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New York Times Article Embraces Social Service Art

You may remember paintings that changed the way you saw the world. You may have heard of novels that changed the course of history.  Yet art in the name of social reform receives little attention in the contemporary art world.  Or at least it has until recently.

On March 20th, 2013, the New York Times arts section published an article about an emerging art wave, new to the U.S.A.— social-practice art. Artists of this medium use their creativity in a variety of ways to improve the social welfare of those around them. Art projects of this nature are difficult to critique, almost never end up in a gallery, cannot be collected, and are most frustratingly impossible to define.  In a perplexing 1000 word article, New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy describes a number of such projects and programs, begging the reader to ask, how is this art?

Kennedy describes an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. The piece is a reconstructed farmhouse, the childhood home of a Detroit artist who committed suicide last year. The purpose of the installation is to serve as a memorial and social service site.  Kennedy also cites a San Francisco based program that converts empty lots and rooftops into flourishing organic gardens as an example.

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s Mobile Homestead to serve as a traveling social service site. Photo by Corine Vermeulen, originally posted on the MOCA website.

“If none of these projects sound much like art — or the art you are used to seeing in museums — that is precisely the point.” Kennedy writes.

The point, rather, is to create art that is collaborative, expands across generations and changes according to the needs of the community.

Artsist exhibit at Project Row, A low income housing and artist residency project in Houston, Texas. Photo Courtesy

Kennedy speculates that the increasing attention these projects receive from arts writers and galleries may have developed as a response to the increasing market of the contemporary art world.  A market that encouraged an inundation of artwork that, and not for want of appropriate ascetic, fails to connect with everyday reality and in turn isolates many viewers. To explain this conundrum more clearly, Kennedy quotes New York artist Tania Brugiera’s definition of social practice art, “It’s time to restore Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to the bathroom.”

While social practice artists would indeed rather install urinals where they are needed rather than in gallery exhibits, there is still much room for social practice artists and contemporary art institutions to collaborate.

Kennedy quotes Ms. Wooland, a woman who was recently asked to run a social practice arts program at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Los Angeles, on this matter. “I do think,” she states, “that there will be ways for new kinds of collectors to emerge who will support these kinds of long-term projects as works of art.”

The program Ms. Wooland will run provides artists- from the culinary arts to sculpture- the opportunity to live and work at the MoMA. Patrons of the MoMA will have the opportunity to interact with these resident artists, allowing a more intimate understanding of their work.

Collaboration between social practice art and the contemporary art world would help restore art to the position it has occupied historically, as a pioneer of social revolution. It seems no longer enough for art pieces to allude to abstract social issues. Instead, these projects have a concrete effect on society and encourage all to participate in their development. Social practice art dismisses anything proprietary, dissolving individual identities such as activist or artist. Instead we see only a collective of individuals and communities, looking to create a change together through creativity and innovation.


Kennedy’s Article
The Creative Time
Slanguage studio

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