Social Practice and Engagement Through Art

Art tends to critique and beget criticism about societal concerns, be it questioning social injustices, depicting inhumanities, or empowering minority groups. However, art only does so much. Social practice art or socially engaged art takes an extra step to encourage participation and connection between the artist and the audience, instead focusing on engagement rather than criticism. Social practice is a psychologic theory that focuses on the intersections of practice and context when applied to “social situations.” When this concept is applied to art, it adds another dimension to art, taking it from just surface reactions to engagements of activity and/or inquiry.

Liz Kramer of the Sam Fox School at Washington University in Saint Louis says what makes social practice through art so unique is that artists can de ine it for themselves. While artists have more control in de inition, social practice art usually involves other people and often deals with critical or social issues. It is versatile in which media and venues artists use, in how the audience reacts, what people take from the experience, etc. Liz Kramer and those at Sam Fox School support student, faculty, and staff that want to engage with the community socially, environmentally, and economically; they supply resources, knowledge, and tools. To access these resources and view past projects of Sam Fox School, visit here. If you do not have access to Sam Fox School through Washington University, you can engage as through the community or as a supporter here.

Ilene Berman, a “durational artist” and art professor at Saint Louis University, engages with the community north of Delmar and Grand, an area that the Grand Arts Center claims in their domain but does not include in events and outreach. She runs Room13, a sculpture that doubles as a mobile art and crafting space attached to a tricycle, in its 5th year. Berman chose the tricycle as she “didn’t want to own property [or] gain financially from other people’s creativity.” She brings the magical tricycle to different venues—the street, a nursing home, etc.—and watches the viewers become the artists as they begin crafting and creating. She began the project as a way to create a creative platform for those North of Delmar. Berman’s recommended resources for social practice artists are: the Regional Arts Commission Individual Artist Support Grant, MAPS, and building connections with the community you wish to be embedded in.

Although they come from different perspectives of social practice, Ilene Berman and Liz Kramer believe socially engaged art. After speaking with them on their experiences, the following key points have been composed to help guide social practice artists hoping to engage with their audiences.

1. Always ask a lot of questions. You want to understand both what you want to achieve, and what your audience wants to engage in. You want to learn and understand as much about the community you are coming into and engaging with.

2. Have a strong aesthetic. When you know what you want to do and how to do it, it is easier to carry that project out.

3. Accept failures or variations of your original idea. While you want to have a strong idea of what you want to accomplish, it is important that you be open to changes. The community you engage with might not care about the issue you want to focus on! Set yourself up to learn from your failures and be lexible when needed. Stay committed to the voices in the community you are engaged with.

4. Success is not measured by numbers. While many grants, organizations, etc., may ask for audience demographics, the better way to measure success with socially engaged art may be depth of connection—even if that number is small.

5. Time is important. You want to be sure you are neither cutting time short or overstaying your welcome.