What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?

On August 9, 2013 Deborah Fisher, Executive Director of A Blade of Grass posted a link to Ben Davis’s article, “A Critique of Social Practice Art: What does it mean to be a political artist?” which appeared in issue #90 of the International Socialist Review on her Facebook page. To her pleasant surprise, it generated a flurry of responses and counter-responses that began to gel together into a full-fledged debate on the value and practice of socially engaged art.


We were so excited by the conversation that we decided to share it with you. What follows is the initial Facebook debate, seen through the lenses of three of the participants’ Facebook pages: those of Tom Finkelpearl (Director of the Queens Museum), Deborah Fisher, and artist Rick Lowe. They have been joined by Ben Davis (Executive Editor, Blouin Artinfo), Nato Thompson (Chief Curator, Creative Time) and Elizabeth Grady (Programs Director, ABOG). A few key posts by others appear below, as well.

The texts below are organized based on the person whose Facebook page they echo. Ben has been gracious enough to offer an initial response – thanks, Ben!

We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation in the Comments section!


Deborah Fisher Well…I don’t think Nato Thompson would suggest that an artistic gesture can be intrinsically radical or anti-capitalist. But Davis is right to ask what separates SEA (Socially Engaged Art –ed.) from other types of social action and social work. Why is its status as art important? What does calling it art accomplish? August 9

Nato Thompson Thanks Deborah. I must say that I have to make it clear, that issue of whether or not something is art is hardly the central concern. That is not ultimately what is at stake. For many artists and non-artists, the concerns are much broader. I certainly have little interest in calling most stuff art or not. That category is contingent and contextual. You know, I think the mistake is to position the idea of art as something that intrinsically exists. It is a myopic discussion to reduce SEA to the consideration of “Is it art or not”. That debacle is as old as the sage Brecht vs. Adorno battles. I think that, if anything, socially engaged art points out the obvious fact that there is a crisis of cultural production. I don’t think we benefit from calling this stuff art. What we can do is realize that the social terrain is shifting and people are using culture in new ways to do stuff in the world (this goes much further than art). Davis makes it seem as though only SEA suffers from the need for funding and funders… Isn’t this the crisis of contemporary life writ large? Is there a part of living that is somehow excluded from this obvious dilemma? Are there other, more pure forms of art that he has in mind that somehow escape this situation? Is Occupy somehow removed from the same problematics? As opposed to wondering whether or not something is art, we must try to tease out how to navigate the crisis that is the incorporation of cultural production into the very machinations of power. SEA isn’t the solution, but it does point toward an exacerbation of the problem. Pretending that one can go back to business as usual (which is at heart what Davis is opining) adds nothing to the conversation. August 10 at 10:49am

Deborah Fisher Hey Nato, thanks for stopping by!

I think there’s a difference between asking if SEA is art or not, and asking what calling something art accomplishes and whether the designation of art is useful.

Whether you want to call it art or not, and I get why you don’t, SEA projects are often categorized and funded as art. With this categorization comes a specific relationship to power; a pool of established funding and other resources; a set of expectations about both meaning and efficacy… Etc.

You’re complicit in this. Creative Time is an arts organization. Immigrant Movement International is funded as an art project. So am I–ABOG is an arts funder, we are going to give 70% of our grant funds out as fellowships to individual artists next year–this empowerment of individuals doesn’t really happen to the degree it does in the arts in other funding landscapes.

I agree that whether or not something is art has been a boring, unsatisfying question for a very long time, and I enjoy and appreciate your focus on how we live in relationship to power. I think it’s a useful idea. For that matter, I also think that Davis is presenting a laundry list of issues that kind of traps cultural workers into thinking that power is always bad rather than shifting the conversation.

But you know, his list is a lot like the list of issues we’ve been kicking around all summer at ABOG HQ as we work toward rolling out this fellowship program.

I don’t think my organization can take the political nature of this work seriously, fund it thoughtfully, and meaningfully assess what these projects can and cannot do unless we are fully accountable to the power we have as funders, and the way art functions not only within a marketplace but as a symbol that distances the powerful from their own ideology.

And I believe there are real opportunities to be found to expand this dialogue past SEA as social work if we can be clear about the way art shapes our expectations of impact, and what we can give a larger discussion about how arts philanthropy works.

This is getting really long, but basically I don’t think ABOG can get to understanding or measuring anything resembling your “how we live” perspective without deploying art as a framing device because of the real limitations Davis addresses in his article.

Anyway, happy to keep chatting about this! August 10 at 2:16pm via mobile

Nato Thompson I think the trick is that we are not talking about a field unrelated to art. It is just a different beast. Many of these projects use cultural production (a word I like more than art) at some point in their process. Artists are not alone in using culture to do things. Using the symbolic, the formal, the poetic alongside the didactic, the infrastructural, and activist are simply contemporary ways of doing things. The field of SEA is often artists and activists catching up to the fact that a hybrid form of aesthetic and political production is how the world works. To talk about efficacy is difficult because outside of capitalism, we have very few metrics for the production of subjectivity. Capitalism at least has math. But the production of a more compelling, open-minded, liberated experience is very hard to prove. This isn’t just the difficulty faced by contemporary culture makers but educators as well. How would Paolo Freire produce proof of his liberatory pedagogy? Certainly consistent processes over time are useful in analyzing, but even short lived one-off things (art projects) mixed in with the great stew of other processes have their own, very hard to assess, results. August 11 at 10:04am

Tom Finkelpearl Hey Nato and Deborah — It seems that the only sort of art Ben Davis would endorse is the art that would lead directly to the end of capitalism. What does that art look like? Is it disengaged? If it is engaged, is it not co-opted? In our jobs at Creative Time, A Blade of Grass and the Queens Museum we are constantly in the position of saying publicly what we are for, not just what we are against. So, Ben Davis, if you are against Project Row Houses, what art are you for? (By the way, I think the article is well worth reading! Well argued though I do not agree.) August 11 at 9:40pm

Noah Simblist Hi all – to answer Deborah’s question, I think that calling social justice, or social action work, art does accomplish one thing – it enters it into a discourse of representation and performativity that often is taken for granted outside of the art world. The real strength to me of artworks that engage the social or political is putting something on the table that is often impoverished – the ability to imagine another future, or even a methodology to get there. August 11 at 10:34pm

Noah Simblist And for the record – it is a fallacy to lump together all social practice works or socially engaged works together as anti-capitalist, or even political. Deborah and Tom, you were both at the last Open Engagement (an annual conference on Socially Engaged Art –Ed.), a supposed gathering of social practice works and in my mind, very little was politicized at all! One problem in the rhetoric that surrounds much of this work is the resistance to true criticality.

Deborah Fisher Hi Nato, I agree that assessment is difficult. But in order to respect these projects’ place in everyday life, and their stated or implicit social goals, and to move the dialogue forward, I feel that assessing SEA is really necessary. My sense is that this will be a more qualitative than quantitative project. The language we are using at ABOG is “case studies.” We are thinking primarily in terms of asking various stakeholders about their experiences and asking artists to self-assess.

This is very different than producing “proof” as you say. But I do think that we will find in these case studies a clearer set of arguments for, and stories about the poetic/symbolic importance of this work in communities. August 12 at 7:44am

Deborah Fisher Noah, I agree with your sentiment about a resistance to true criticality, and about the apolitical nature of much of the work at OE standing in stark contrast to the political rhetoric at OE.

I think Davis is sidestepping the poetic and symbolic worth of PRH (Project Row Houses –Ed.). But I also think that he’s pointing to an interesting set of real limitations and pitfalls. August 12 at 8:05am

Nato Thompson I am back. I am not saying that assessing SAE isn’t important. I just think that we have a long way to go before that is even possible. First we must formulate a more productive language and critical frameworks in thinking through these projects. For me, Davis has a faulty framework for thinking through this. His argument is a tautology in that it sets up the conditions for its own failure. His framework for thinking through aesthetics and politics, like Tom demonstrates, produces its own set of impossibilities that have nothing to do with SAE but instead are about the limitations of his own analysis. If one can’t point toward anything that solves the concerns one is raising, then one suffers from something bigger than just a loss of faith in art. I think that we need to broaden the terms to think through a world where the tools of art have been incorporated into everyday life. This still allows us to think through efficacy, but the language is not exactly that well formed (this conversation as an example). Finding a way to talk about efficacy will be difficult before we know what the playing field is, and the terms are. August 14 at 9:41am

Deborah Fisher Welcome back!

I’m suspicious of this idea that we have no language or framework to assess something that we already do, produce, hold conferences and write books about, and directly experience. SEA is not particularly new, and assessment is nothing more than evaluating the nature or quality of something. My sense is that we have a lot of handholds for figuring this out.

It worries me to think that SEA–a form of cultural production that is created in cooperation with communities that have better things to do than read theory–would need a whole new language and framework in order to be evaluated. How do we include these participants in assessing and valuing this work if we have to talk about it in a highly specialized way that we experts cannot even imagine yet?

I agree completely that our sense of how we talk about art needs to expand into life. But I think that we have some existing tools for this kind of work, that are as old as we are. I’ve had very productive, if strange, conversations with non-major art appreciation students about Allan Kaprow’s ideas about un-arting oneself, for example.

I’m curious about your sense that evaluation requires this externally applied framework–a defined playing field that externally defines efficacy across projects. Do you think this would ever be possible? It’s not something we have any interest in creating at ABOG HQ. We are thinking about building a set of case studies, and defining efficacy first in terms of the artists’ goals. This is more aligned with how we evaluate the quality of other types of art, and there are great models in the social sciences that we can bring in without displacing aesthetics.

Can we refine the tools we have? Sure. I’m a reformer, to use Tom Finkelpearl’s revolution-or-reform framework, so I think we refine and build by using what we have at hand. I see a rich set of resources to build with, some of which are authored by you!

I agree with you that Davis’ article is about problems rather than solutions. Why isn’t waiting for a language revolution before we even start evaluating SEA similar problematizing? August 14 at 11:30am

Elizabeth Grady As someone who has worked on carefully assessed SEA projects (under the aegis of the smARTpower program of the Bronx Museum, where we sent 15 artists abroad to 15 countries to engage in such projects), and likewise designing an even more comprehensive assessment program for ABOG, I would beg to differ with Nato on this one. In fact, there is a rich literature on assessment that takes into account qualitative and quantitative approaches. It includes things like Collaborative Action Research, Participatory Action Research, the methodology endorsed and described most eloquently on the Animating Democracy website, in addition to ethnographic and sociological approaches long in use (see for example Dwight Conquergood). These approaches, when taken together, encompass self-evaluation and evaluation by outside professionals. They consider the aesthetic as well as social impacts. This does not, of course, mean that it is always possible to assess such work; assessment is an expensive proposition, but IMHO one of the reasons that so much of the literature (or at least public discourse in the form of panel discussions, et al) on SEA can sound so insular and tautological lies precisely in the fact that stakeholder voices outside the artists and institutions that support them are so often left out of the conversation. August 15 at 1:11pm


Hey everyone — here is an article that is well worth reading, though as you might guess, I disagree! Of course, I am one of the people trumpeting Project Row Houses as a great work of public/social/cooperative art. There are some excellent comments about the article on the Facebook page of Deborah Fisher, including Nato Thompson weighing in… Take a look there. August 11 at 9:45pm

Tom Finkelpearl There are trade-offs in all aspects of life, so engagement comes with compromise much of the time. The question is how profound is the compromise… August 11 at 10:35pm

Deborah Fisher Hey Tom, thanks for spreading this around!

I think this article provides an important perspective because it admits that calling these social projects “art” brings power, but not in a way that solves the problem. For Davis, this is the end of the argument, and well, for me it’s the beginning of the argument. But either way, if the work is going to have the political impact it’s intended to have, the discourse around it has to own its relationship to power. August 12 at 6:49am


While this is an interesting article, and Ben Davis should be applauded for writing it, the comments by Deborah Fisher, Nato Thompson, and Tom Finkelpearl are enlightening responses. Undoubtedly this article will add context to the conversation Nato and I will be having as a part of the next Creative Time Summit in October. August 11 at 10:11pm

Tom Finkelpearl Yes Rick Lowe, but I really want to talk to the guy who wrote this! What does he suggest we do? Should we retire from any sort of institutional setting? These are not rhetorical questions. I would truly like to hear what he thinks an artist or museum director with a social vision should be producing. August 11 at 10:18pm

Rick Lowe Tom Finkelpearl I don’t know Ben Davis. Maybe Nato Thompson should invite him to the conversation at the Creative Time Summit. It would be interesting to be in dialogue with him. He brings an interesting perspective and critique that I respect. August 11 at 10:22pm

Katy Reckdahl At the outset, the piece seems to dismiss Project Row Houses because its unit count is dwarfed by Houston’s Section 8 list. I, too, think that Mr. Davis brought admirable depth and history to his piece but I kept waiting for him to discuss “social practice” as a natural outcropping of art’s long history as a social critique. After Hurricane Katrina, we saw the force of art first-hand as one voice consistently demanding that New Orleans be rebuilt. August 11 at 11:03pm

Katy Reckdahl I think my biggest critique is that I’m not convinced that Mr. Davis has experienced art’s power to change. So he spends his piece wringing his hands that art hasn’t done enough and then tries to end on a “hopeful” note with his coda about a handful of people who left a meeting to march in a protest. Maybe I’m misled, but in the world where social issues meet art, isn’t there so much more to be hopeful about? August 11 at 11:42pm

Rick Lowe Katy Reckdahl I agree that Ben Davis underestimates the role of the symbolic and poetic power of art. But this has challenged many, since artists have tried to find new meaning for their work in the context of economic, political, and social crisis. Take gentrification for example, artists are seeking to move away from being the problem of gentrification to exploring ways to contribute to solving the problems of gentrification. Yet when I make statements like the one I just made, I realize I’m contributing to a problem for artists by using the word “solving.” Over the years I have learned to be careful about using the word “solving” and always try to temper it with words like “exploring” and “contributing” to lessen expectations that are artists have the power or responsibility to “solve” problems.

Project Row Houses and our housing program have never been about “solving” the housing problem for Houston. We thought that by contextualizing housing as an artistic exploration, we could symbolically show the value of developing housing that embraced the existing people and history of the community. I agree with Ben Davis, Project Row Houses has not solved Houston’s housing problem. But the symbolic quality of the project has generated dialogue within our community and others about the value of existing community context when developing.

The expectation that artists and arts organizations “solve” problems goes way beyond Ben Davis. “Placemaking” is the current word being used to identify artists and arts organizations working in social/community contexts. The main indicator being used to determine the “placemaking” value of the work is “outcome”, or solution to some problem. In general this is very problematic for me as an artist, but more specifically as an artist who works within the context of community development. In our hyper-capitalist society, the value outcome most often sought is economic. When Project Row Houses entered the world of real estate, our interest was to contextualize the social in an aesthetic way. We later realized its political role. But from an artistic standpoint the economics of real estate was and still is the least interesting part. However, now in the era of “placemaking”, economics has made its way to the top of the list of concerns. I find this very problematic for the continued growth of the field of creative social/community engaged work. August 12 at 1:23am

Deborah Fisher Hi Rick, nice to meet you! The thing I value about this article is the relationship Davis is drawing between art and power and the social agenda of SEA projects. Funders of this work need to be able to address this criticism of it without collapsing into instrumentalizing art, or making an essentialist claim that art is simply good because it’s good.

I don’t think it’s your responsibility to be accountable to a drop in section 8 housing claims in Houston, obviously, and I agree with other commenters that Davis is minimizing the symbolic role of art, the power of art to inspire, the need for a poetics of social change.

But as a funder who believes in these things, what does it mean that I fund projects that do not solve social problems? What exactly am I accountable to when I do this? What are the metrics of these social poetics?

I don’t think it’s possible to get to clear, practical, accountable language about what SEA can and cannot do without owning the privilege of it all. August 12 at 7:21am

Katy Reckdahl Deborah Fisher: I appreciate your questions, too, about describing the value of SEA projects without falling prey to simplistic metrics. And Rick: I hear you about the larger debate, even if I quibble about how it was presented. In journalism, as you know, clicks and awards dominate. In some ways, this economic-based debate has value — news outlets now seem to care much more about what readers want — but it has overwhelmed more artistic discussions about story, narrative and explanation of complex issues in the same way that “placemaking” has dwarfed discussions about social fabric and what gives life to a community. August 12 at 9:38am

Glenn Weiss Just a classic socialist critique that small positive interventions give the impression that capitalism can solve its negative attributes by the free actions of good people. These inventions distract other people from fighting the capitalist structure. Unfortunately, we are many, many years from a people’s revolt against the power of the international corporations. …….. The better critique of social practice is its current super-minority status in all its worlds – arts, politics and social services. How does it move to a stable minority role? Where has it moved to a stable minority today? How stable are Project Row Houses, SPARK and Philly Murals? Have the values of “human dignity through the arts” been truly established in Houston, LA and Philly such that this minority idea retains a civic presence without the institution? August 12 at 10:57am

Tom Finkelpearl To get back to what Rick Lowe said above –way back in the day when he was working on the Homeless Vehicle, Krzysztof Wodiczko told me that he considered himself a “critical real estate artist.” I would call Rick an “activist real estate artist,” but his does not mean that either of them fails to traffic in the symbolic or emblematic. And Glenn Weiss — could you explain more what you mean by super-minority status? And to Deborah Fisher and Katy Reckdahl — how can assessment and complexity coexist? Isn’t that what the field of aesthetics was born to consider? I mean shouldn’t the discussion/evaluation of Social Art be a branch of aesthetics rather than an extension of sociology? I think that this would be healthy for (social) aesthetics as well as for social theory. Just a thought. August 12 at 11:31am

Deborah Fisher Tom, first, I think social art should be a branch of aesthetics that leans heavily on the existing knowledge and methods of sociology. August 12 at 11:39am

Deborah Fisher Second, Tom, to assess something is simply to evaluate its nature or qualities in a meaningful way. Is there no such thing as an aesthetic assessment? August 12 at 11:40am

Tom Finkelpearl Yes, Deborah Fisher, agreed. Aesthetics is all about assessment — finding meaningful ways to talk about art. So how can aesthetics be bent toward the social without simply becoming sociology or political science? August 12 at 11:43am

Rick Lowe Deborah Fisher In my work, I’m concerned with both the symbolic (aesthetic) and the practical (outcome) and don’t have a problem explaining to housing funders the outcome of our housing work, i.e., economic impact. I just don’t think that art funders should have the same assessment criteria as housing funders. Is there an assessment model that can honor the full range of artistic contribution without neglecting the outcomes that are expected in political and sociological terms? August 12 at 12:14pm

Deborah Fisher Rick, the short answer is… we’re working on it! August 12 at 12:26pm

Katy Reckdahl I look forward to hearing more about this topic. It seems to me that, like art, sociological success is often in the eye of the beholder. August 12 at 1:10pm · Like

Elizabeth Grady The longer answer, to tag onto what Deb is saying, is to say that there are a range of strategies for addressing community impact, aesthetic value, and metrics of the sort that housing funders and others outside the artsphere need to see in order to feel comfortable sharing their resources to promote change. A multifaceted approach that allows for the voices (and often conflicting perceptions) of multiple stakeholders (artists, community leaders, partner organizations,…) to be heard, with parallel statistics about participation and community makeup is a good start. This combines theories of change with ethnographic methods of evaluation and dialogic approaches like collaborative action research, participatory action research. A well-rounded qualitative and quantitative model is called for, I believe. August 12 at 1:30pm

Glenn Weiss When you switch toward people as your art, then outsiders cannot possibly know the aesthetic success. All knowledge of the artwork is either a documentary, a tourist tour, word of mouth myth or as Brett Cook calls it, the leftover “debris” or stuff made. The thoughts and motivation caused by the documentary, tour, myth or debris can be critiqued. The actual artwork is a private event. And yet we can be thrilled and motivated by the documentation or debris. ……. As to Tom Finkelpearl ‘s questions, What is a super-minority, I guess that was not the best use of “super.” A better phrase might be mini-minority. Social Practice or Community Art or DIY or ?? needs to find a home: a solid minority action in some field of knowledge. But more important to me is the solidity of recognition with particular communities that are seeking to preserve or create a dense quality of life. August 12 at 6:26pm

Gregory Sholette What is intrinsically radical, anti-capitalist, and red all over? A Barnett Newman perhaps? Not really. One of Malevich’s squares, correct? A bit closer, then? What about the re-staging of the storming of the Winter Palace in 1918? I’m getting hotter, yes?

Ben Davis writes: “You cannot prevent innovations in art from eventually being given a capitalist articulation.”

And we are confronted with a conundrum. Does culture (in this case the visual or fine arts)- ever act to directly shape socio-economic reality, or is it in turn always molded by these forces? And if capitalism is the totality of our existence, then how can any artistic practice be substantially “anti-capitalist” or “radical” or “subversive” and therefore let us call it “pro-human” or “pro-society”?

Much like the perennial debates over “form v. content,” or the more recent “is it art or is it activism?” there can be no satisfactory answer to the conundrum of whether or not radical innovation -however defined- is or is not complicit with capital’s long march, or to be more specific, the market’s attempted sublation of all forms of human production (including more and more the very gristle and bone of human and animal life itself). And this is not the case because such debates touch on mysterious or metaphysical depths of aesthetic or ontological reality, but rather because, as Mr. Davis certainly knows, interpretation and judgment are always subject to the same socio-economic and historical forces that shape culture at any given moment. This is where Marx left Kant in antiquity’s dust. “We know only a single science, the science of history,” insisted Marx and Engels countering the vagaries of German idealist philosophy. So yes, agreed, innovations in art may indeed be useful to, or even foretell of future market trends (though again, I am not certain how this can be read except in retrospect), and their relative speed or ease of subsumption possibly even marking the very tempo of capital’s entrepreneurial drive, but by the same dialectic they might, circumstances permitting, undermine or resist these forces, offering at the very least a momentary breach within the decadence of what Mr. Davis labels commercial art, an indignation if not exact wording I share. However, in the best of moments such practices cast a light, however weak, on an often less-visible counter-historical tendency entwined with capitalist development itself, a tendency that, while no less “historical” in Marx and Engel’s terms (as opposed to Hegel’s metaphysical “geist”), acts as a negative though material drag on market momentum. This “art history from below” is akin to what the Marxist theorists Kluge and Negt describe as a counter public sphere: a realm of fragmented publics and working class fantasy generated in response to the alienating conditions of capitalism. Occupy and the Movement of the Squares undoubtedly brought this other cultural force, this missing mass or creative dark matter, into the fore, and for better in most cases I would say, although also for worse in some instances. This historical situation that while less dynamic at this moment is still in development may even be what spurred certain trends such as “relational aesthetics” to turn a tad more “militant”? In any case, pointing out this evolution is spot on, Mr. Davis. Meanwhile, it seems these days revolutions are labeled as soon as they emerge, in life and in art, and while curiously few have described social practice art specifically as “avant garde” the fact that art and politics are even being debated with such fervor is in itself a sign of hope. Again, this is the particular strength of Mr. Davis’s critique even if his use of theory and the specific details he musters for his arguments are at times subject to question. Ultimately, I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s anecdote that revolution is not so much the train hurtling down the tracks but the pull on the emergency brake by the working class. Here’s to that pull. Let’s make it a good one next time. August 17 at 12:11pm

Tom Finkelpearl I am not so interested in hearing about how certain practices are compromised. Certainly all practices are to some degree. Problematizing can be tiresome! What is it that people think we should be doing? What is the least compromised route? I have seen firsthand what is up at Project Row Houses on a number of occasions, and it is a work of social art that I would like to put forward as exemplary. Not perfect. Not without compromises, but constructive and self-critical and constantly evolving in creative social-aesthetic directions. So people, what is your alternative? August 19 at 6:42pm

Nato Thompson Frankly, I don’t like reacting to the Davis article. I just can’t beat the drum of Adorno/Brecht anymore. That is what makes me reluctant to participate in this. That said, I would like to know what folks would prefer to discuss…. for me the better way to articulate the differences around SAE is to place the questions of what they do in a different light. How do places of inter-subjective play and radical pedagogy produce different forms of collective behavior? How is the media used as a form that resists dominant conditions of power? What kinds of infrastructure can make social forms of play and politics? How can we produce spaces where autonomous action is actually possible? What type of city can we build using a hybrid of radical pedagogy and democratized play with the built environment? How can we produce spaces and situations that up-end ideas of race and class in a way that is fun, strange and liberating? We can use a myriad of examples that move across disciplines from architecture to contemporary ecology, to city planning, to pedagogy, to radical politics, and in those interstitial spaces between we find more amazing questions and nuance. August 20 at 4:25am

Tom Finkelpearl Nato – I really like these questions. They are the right questions to ask — and I would submit that there are a slew of artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Bruguera Tania, and Rick Lowe who put these sorts of issues into form every day. But I do like the discussion that has emerged from the Davis article because there are other unanswered questions related to compromise and co-optation that need to be considered seriously…. August 20 at 10:25pm

Rick Lowe Nato Thompson, I agree with Tom Finkelpearl that you post good questions to consider and I think many of us ponder these questions continually in our work. Like Tom, even though I might not agree with the way Ben Davis frames his critique, I find the questions he brings up important to consider. One of the biggest concerns I have for the field of social and community engaged practice is that we don’t have serious critical dialogue about the work being practiced and produced. And I’m not talking about dialogue that questions whether socially engaged work is art. I’m talking about dialogue about how our work relates to the issues of power, privilege, appropriations, exploitations, etc. I self-reflect on these issues daily in relation to my work, but it is valuable to confront them from different perspectives with different agendas. I’m excited to hear Ben Davis’s perspectives, and eager to learn more of his perspectives on art that rise above “capitalist articulation”, and the “completely different direction” that social practice might take as a result of critical debating. August 21 at 1:33am

Deborah Fisher What I find so valuable about your questions, Nato, is the way they account for art’s ability to expand the boundaries of what is real and possible. This is hard for us to talk about–it’s easier to either essentialize this art and say its good because it’s good, or instrumentalize it and make claims about its effectiveness that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

To continue Rick’s thoughts… My sense is that that a sustained, rigorous, accessible critical dialogue is key if we want to actually achieve the vision you’re laying out. This type of work relies on collaborators that are outside the contemporary art dialogue, and efficacy and ethics are big aspects of its aesthetic. We need to be able to talk about it in ways that empower artists/makers and include prospective collaborators and participants.

This critical dialogue must preserve the vastness and possibility you’re bringing to the table–I am totally over post-structuralism’s obsession with what’s impossible. I also think it’s important to think through what this work is and is not; what it can and cannot do; how it relates to existing power dynamics and social change mechanisms. August 21 at 7:47am

Nato Thompson Sure and I guess I should be glad to have this good conversation with y’all. Yes, there definitely needs to be much more conversation on methodologies and kinds of practice. There is so much amazing, complicated work being done that perhaps specific examples are worth digging into. What I would like to hear more about is, for example: what has Teddy Cruz learned by working at the city of San Diego? What can Damon Rich tell us about the pragmatic functions of governmentality mixed with radical pedagogy in the city of Newark, NJ? How is ToroLab’s FarmLab actually going to function in the heart of Tijuana? What are the social and infrastructural networks that are being produced in the wake of the Gezi Park protests? What can we learn from the methodologies of DeColonizing Architecture in thinking through spatial/cultural solutions to intractable political problems? August 21 at 8:53am

We want to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation in the Comments section!


Read more from Growing Dialogue: What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?

“What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?” – September 18, 2013

“Ben Davis Responds” by Ben Davis – September 18, 2013

“Spaces of Possibility” by Nato Thompson – September 23, 2013

“#DoWeHaveThis?” by Tom Finkelpearl – September 24, 2013

“Working Towards Justice” by Rick Lowe – September 24, 2013

“On Bullshit” by Deborah Fisher – September 26, 2013

“Round 2: The Ontological Question” by Ben Davis – October 21, 2013

“The Ethically Neutral Dilemma of SEA” by Nato Thompson – October 23, 2013

“A Belated Conclusion” by Ben Davis – November 26, 2013

“The Name Game” by Louisa McCall – January 11, 2014

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By Tom Finkelpearl
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