Interrogating Innovation in Socially Engaged Art


The notion of the avant-garde holds a special allure for art enthusiasts. Long before end of the Modernist period, museums were already founded in its honor. The Modern wing of the National Gallery in Berlin had been opened to the public as early as 1919, and the Vatican of Modernism, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was established in 1929. The foundation of such institutions was predicated on the already commonplace notion that new was good, that innovation in art should be supported, promoted, and canonized within the walls of institutions with the wherewithal to lend it legitimacy. Indeed, innovation became part of the definition of Modernist art, a kind of admission ticket to the canon of accepted work, a carte blanche that allowed entrance into the annals of history. Even its Wikipedia entry—that ultimate arbiter of baseline definitions—refers to this essential quality:

Modern art includes artistic works produced during the period extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, and denotes the style and philosophy of the art produced during that era. The term is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation.[1]

The Modernist principle of art, oppositional and ever-evolving was the not-so-New Art World Order, and innovation was its catechism.[2]

Now, that might lead one to think that when Postmodernism came along, with appropriation suppressing obvious authorship (like brushstrokes on a painting), that the whole thing came crashing down: Not so. As it happened, the idea of using existing images, like those found in ads or in earlier artists’ work, as source material was something entirely new. Postmodern artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, among many others, shifted the paradigm for thinking about what it was that avant-garde art was critiquing, from a stultified formalism to ideology itself.[3] Indeed, innovation was as crucial as ever, with artists seeking to deflate the hegemonic balloon of Modernism while also poking holes in the very paradigm of the overall structure of society (straight white male domination, in particular).

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Where does the appreciation of a socially engaged project as art intersect with the artist’s ability to innovate?

At any rate, whether the artists were working within a Modernist or a Postmodernist model, their innovative approaches equally placed them in a separate category from the rest of the world. It was by defining their practice against that of others, and against history that their identity was secured. Thus the role of the artists, if not exactly the same idea of their authorship, was preserved. Collaborative work, whether as an art collective or with a non-art community, remained relegated to a contingent cul-de-sac of culture; substandard, and destining its practitioners never to become Important Artists, and certainly not museum-honored Geniuses. Collaborative artists were just scruffy hippies, not to be taken seriously, and their work was aesthetically bankrupt.

Curiously, the murky backwater of collaboration has gradually begun to be fed by new sources, developing a current of community engagement. As long ago as the nineties, there has been a measurable uptick in the number of artists working in a socially engaged way—I’ll follow Pablo Helguera and call it SEA (socially engaged art).[4] Unsurprisingly, as SEA has been on the rise, and the realm of the social has been increasingly accepted as a legitimate art medium, SEA’s role as avant-garde practice has been touted.[5] Following the Modernist trope, which remains the dominant one, alongside this claim to vanguardism comes the assumption that such work is both antagonistic toward previous art and the social order, and that it must prove its worth through innovation. But why is there this need for innovation? Does making the art in new ways mean it is somehow more effective? How is innovation relevant in socially engaged art?

Does innovation even matter anymore, and if so how and why? What is its role? Is it tied to aesthetics in some way? Where does the appreciation of a socially engaged project as art intersect with the artist’s ability to innovate? And to take another tack, does it bear any relationship to entrepreneurial innovation, reinforcing art’s place in a neoliberal economy? I’d like to kick off this installment of Growing Dialogue with the question of the role of innovation and its relationship to aesthetics and effectiveness.

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[1] Wikipedia, July 9, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_art

[2] For more on Modernism’s reliance on an oppositional, rather than a cooperative or collaborative stance, see Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,” eflux Journal 50, December 2013:
“The artist stands at a critical remove, safely protected from the forms of compromise and complicity that would result from any more direct engagement with mechanisms of social change or resistance. And the autonomy of art is preserved because the artist only ever addresses the social world second hand, through a critique of the (underlying, implicitly hidden) mechanisms of ideological control.”

[3] Ibid. “For many October-supported artists during the 1980s, the new device to be laid bare was identified with the mass media’s construction of gender, the truth of the photographic image, or norms of authorship and self-expression in the arts…This would prove to be a decisive shift in the evolution of contemporary art and art theory. It replaced the idea of a formal art medium (as the resistant field against which the artist works within the technical apparatus of painting, sculpture, and so forth) with the idea of an ideological medium defined by a set of rules that constrain and predetermine the consciousness of individual viewers without their knowledge.”

[4] Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011, p. 5.

[5] See Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum (February 2006), 178-183; p. 179.

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