Nato Thompson: I said to you, ‘Rick, what are you going to do? Because now there are all these social practice programs where a lot of white kids are graduating and they’re going to go into communities of color and try to help everybody.’ And then you said, ‘Well, it sounds like they’re finally going to get an education.’

Rick Lowe: When you think about the field of social practice, I’m kind of in-between. I come out somewhat of the community arts era and now straddling into the social practice side. It was really funny to me today, I was thinking, ‘Man, is social practice gentrifying community arts out?’

This exchange between Rick Lowe, the founder and director of Project Row Houses in Houston and brand-new appointee to the National Council on the Arts (see Third Ward TX, my friend Andrew Garrison’s wonderful 2007 film on this work if you can) and Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time, was part of the Creative Time Summit, a much-livestreamed late October 2013 New York conference on “Art, Place & Dislocation in The 21st Century City.”

Before and since, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with fellow artists about “social practice.” I consider them part of a larger decentralized conversation now taking place about the naming, values, social position, and impact of socially engaged art-making. The question that’s being called is cooptation: is yet another insurgent, critical movement being watered-down into something palatable to the establishment artworld – something that may reify existing power relations rather than undermining them?

It’s an interesting discussion if you know the lingo, so I had better start with some definitions.When I write “yet another insurgent, critical movement,” I am referring to the work of artists who place their gifts at the service of positive social change – pluralism, participation, equity, social justice, however you charactertize it. There are many names for this work. “Community cultural development” is the common term in Australia and some other international contexts (and I like it too, so I’ll use the abbreviation “CCD” here); “community arts” in other places; with all sorts of variations – “community-based art,” “art and social change,” “arts-based community development” – in use.

I’ve written a great deal about this work (most extensively in my book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development). CCD has its own forms and techniques, such as ways of engaging community members through music, movement, murals and other art forms. But it’s a process-oriented field, and people in it are generally clear that the work’s value turns on why these techniques are used: to cocreate something beautiful and meaningful that speaks to a community’s aspirations, fears, heritage, identity; that encodes the process Paul Freire called “conscientization,” the coming to consciousness of oneself as a subject in history and not just the object of other’s actions; that engages awareness and inspires action to enlarge justice and love.

The term “social practice” is an artworld label, characterizing work that is to some degree collaborative and public.The label is used most in visual arts contexts such as museums, galleries, and art schools. But just as the category of visual arts has leapt off the canvas to encompass many elements of performance, social practice doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional arts discipline. The California College of The Arts, which created one of the first social practice graduate programs, offers this definition (CCA uses the plural, “social practices,” but pretty much everyone else uses the singular):

Social practices incorporates art strategies as diverse as urban interventions, utopian proposals, guerrilla architecture, “new genre” public art, social sculpture, project-based community practice, interactive media, service dispersals, and street performance….

The field focuses on topics such as aesthetics, ethics, collaboration, persona, media strategies, and social activism, issues that are central to artworks and projects that cross into public and social spheres.

These varied forms of public strategy are linked critically through theories of relational art, social formation, pluralism, and democracy. Artists working within these modalities either choose to co-create their work with a specific audience or propose critical interventions within existing social systems that inspire debate or catalyze social exchange.

Obviously, we are dealing with contrasting realms.(I did not pick an especially obscure definition, by the way.) Whether or not you like any of the common terms for CCD, people can figure out what they mean by parsing them. The concept of “community” might be contested, but most people I know have some idea of what it means, and most of those ideas overlap. It doesn’t take a huge act of translation to decode the label “community-based arts.” But reread the definition from CCA. Who could figure out what “social practice” is without a guide? In addition to whatever meanings people may derive from “social practice,” one function of the term is to erect a boundary between those who understand and feel comfortable in this language and those who don’t. If you’re not hip to artworld jargon, you may need a guide even to understand some elements of the definition.

Ultimately, I don’t care what people call their arts work so long as they do it with integrity, care, and skill. So it isn’t that the term “social practice” bothers me per se. What bothers me goes deeper: that a deracinated term was needed to cleanse CCD of its social-justice taint to ease acceptance in a realm that doesn’t pay much attention to justice. As the label and its devotees have evolved, “social practice” has sanded the insurgent edges off CCD. Social practice borrows CCD techniques without acknowledging their roots in work that exists to deepen democracy. It severs those techniques from the reasons they were created and deployed. The end-state, which is becoming clear now, can be discerned in something I heard a couple of weeks ago. Someone whose work touches the social practice world reported listening to a curator’s frustrated outburst: “Why does social practice have to be about something political? I’m sick of all this art around issues!”

I’ve blogged about this general theme before: art and philanthropy world proclivities to sanitize and tame approaches to art-making that implicitly question the economic and social power relations that shape high-end artworlds and philanthropic institutions. What more I want to say about this now comes down to three things:

The validity of CCD work is established collaboratively. The work is seen to be valid if all participants – artists and other community members alike – have co-determined its intentions, aims, values and processes, jointly concluding that they have been satisfied. A great deal of social practice art engages community members in processes they have neither influenced nor shaped; and most often, it is validated by its artworld reception. Typically, a work of social practices culminates in a gallery or museum exhibit, a publication, or other forms of documentation and exhbition in which the collaborators in effect are there to illustrate the artists’ concept.

CCD is a diverse international way of working, involving many artists who derive from the communities with which they work(in contrast to Nato Thompson’s and Rick Lowe’s exchange about parachuting young white art-school graduates into communities of color). In contrast, the universe of social practice reflects the institutional landscape from which most of its practitioners derive. To be sure, women and artists of color are deeply involved in what they term social practice, but the self-conscious use of that term is overwhelmingly white. You have to be willing and able to slide tongue-in-groove into the institutional culture of the artworld, which in its very nature reinforces white superiority. Take the half-hour to listen to the whole of the exchange between Nato and Rick to hear astute observations about the role of race here.

If you see yourself as a social practice artist,I encourage you to (a) investigate and acknowledge the originators of your practices, not just the adopters who have been validated within the establishment artworld, but the artists with strong social-justice commitments who devised them; and (b) root your work in those same values, with an ethos of reciprocity and true collaboration, a flattened hierarchy of authority, true power-sharing, and a commitment to bringing about a social order of justice tempered by love.

Then go ahead and call it spinach if you want to; I won’t mind. In the meantime, watch this: a friend sent me “Drop The Game,” a wonderful dance video from Flume and Chet Faker: “Drop the game; it’s not enough.”


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