Art As Social Practice, Beyond Aesthetics

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Driven by a passion for innovation and reform, a new generation of artists is participating in an art based on community engagement. Part anti-capitalism, part angst-ridden 24/7 bad news cycle outburst, part progressive politics, Social Practice Art is more interested in a good conversation than a pretty picture.

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Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) 2014-15

This art may involve photography or a town hall meeting but it’s over-arching intention is to involve people. If the medium is the message, favored tools in art school today include communication, organization, presentation, negotiation and facilitation. Much of this work is site-specific and participatory. Students learn how to interview people, how to work with a diverse audience and how to resolve conflicts and develop shared perspectives within a community or between themselves.

In spite of millennials distrust of public institutions, art as object or otherwise continues to depend on some form of funding. MFA programs are sprouting up around the country  and a significant part of the curriculum is to prepare students to apply for residencies, grants, and commissions in order to address the business case of making a living in the arts. Corporations are jumping on the bandwagon as well, showing some preference for socially conscious art over large-scale static commodity based purchases.

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Microaggressions on college campuses

If all lives matter, socially conscious art makes it harder for us to hide in the comfort of our bias. Much of it demands we check our privilege but the very best helps us act on our kinder and gentler instincts. The first step in that action might just be to sit and listen.

I’ve been so moved by a local organization, Performing Statistics , which works to interrupt or demolish the school to prison pipeline. Under the inspiring energy of Mark Aloysius Strandquist and the coordination of ART 180, artists work with the juvenile justice, law enforcement, educators, community partners, and youth around alternatives to the negative stereotypes of trigger happy police and angry black youth. They’ve just created their first publication filled to the brim with incredible art and advocacy materials made by incarcerated teens.

I’m part of the curriculum team building multi-media materials to empower folks across the city to anticipate conflict and intervene in constructive ways in the classroom, the youth centers, and the neighborhoods.

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