Seeing Power and Possibility in Socially Engaged Art
There is a productive conflict at the root of any discussion about aesthetics and social practice that I would like to focus on.
On one hand, attempting to articulate anything about the aesthetics of socially engaged art entails confronting a frustrating lack of structure. Anything can be art, and aesthetics can be so broadly defined as judgments of sentiment and taste. Who doesn’t have those, about anything and everything? We don’t quite have a formal analysis of social practice that we all agree upon—no singular framework for seeing and locating the aesthetics in a socially engaged art project.
The most persistent and vexing questions we get at A Blade of Grass about our Fellowship criteria are about aesthetics. When we have Fellowship Workshops, we break up into groups and look at successful proposals. In these discussions, experienced practitioners argue about where the aesthetics are in the sample letters of interest. Some say the aesthetics are in the things you can see—the things that look like art products. Others place aesthetics in the ethics and the qualities of the interactions. Others place aesthetics in the elegance of the overall idea. Others in the relevance and value of the project to the community.
In these conversations, nobody is quite sure of themselves, even though they are actively doing this work. There’s a lot of anything goes in these conversations that hangs in the air like a fine mist.
On the other hand, I am confronting a clearly defined, seemingly intractable power dynamic by talking about aesthetics at all. Even if we define aesthetics as broadly as judgments of sentiment and taste, judgments are judgments. As such, they are fundamentally about who has the power to judge, have their sentiments valued, and taste-make, and who and what is being judged, and how.
Like all conversations about power, this is fraught terrain. I am certain that there will be great writing on this salon about how problematic and limiting aesthetic judgments can be—how they reinforce cultural stereotypes, and how difficult it is to interpret the aesthetics of a culture that you’re not a part of. This is important context for what I’d like to focus on, which is the way good socially engaged art projects (usually temporarily) transform scenarios of powerlessness or scarcity into scenarios of abundance. This happens because the artists are working with power in specific, active ways. This work with power is where I personally go to make my own judgments of sentiment and taste when I try to see and understand a socially engaged art project.
The artists I am most interested in are actively evolving their practice beyond institutional critique, and are instead proposing how power, agency, interdependency, and authority might be re-distributed, repurposed, perforated, torqued, and even taken apart and creatively built anew. So when I try to understand the aesthetics of a socially engaged art project, I look here, at the power dynamics and the power opportunities, and how they are being reconfigured.
What I like about the conflict we began with is the way it illuminates the first power dynamic artists tend to encounter. I started by wrestling with two true and somewhat contradictory statements:
- Aesthetic judgments are expressions of power. There are people who get to make judgments of sentiment and taste, and there are way more people who feel like they are receiving judgments of sentiment and taste.
- Everyone makes aesthetic judgments. Most people’s judgments of sentiment and taste are unacknowledged and undervalued. Most people feel the power of aesthetic judgment as a force that’s being applied to them. But the balance of power is not 100 to zero.
This basic conflict, the fact that we all make aesthetic judgments, but that for most they feel more like a power drain than a power gain, is one of a million scenarios in which two things are true about power at the same time. This multiplicity generates a specific set of creative openings that an artist can exploit. I can’t think of an aesthetically compelling social practice project that does not negotiate this basic conflict in a way that results in one, very basic, if temporary, power shift:
The project’s existence and continued meaning tends to depend on the aesthetic judgments of people whose aesthetic judgments are generally not considered valuable, sometimes because of a specific lack of privilege, and sometimes simply because they are not artists.
I think this can happen even when an artist is working with people who have bought into the project, but don’t necessarily think it’s art—they just think it’s great. They get it. They find it meaningful. I think that this act of finding a social project good, engaging, and meaningful relies upon judgments of sentiment and taste, and that whether it is subsequently called art by these participants is not quite the point. The point is the buy-in.
This is where I start looking when I try to understand the aesthetic value of a social practice project. I look first at how the very act of judging it works, and whether it’s eliciting this basic type of cooperation, and whether this cooperation generates a sensation of abundance.
From there, I look to understand the other power dynamics, interdependencies, and agencies at work in the project. I look for scenarios in which more than one thing can be true about a power dynamic at the same time, and I look for the artist, working with the active cooperation and participation of others, to be taking advantage of these multiple truths to make something abundant happen where there was lack, or scarcity, or nothing at all.
What I need, in order to keep developing my own aesthetic understanding of this work, is for the way we talk about these power dynamics to become much more clear and focused, and for the aesthetic judgment of social practice to be more consistently grounded in the voice of the participant. It is often impossible not to see the aesthetic value of these projects when you listen to the participant’s perspective! And yet we struggle with our own language, and ask ourselves repeatedly where the work is in this important work. Instead, we could simply develop more platforms for participants to explain to us exactly what happened, and where the aesthetics are.