The history of the avant-garde as it connects to the socially engaged art practices of today is a clear path that has been laid bare by Claire Bishop in specifics, and in the peopleʼs encyclopedia Wikipedia in general. From the example of Duchampʼs Fountain to the Situationist International, a commonality is that these artists are addressing the everyday, and trying to be more present in daily life. In all of these examples there is an urgency, whether it be to challenge the pre-existing conventions of the art world, or to shock spectators out of their stupor and consumption and reconnect them with the lived value of their own lives.
Whether we are talking about readymades, or the strategy of détournement, both of these either repurpose or re-envision everyday materials as an aide to reshaping and reconsidering the creation of meaning. The history of the avant-garde that informs socially engaged art was primarily about bringing together art and everyday life, and challenging what could be considered art, as well what art can do. So what happens when we get there—to the place where there is no longer a perceived barrier between art and life? Were these past attempts to stop art from getting away from life? Are they still?
I do not believe it was the quest for innovation that fueled many of these avant-garde gestures. It was a frustration with current systems—within art, within society, within politics. I think that still holds true for many of the socially engaged artists I see working today who are working within systems and communities, lives and neighborhoods— it is not about the next new thing in art, it is about a change that reaches far outside of an art discourse. What feels like an evolution is that the question has changed from “is this art?” to “is it useful?”
I am thankful that I think we are finally in a place where these words uttered by Buckminster Fuller in 1967 are proving to be true: “Artists are now extraordinarily important to human society.” So, what is there to get ahead of?
 Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.
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“What Are We Trying to Get Ahead of?: Leaving the Idea of the Avant-Garde Behind” by Jen Delos Reyes – September 24, 2014
Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.