“Why Is It So Difficult to Talk Critically About Socially Engaged Art?”

This article pulls out the best threads, featuring plenty of quotable quotes, of contemporary thought, and aspiration, from artists, observers, and participant (herself) of socially engaged art. It also includes a great round up of recent such works.

As artist J. Morgan Puett of Mildred’s Lane noted in her recent lecture at the Regis Center for Art, “this work is not new, there’s just a new reaction to it.”  But why? Socially engaged practice is often framed as an alternative to an elitist, exclusionary, and capitalist art world. But the more institutionalized and professionalized social practice becomes (in predominantly wealthy, white institutions, I might add), the more I see a hierarchy emerging that separates social practice knowledge-authorities and those working on the outside. That growing divide raises an important question: Does social practice belong in art museums at all?

I had another one-on-one interaction on that same visit with dancer Dolo McComb, who is a collaborator with BodyCartography Project, a Minneapolis-based choreography/dance confab who were resident artists in thinking making living from late October to mid-November. The afternoon I visited, BodyCartography was rehearsing their piece closer, which is best described as:

a practice in being present.  It is a performance intervention for two strangers (audience and performer) in public space that evolves into a communal experience. It is an invitation for engagement and empathy.  Together we will examine how the space of connection between performer and audience can function as a site for transformation.  closer lays bare the power of live performance to facilitate a re-enchantment of physicality and presence.

For 10 minutes, I followed McComb as she moved throughout the spaces of the Nash Gallery, trying to keep a safe distance, not knowing what to expect. What began as a slightly uncomfortable, self-conscious experience became something like an intimate wordless conversation. At one, transformative moment, McComb was standing right against me, shoulder to shoulder; our breath slowly synchronized, and I felt a great empathy for this woman I’ve never met. I also had an increased awareness of the space surrounding us, particularly when McComb was stretched out on the cold lobby floor while I sat on a bench nearby.

From the article “Why Is It So Difficult to Talk Critically About Socially Engaged Art?” by Ashley Duffalo.


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