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Defining and Defending Social Practice as a Verb vs. Noun

What is Social Practice?  Social Practice, the thing we do that we don’t yet know how to talk about.

While no one yet agrees on the term, it’s fledgling form appears as a type of interdisciplinary art, that engages with the social, in ways that aim to create positive change.

This past weekend I attended the Open Engagement Conference, an annual conference that brings together Social Artists, Institutions, Theorists, Educators, Curators, Activists, and others who are both working in the field and learning about the field. This conference has been active for ten years, and I went for the first time three years ago.  Three years ago there were workshops on the naming of Social Practice. People wrangled with language, arguing over nuance and intent.  Since then, many institutions have adopted the term Social Practice, an abbreviation of Socially Engaged Art, and are now building curriculum with experts and degrees in it.  A quick web search brings up an institution of power, the Tate Museum, defining the term: “Socially engaged practice describes art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work.”

This weekend I heard artist Lucy Lippard dismiss the term as “clinical”.  Artist Pedro Lasch threw it away because “people are not an artist’s medium” which was echoed by artist Lillian Ball who said, “the term implies that people are a material which is wrong".  I found Pedro and Lillian’s critique interesting because it feels that in order for people to be an artist’s material unethically, the artist would need to take the position of director (or dictator) which is individualistic, authoritative and implies manipulation or non-consent of the people, which are characteristics that are oppositional to how I understand Social Practice.

Other thoughts that arise from Pedro’s and Lillian’s disavowing of Social Practice as a term, is the assumption that people shouldn’t be seen as a sculptural form, (Pedro also said for the same reason he disliked Social Practice he disliked Social Sculpture, one of the original terms coined by Joseph Beuys in the 70’s).  I wonder can thoughts be seen as forms for sculpting? If so, wouldn’t education, religion, advertising, and political beliefs then be Social Sculpture too? According to a quick wiki search (Wikipedia could be seen as a massive social artwork), “a social sculpture includes human activity that strives to structure and shape society or the environment. The central idea of a social sculptor is an artist who creates structures in society using language, thoughts, actions, and objects.”

Personally, I appreciate the term Social Practice and I believe that it is the purpose of all Art—which is to create and inspire social action for good. Why I appreciate the term is that by using the word Practice versus Art, it implies doing and learning and is inclusive.  A practice is something one does to learn, to improve upon something one cares about.  People have practices that include: religion, sport, art, music…you name it and people practice it.  I believe everyone is inherently an artist, but as a result of our culture and public education system people do not recognize themselves as such, because they hold a small view of what an artist is, most often associated as someone who possess natural talents in visual languages.  I believe everyone is an artist because everyone is inherently creative, but some of us are practicing artists and some of us not, and to be a practicing artist means practicing creativity.

The idea of practicing with the social implies the desire and willingness to act creatively within the social sphere. There are many disciplines and types of workers that do this already and do it well, but there is a need for the artist too.  Why I think that Social Practice and Socially Engaged Artists are effective and needed is that they are agents of change by the nature of allowing unanswered questions and emergent ideas to lead action, versus known methodologies to guide.  The world needs both-- always. The world needs wisdom and it needs creativity.  Artists work with change, with invention, and with failure as integral components to their practices. By definition creativity is the act of bringing something new into being.  Something new means the unknown, and this is the work of the artist to bring forth change.  Society cannot change if it continues to do what it knows. Licensed professionals are trained to work in ways that are known, quantifiable, and consistent which is antithetical to the artist. 

Unlike Pedro and Lillian, I like that the term implies working with people as medium, I also like the term Social Sculpture.  I think the challenge with all Social Practice is questions of leadership, authorship, and ownership all of which can become oppressive, unethical, and are particularly touchy in a practice which prizes the dissemination of power, dismantling hierarchies, and co-creation.  But can Social Practitioners be seen and accepted as new radical leaders?  Leaders who work creatively across disciplines, pedagogies, methodologies, places, peoples, and practices to actively create positive social change. I think the problems with Social Practice begin when we have consensus on what it is, how we teach it, who the experts are, why it’s valued and how we practice it. Social practice is at its best now, as a verb and an evolving radical practice.

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