Pop Quiz: Socially Engaged Art and Aesthetics

Posted by Jen Delos Reyes, Nov 21, 2014 0 comments

Jen Delos Reyes Jen Delos Reyes

I received an invitation to participate in this blog salon on the relationship between aesthetics and arts in community development and social change work by way of my work as an artist and organizer around socially engaged art, however my response is most informed by my work as an educator.

From 2007-2014 I served as the co-director of an MFA program focused on art and social practice. The mantra of the program could have easily been that art and social practice starts and ends not in rarefied spaces, but out in the world. The students did not receive studio spaces and instead created their work out in the world through collaborations and partnerships, embedded in communities. The program sought to educate and activate students to develop and utilize their artistic skills to engage in society. It is the kind of education that created engaged citizens. But perhaps the most important aspect of the curriculum was that it asked artists to consider their relationship to and placement in society. So the core questions of this invitation, “But what happens when we assess art not just for art’s sake, but also for its civic purpose?” was a familiar one.

Over the years teaching in the program many questions were generated around socially engaged art. Perhaps some of my favorite questions were the 100 penned by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas after a visit to the program. These questions now serve as a pop quiz each year in my history of socially engaged art course. Having recently just given this quiz at mid-terms I have decided to treat all of the questions shared in the invite to participate in this blog as a pop quiz on aesthetics and art and social practice. Below are my responses.

As more art becomes socially engaged, are aesthetic frames useful?


What aesthetic values and outcomes are meaningful for artist and community stakeholders in arts and social change work?

To be determined on a case by case and emergent basis through process and conversation including stakeholders, community, and artists.

What criteria can be framed that reflect appropriate standards and measures of aesthetic excellence in arts and social change work?

Part of the problem is this lasting residue that there is, can be, or needs to be a set of criteria of measure that can be applied across the board. Most socially engaged art is art in context, and I think that the most important art framing criteria should be responding to that context.

How do we navigate the topic of aesthetics—born from a western culture/ideal— in projects striving for social justice in a multicultural society?

This question points to the importance of the above response and being context specific.

What is the role of broader cultural criticism that considers popular culture and social and political analysis in assessment?

Ally and model. This is a direction that I believe things need to move in. As art becomes more embedded in the world and the day to day of communities, how it is assessed should fold in a complex understanding of social, political, and popular contexts as it relates to the work.

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