What is socially engaged art?
Over the past four decades or so, visual artists have been working in forms of collaborative practice with communities using a range of aesthetic, emancipatory, pedagogic strategies to identify and affect local issues. Previously resigned to neighbourhood centres, back alleys and church basements, socially engaged art now features in ‘high art’ venues like the Venice Biennale and in specialised university post-secondary training. At the same time, government funded strategies for community revitalisation, health and wellbeing, youth justice, and cultural diversity invest in the arts to deliver social outcomes. These forms of cultural production focus on the interactions, interventions, ethics and sometimes antagonism within institutions and structures of power in the public sphere. Beyond what is often a primary focus on process and relationships, the impact of these social art outcomes can engage communities and decision makers in local issues and affect broader social change. These forms can be read as part of a powerful intersection of the long political histories of art and critical pedagogy, both of which have provided the means for critique and resistance - and have the potential for revolutionising social systems (Badham 2010, 2019).
My unique combination of creative practice and original critical theory can be described as socially engaged art, drawing on Suzanne Lacy’s seminal theorisation of ‘new genre public art’, which resembles ‘political or social activity, but is distinguished by its aesthetic sensibility’ (1994, 19). My work is characterised by collaborative aesthetics and projects often hosting dialogue between disparate groups. My social art projects explore questions about ethics, civics and sovereignty - aiming to privilege First Nations voices, recentering the knowledges and loved experience of marginalised communities, and contribute to change through the fostering of local relationships and impacting policy outcomes. My works are delivered through co-created partnership projects in communities I am invited to collaborate with, using new expanded approaches to curation, public pedagogy and artist residencies. The history of my practice includes dozens of small and large-scale artistic and social practice collaborations between art and non-art partners in culturally complex contexts such as justice, health and education settings.
Globally, the field of socially engaged arts is diverse and and has many competing frameworks: models of grassroots community arts in the UK (Kelly 1984), partnership-based community cultural development in Australia (Hawkins 1993), and participatory art in the UK as an expansion of audience engagement for public museums and art galleries (Bishop 2012). My current practice employs new social forms of exchange and encounter encompassing influences from DIY social economics of South East Asia (Jurriens 2013), revisits South American praxis and pedagogic approaches (Freire 1968; Boal 2013), and explores the resurgence of activist and avant-garde social practices post Global Financial Crisis and COVID 19 Pandemic (Purves 2005; Thompson 2012, 2014). Expanded thinking on these lineages are required to consider decolonising, intersectional feminist and post human methodologies (Smith 2013; Azoulay 2019; Braidotti 2011) is required to offer an urgent update to existing historical euro-centric, and often colonial theories of community art. My current research examines the relationship and negotiations between artists, communities and institutions through what I describe as The Social Life of Artist Residencies: connecting with people and places not your own through delivery of practice and case studies of residencies across Saskatchewan (CAN), Australia, Indonesia and Sweden (Badham 2017).
For more detail on socially engaged art theory and practices see: PUBLICATIONS.
Azoulay, A. (2019). Unlearning Imperialism: Potential History. Verso.
Badham, M., (2017) ‘The Social Life of Artist Residencies: working with people and places not your own,’ in Seismopolite: Journal of Art and Politics, Paal Andreas Bøe (ed) 18: 1 and 2, The Residency in Context.
Badham, M., (2019) ‘Spectres of Evaluation: Inter-determinancy and the negotiation of value(s) in socially engaged art, in Co-creation Practices, Preston, M. & Poulin, C. (eds) Empire Edition co- édition CAC, Brétigny/Mac Val/Paris 8: 205 - 217.
Boal, A. (2013). The rainbow of desire: The Boal method of theatre and therapy. Routledge.
Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. Verso Books.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1968. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder.
Hawkins, G. (1989). Reading Community Arts Policy: From Nimbin to the Gay Mardi Gras. Media Information Australia, 53(1), 31-35.
Jurriëns, E. (2013). Social participation in Indonesian media and art: echoes from the past, visions for the future. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land-en volkenkunde/Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 169(1), 7-36.
Kelly, O. (1984). Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, Comedia Series no. 23.
Lacy, S. (1995). Cultural pilgrimages and metaphoric journeys. Mapping the terrain: New genre public art, 19-47.
Purves, T. (Ed.). (2005). What we want is free: Generosity and exchange in recent art. SUNY Press.
Thompson, N. (Ed.). (2012). Living as form: Socially engaged art from 1991-2011. MIT Press.
Thompson, N. (2015). Seeing power: Art and activism in the 21st century. Melville House.