on what I have always done when asked to describe what kind of work that I do, which is to explain a few different projects to give a sense of the possibilities. Sometimes the reaction is that it sounds interesting even if it doesn’t sound like art, which ultimately is fine with me.

But let me take one more shot at it:

Art and Social Practice is a term that can be used to describe projects by artists that happen in public places, involve members of the public, and can take any possible form artistic or otherwise.

That’s still not cutting it.

My daughter goes to a public International Baccalaureate school here in Portland, OR. International Baccalaureate (or IB) is pedagogical approach that seems to share some vague ideals with Art and Social Practice. What if I took their mission statement and altered it:

Art and Social Practice aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring artists who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end Art and Social Practice works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programs of local and international engagement with rigorous assessment.

These programs encourage people across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

For the original you can look here: http://www.ibo.org/mission/

Somehow the word peace always makes me nervous, also that assessment part is just not going to happen, so I don’t think that description is going to work either.

I can’t help but fall back on this idea:

Artists can work in whatever way they want including making paintings that are shown in galleries as well as organizing participatory walking tours.

It would be nice if that was the generally accepted and supported idea about art in general. If it was there might not be a need for separating out social practice from other more standard art making approaches, but for the time being because of the huge systemic structures that largely accept and support primarily conventional, commercial art I think there is a need for separate development of socially engaged practices.

I’m reminded of a common experience that I’ve had as a vegetarian where I go out to dinner with a group of non-vegetarians and they say of lets just all share, we will make sure to order some vegetarian dishes. But then what happens is that they eat all of the vegetarian and meat dishes and I’m left with less than everyone else. In those situations I now insist on getting my order just for me, even when everyone else is ordering family style. Similarly, I think if Art and Social Practice was just expected to function in the larger art world system it would be absorbed because there are very few structures in place to support its needs. I’m getting a bit off topic here, but I guess that is one of the reasons why it would be good to have a more easily understood description of Art and Social Practice, but unfortunately because of the nature of that kind of work it may be impossible to really come up with a single, short, understandable way to do that. At least I gave it a try.