Radical or Reactionary: The Value of Innovation in SEA

The conversation about innovation is off to a very interesting start! I’d like to pick up the thread where Jen Delos Reyes talks about frustration. She suggests that avant-garde practice has been fueled by “frustration with current systems—within art, within society, within politics.” What happens if we take it one step further, and state that the quest for innovation comes specifically from such frustration? After all, if things are working well there is no need for change. I would suggest that the desire for change has been the impetus that has pressed the vast majority of artists working within social practice to claim to be “contributing” or “making a difference” in some way. The degree to which their work is effective, or indeed satisfying, may be seen partly as a function of whether it meets the artists’ stated altruistic goals. And the change the artists are looking for is both artistic and social. This line of inquiry leads to the question, Does innovative practice help artists ameliorate social ills, or even promote social change? Stated a little differently, is aesthetic innovation linked to social innovation?

Clearly this connection is not always positive. One need look no further than the Italian Futurists’ Fascist politics to see that change can just as easily be reactionary as progressive. Perhaps we can view this a little differently. One of the challenges faced by socially engaged art is that it is often hard to see what the “art part” is, especially in projects where the absence of an object is a hallmark of the work. The aesthetic qualities are often intangible, tied more to process and building relationships than to appreciation of visual qualities. Is the imperative for innovation of form tied to the degree to which a project is appreciated as having aesthetic qualities? Do we perceive a project that embodies less innovation to be less aesthetically successful? Is it more vulnerable to charges of being nothing more than community organizing? And does the degree to which its aesthetic aspects are appreciated ultimately contribute to, or detract from its ability to achieve its social work?

The notion that innovation is good and beneficial is, of course, contestable and contingent. Just as strong an impulse, at least within society if not within the art world, can be found in the common phrase, “good old-fashioned”. To take a page from Carin Kuoni’s book and interrogate the way we use language in this context a bit, the assignment of value to tradition as well as innovation is well-established in idiomatic English, reflecting the deeper linguistic paradigm that structures our thinking. I have no interest in rehearsing decades-old theoretical arguments about the role of language and the text here. I intend only to point out that the assignment of value—good or bad—to the term “innovation” (often found under its more common moniker, “change”) is ideological, and that such assignment of value is necessarily argumentative, and thus subject to debate. Ellen Feiss wrote, “If socially engaged practice can be called an avant-garde…it is one which seeks progressive cause through interventionist programs that aim for measureable outcomes” (emphasis hers). This may be true, but it is also a means of attaching value to intangible art (wherein objects are not produced), a way of potentially monetizing it. She goes on to say that, “the attainment of concrete or measurable social change—justice—is what sets SEA’s aspirations apart from its forbearers.” What this in essence says it that art’s usefulness—the degree to which it becomes a tool for change—is its distinguishing feature. If so, does bringing an element of instrumentalization into the work run the risk of spoiling its avant-garde bona fides by bringing it back into a market context? Or, following Carin Kuoni’s suggestion that it is only when innovation is embedded that it is impactful, does it radicalize the work by embedding it more deeply into a real-world context? The answers to these questions, if indeed they can be parsed and teased apart, are the hinge on which hangs the question of whether socially engaged art is neoliberal or radical. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and wonder if it’s somehow possible for it to encapsulate elements of each?

GD_EG2(Images: Wikimedia 1& 2, image by author, Kenyon Review)

Once the question of whether innovation is necessary or good is raised, if we can agree that the notion of the goodness of innovation is ideological, it becomes possible to identify a line of questioning into whence the imperative for innovation in art may have originated. I’m not talking so much about its appearance in art, as the history of Modernism illustrates this encyclopedically. Rather, I wonder how it found its way into art in the first place? After all, ancient Egyptian art famously remained relatively static for centuries (though not millennia, as is often claimed). Drawing once more on Kester, I’d like to introduce the possibility here that the demand for innovation may lie in art’s contingent relationship to the broader world in which it emerges. In the case of the growth of SEA, we can think about it in terms of an economic and social system reliant on the mechanisms of a neoliberal gloss on capitalism.

Like, art, capitalism is heavily reliant on innovation, even if that sometimes takes the rather dull form of variations on a theme. If a green widget sells well, what happens if we make a red one? Put simply, just as productivity within the current global economic system relies on entrepreneurship–the economic way of thinking about innovation–so, too might art. So, is the drive for new methods related to a kind of entrepreneurship in art? Is, perhaps, the entire drive for it since the emergence of Modernism simply the result of art’s contingent dependence on a capitalist economic system?

This idea has been explored by Lane Relyea. To summarize:

This is what interests me about recent poststudio [sic] practices in art: not how they resist the reproduction of a formerly dominant system – not how they oppose a Fordist production process that results in discrete objects made and stockpiled in studios and distributed through a market system regulated by galleries and museums – but rather how they align with and articulate new social and organizational norms and positions, especially the post-Fordist free agent and entrepreneur and new on-demand, just-in-time modes of production and distribution.[1]

What if, as Relyea suggests, SEA is a kind of just-in-time art production, where its evolution from “Is this art?” to “Is this useful?”[2] is just another way of criss-crossing the paths of the market and the avant-garde?


[1] Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013, p. 9.

[2] See Jen Delos Reyes’ “What Are We Trying to Get Ahead of?: Leaving the Idea of the Avant-Garde Behind,” published on September 24, 2014.


We welcome your comments! Please feel free to use the comment box at the bottom of the page to join in the discussion.


Read more from Growing Dialogue: The Latest Thing

“Interrogating Innovation in Socially Engaged Art” by Elizabeth Grady – September 22, 2014

“I’m down with dropping ideologies.” via Twitter – September 23, 2014

“What Are We Trying to Get Ahead of?: Leaving the Idea of the Avant-Garde Behind” by Jen Delos Reyes – September 24, 2014

“’Innovation’ in art and capital” by E. C. Feiss – September 30, 2014

“Notations on Innovations” by Carin Kuoni – October 3, 2014

“Re/new” by Robert Sember – October 7, 2014

“Radical or Reactionary: The Value of Innovation in SEA” by Elizabeth Grady – October 9, 2014

“What’s New Pussycat?: Socially Engaged Art and the Institution” by Jen Delos Reyes – October 15, 2014

“Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes.)” by Stephen Pritchard – October 20, 2014

“Innovation as symptom?” by Carin Kuoni – October 31, 2014

“Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New” by Elizabeth Grady – November 10, 2014

“Change as Form” by Robert Sember – December 1, 2014

“Jen Delos Reyes Responds to Growing Dialogue and You Won’t Believe What She Found on the Internet” by Jen Delos Reyes – December 4, 2014

Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.

See more articles tagged:  
Elizabeth GradyThe Latest Thing
More Articles Like This One
  • Jen Delos Reyes Responds to Growing Dialogue and You Won’t Believe What She Found on the Internet
  • Change as Form
  • Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New