Daniel Tucker works as an organizer, writer and artist in Chicago. Some of his views on socially-engaged art were shared on episode #356 of the Bad At Sports podcast.
All over the United States you can find examples of socially-engaged art being institutionally codified in higher education. On the west coast you can find: PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA, CCA’s Graduate Program in Fine Arts offers a concentration in social practices (SOPR), UC Santa Cruz’s Social Practice Arts Research Center, OTIS’s Graduate Public Practice program. On the east coast there are others: MICA’s Concentration in Sustainability and Social Practice, The Contextual Practice(CP) area of the graduate curriculum at Carnegie Mellon University; SPQ (Social Practice Queens) collaborative initiative between Queens College Art Department (CUNY: City University of New York) and the Queens Museum of Art. There are numerous art departments at schools throughout the country that are informally introducing “social practice” into their curriculum by hiring adjunct professors who are graduates of these and other comparable programs.
Education in an era of the neoliberalization of capitalism has placed a premium on choice. The opening up of new markets is key to this expanded choice, exemplified in charter school expansion at the primary and secondary level, the growth in distance and online higher education, and newly specialized affective fields like social practice art, social justice, social entrepreneurship and community partnerships in higher education. Realistically, all of these examples produce new choices at the expense of old choices. Charter schools with specially designed curriculum ranging from art to multiculturalism replace the public schools of yesterday, telecommuting in place of land-grant schools, social entrepreneurship and community partnerships replace the ethnic studies departments of the past, and socially-engaged art programs replace the discourses around political art, street theater, and community art that resulted from hard-fought processes historically. Far from a conservative cry to preserve the past, I am concerned that our educational choices have already been made for us by forces more human and corrupt than any mythical market could concoct.
The question I have about this trend is general, and not specific to any practitioner, department or program. There have been times in my own life as a student where I have been hungry for the specific conversations that deal with the ethics, logistics and aesthetics of organizing people that I imagine could be found in one of these programs and are frequently entirely absent in more traditional art programs. That said, the traditions of art have a lot to teach social practice, as they have mastered the translation of the social into material resolutions that provide necessary and different points of entry into complex ideas. The question(s) I have as social-engagement becomes legitimized in the art academy is: Can it retain the gains of the past movements for educational representation while moving beyond representation to a politics of redistribution? Can it respect truly complex social world from which it borrows and in which it intervenes without relegating the social to an image—a fixed commodified version of the everyday? Can it experiment with social relations in a way that builds new insights into what we can do together that acknowledge the inherently political nature of that act, while also proposing (socially or materially) ways to work through inadequate politics of the past?
If Social Practice programs can seriously engage these questions, then sign me up. If they can’t, then I am happy to seek this out in the crevices of the old academy, the community centers, the protests, and the streets with all the rest of the conservative weirdos who never demanded this new market and have a hard enough time with the false choices already before us.