Social practice, political gardening

Presentation at Ujazdowski Castle CCA, February 2023

Introduction and text by Manick Govinda

Socially Engaged Art is becoming the most mainstream of art practices in contemporary culture. Its roots can be traced back to the radical artist Joseph Beuys’ (19211986) concept of ‘social sculpture’ in the 1970s, which posited the notion that art is allinclusive, that everyone is an artist, and that art has the potential to change the world politically and environmentally.

As well as environmental concerns, socially engaged art is also closely aligned to identity and gender politics, as it privileges the active engagement and participation of socalled marginalised communities,specific identity groups within the creative process as cocollaborators.Children, migrants and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ and young people are particularly targeted to take part or get involved. 

The prestigious Turner Art Prize in the UK marked this trend in 2015, when it awarded the prize to Assemble, a collective of young architects whose work has evolved from designing buildings to engaging with communities in a democratic and cooperative working method that enables built, social and researchbased work at a variety of scales, both making things and making things happen”. The Prize has since shortlisted socially engaged collectives such as Array Collective (responding to sociopolitical issues affecting Northern Ireland), Forensic Architecture (a research agency that investigates human rights violation), Project Art Works (art that intersects art and care, responding to neurodivergence) and Black Obsidian Sound System (who bring together a community of queer, trans and nonbinary Black and people of colour involved in art, sound and radical activism).

Public funders, private philanthropists and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) such as Creative Europe, Arts Council England, the European Cultural Foundation and SIX (to name a few among many) strategically engineer art towards a deeper sociopolitical purpose, fostering an art activism to create social or attitudinal change. Pierre d’Alancaisez (one of our guest speakers) writes that as demand for art’s social interventions grow, socially engaged practice has become a career pathway for a growing generation of emerging artists who have been trained to work with communities.

In central and eastern Europe, Aaron Moulton (curator of The Influencing Machine) argues that George Soros’s innovative philanthropic art network,the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art between 19891998 (SCCA),pioneered socially engaged art practices in former communist/Soviet states through what he calls NGO art. He writes that the SCCAs engineered the development of new strategies of activism incubating relationships between activists, scholars, and artists that has now spread throughout the European/international curated art programmes such as Documenta, Manifesta and countless other art biennials across the world.

What is driving the engine behind socially engaged art? Is it driven by leftist, neoliberal, identitarian and ecological ideologies? Can a participatory garden or cooking project be called art because artists are involved? Perhaps social art is a counteroffensive against the capitalist decadence of the art market, where a digital, nonphysical artwork can now be sold at auction for nearly $70 million US dollars? What does socially engaged art say to the wider majority public who may be more conservativeleaning or centrist? Are they excluded from engaging and participating?