Art As Social Practice

AN ATTENTIVE READER SENT ALONG notice of a new grad course offering at Portland State University in Oregon. The PSU link came with a wry: “Figured you’d like this.”

Well, yes, I guess you could say I like it. But only because it confirms my contention that art is increasingly not about art at all. It is fast becoming a variant of community organizing by soi-disant promoters of their own notions of the common good. Thanks to the reader, here is more to testify that distaste for that word practice, spreading like a cancer through curriculum lists, is fitting.

To keep the ever-swelling ranks of MFA grads employed, art departments have to be inventive. Hats off to PSU for coming up with the latest disciplinary wrinkle: Social Practice. Forget all that passé stuff about painting, drawing, sculpture and, you know, making things. That was so yesterday! Besides, it was hard. Posing is infinitely more congenial than risking one’s trembling ego over, well, a work of art.  Anyway, who wants to spend years in learning and perfecting studio practice.

PSU’s MFA in Contemporary Art Practice encourages students to “utilize their artistic skills to engage society.” This cheerily assumes the students already have artistic skills. But, if that is so, why are they still in school? It is hard not to feel a bit sorry for young adults who need to pay yet more tuition in order to engage the world they live in. Where have they been? What have they been doing these last 20 or so years?

The good people at PSU explain their wares this way:

Social practice might appear to be more like sociology, anthropology, social work, journalism, or environmentalism than art, yet it retains the intention of creating significance and appreciation for audiences in a similar way to more conventional art. Students learn about a variety of working artists and non-artists who have engaged in civic activity, and apply their knowledge and abilities to initiate, develop, and complete projects with the public—individuals, groups, and institutions.

Nice. And soothingly vague. Significance that signifies . . . what? Appreciation of  . . . what? No matter. That phrase civic activity has a fine ring, even if our republic has gotten this far without citizens needing an MFA to run for Scout leader, church warden, the school board, the state assembly, The Nation’s Missing Children Organization, or the Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce, to name just the tippy-tip of the civic iceberg.

It gets better:

The Social Practice program is largely student led and directed. This structure allows the program the flexibility needed to be built to suit the needs of the current students as individuals and as a group.

That is a lovely way of saying that this program is largely a low-overhead operation. It brings in tuition revenue while it leaves faculty free to do not much of anything. Try to imagine the kind of mind that imagined and implemented something called “the Social Practice faculty.”

What does student work in the program consist of? The satirical mavens at PSU highlight the accomplishment of its entollees. First, there is Amy Steel, artist and educator, who teaches at PSU. Ms. Steel earns her keep with such things as SnackBar, a project in which participants make drawings in exchange for snacks.

Then there is Ariana Jabob who “uses conversation as medium and as subjective research method.” Her project sits us all down to shoot the breeze:

Conversation Station is an informal conversational research project where Ariana invites people in public places to sit down and discuss what they think about unsettling but ordinary subjects, including American relationships to history, why liberals and conservatives disagree with each other, and death.

Outside academia, this would be laughed off stage as horseradish. Irish Bull. Hogwash. Bold-faced bunkum. But in the Department of Art, PSU, it is worth a graduate degree. And then there is Eric Steen, another civic consciousness native to Portland.

His work explores leisure, pedagogy, and microtopias through socially engaged projects.

That is perfectly clear to you, isn’t it? I hope so, because I have no idea what it means myself. Something to do with brewing beer on the inspiration of an artwork. [Shouldn’t that go the other way around?] The practice of Helen Reed, though, is a little clearer:

Over the past 5 years Helen’s art practice has involved working with specific invested communities. During this time she has landed the first senior citizen on the moon, contacted Marshall McLuhan by Ouija Board, and coordinated a lesbian-separatist rave in the farmlands of Ontario.

This post began by referencing community organizing. Here we have it at its silliest.
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There is a poignance to something so worthy of throwaway snark as PSU’s Social Practice program. But that does not make it benign. It seduces would-be artists away from the critical, most demanding reality: that their first loyalty, as artists, is to the work of their hands—to the thing made. It encourages students to consider themselves artists on no more solid basis than their own social conscience, however drearily formed it might be.
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In the end, it leaves them unemployable.

Update: Eric Steen defends his social practice. See Comments.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. I’ll respond to this by telling you about one of my most recent projects. In my work I focus on how beer can be used as an agent for social change, how it can be a tool to build interest in local economy, place, history, and landfulness. I recently did a project where I worked with fifteen homebrewers to create a public class that explored beer culture around the city of Glasgow. These homebrewers then made 30 beers. I built a bar and served these beers to the public for free, all the while “exhibiting” their work in ways that looks at the aesthetics, science, and creative work involved in craft beer. The “significance” and “appreciation” of the art to this audience and to those who are interested in craft beer becomes personalized as they became integral participants in the piece and even direct the outcome to some extent.

    The basic idea behind the PSU program is that students are creating art that doesn’t necessarily just relate to art, but has it’s foot in other interdisciplinary topics. Why should artists only focus on paintings, drawings, sculpture? Why not more? Many artists have been doing this kind of work since the 60’s and now artists are attempting to rely less on galleries, traditional methods of display, and traditional concepts in art, and more on creating their own contexts for their work in a way will develop relationships between their work and other fields. This may mean the work looks like a business, or an event, or some kind of service work.

    You really should check out what some of the students are doing in this program. And your statements about the program being student-led as a way to have low overhead costs and allow the faculty to do nothing are completely false. You really need to do your homework. The faculty that work with the students work their asses off, meet almost daily with students, plan weekly Monday Night Lecture series, plan conferences that the students take part in and much much much more. It’s way more than I can say for other MFA programs where I don’t even know if I’ll see my “professor” more than once a month, if that. I don’t think you really checked your facts here.

  2. Eric is right about the beer. Aesthetics, science and creativity are fully and undeniably at work in the crafting of it. But the project described is typical of promotional schemes devised by ad men. Do we call them “social practitioners”? To call the beer caper “social practice” is a misuse of the term. In all, it sounds like a wonderful event. But the only art applicable to Eric Steen’s role here is the art of promotion. It would be a mitvah if we called things by their right name.

  3. Eric, I’m confused about what you said: the PSU program encourages students to create art that “doesn’t necessarily just relate to art.” I think most artists make art that doesn’t necessarily just relate to art, so it seems a little silly to say that quality is specific to Social Practice.

    Further, I’d argue that Social Practice tends to get more stuck in the elitist art world specifically because its aesthetic qualities are not always readily visible. Social Practice’s practitioners seem to feel the need to prove their work is art by putting it in stuffy institutions and other art frames. For example, the PSU program recently had its (annual?) Shine A Light event at the Portland Art Museum. Also, an MFA in Social Practice seems to confirm the discipline’s need to prove itself in the art world–but then I’m anti-MFA so I am admittedly biased on this particular topic!

    In the end, I like the idea of Social Practice, but I find that it’s often lacking in practice. The pieces themselves are, in my experience, more engaging when imagined than when seen. I’m open to being convinced of Social Practice’s special value, but I haven’t experienced it yet.

  4. I can’t help but find “social practice” art remarkably pretentious, designating what one does as art and one’s self an artist while doing what other mature adults do every single day. The difference being, these adults aren’t reaching their hand down into the grab gab of academic jargon to make what they’re doing seem significant. They don’t call their planned events “pieces.” They call them neighborhood beer tastings or “going camping.”

    The social consciousness of it all is encouraging, only in as much as artists are recognizing the rest of the world exists without them. Artists want to participate now; they just can’t leave their sense of specialness behind.

    Yet the specialness is completely unearned, as if calling one’s self an artist means they’ve learned how to make significant works of art but have divested themselves of this pursuit to join the hoi polloi.

    To hear the professors at PSU are working hard at this, rather than surfing the internet in their offices, is almost more despairing. Calling this art and doing it in school just seems like a distraction, or even burden, from learning how to farm organically or make snacks or whatever it is everyone else is up to.

  5. Yo you have a great point about this program at PSU, I read through the rest of the student work from the program and it’s just awful. But you really shouldn’t be so closed minded about “social practice” art. Understand that it’s extremely difficult to make art that’s socially engaging or “community” art that’s both successfully interacts with the public and is also moving and inspirational in the same way more traditional art is. But you should really check out the work(if you haven’t already) of some artists who balance the role of artist and activist pretty well, like Alfredo Jaar, Some of Mel Chins work, the Futurefarmers, Gelitin, Fritz Haeg and there are many other great artists who are involved in this type of work. Part of the problem comes with this over classification of different type of art practices in general, we should really be past this. It’s all just art, and it’s art if you say it’s art(“everyone is an artist”-Beuys probably should have said ‘can be an artist’ but oh well), but it doesn’t mean it’s any good and we have to pay any attention to it. If it moves you to think and see the world in new and different ways then it shouldn’t matter what whoever is doing it calls it, they should just do more of it. Know what I mean?

  6. The comment by Josh [#7 above] is appealing on first glance. But look again. If everything is art, then nothing is. If everyone is an artist, then the word has no meaning. We democratize the term into oblivion.

  7. I agree with JoeBork that the terms art and artist becoming so democratic could lead to the devaluing of the terms, but so what. The point I was trying to make was that it doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as it serves its purpose to change the given reality(or perception of reality) of a situation then call it whatever you like. Someone can bake a loaf of bread and call it a work of art and put it on a pedestal, and I won’t contest. It’s not my place to decide what is and isn’t art, but it is my role as a viewer to imbue meaning upon a work, and if there is no growth to be had in the work of art then there is little to no value in it. This is a basic conversation Duchamp answered for us a long time ago.

  8. Why the either or perspective-you can either make traditional art or you can brew beer, but not both? There are many artists making traditional work and are also involved in their community doing socially oriented, non-art activities , as compared to their “practice” Do you think they, or the non-artist organizing a block party consider their “social” work to have no meaning?

    It’s no surprise that conceptual art has brought us to a point where artists want to manufacture meaning through social activity and discourse. I am so tired of this dead conversation about whether its ART or not-Duchamp put that to rest; if you do not understand that you are not even part this dialogue. That said, the conversation is still about what we all deem is a valuable relationship between art(s). I don’t care how shiny, big and red it is, or how it creates meaning from process and/or materials, or even the “good” it does for cultural contexts. The work has to have an complex, fresh interesting and challenging relationship to anything and everything going on right now-contextually and art historically. Social practice work can do it all-it can engage in traditionalist desire for a continuation of the accepted art conversations, be really sexy and material-object based, fix social problems, make the world better, and maybe even help some of these practitioners pay off some student loan debt. Get with it , artists! You got an education that enables you to de-construct , fuck-with and contribute to this conversation called cultural production, so start by honestly examining your own, static pre-conceived notions of your job-description!

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