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Reflection: features of socially engaged art

Reflection: features of socially engaged art
We have looked at three projects: “Moving Rainbow” by Xiong Wenyun, the “Forest Project” by Xu Bing, and “Beijing Besieged by Waste” by Wang Jiuliang. All three projects contribute to raising environmental consciousness. The environmental challenge is a global one. Chinese artists, like artists in other countries, are concerned about our environmental condition and are trying to use their creativity to make visible our challenges and to imagine a more sustainable future.
By now you probably have an inkling of what socially engaged art entails. I’d like to suggest that we treat “socially engaged art” not as a definition, but as a descriptive term, referring to a kind of art practice with distinct features, without clear boundaries.
Now let me list a few features: First, the social issue being addressed is kept in the foreground. Arguably every artwork touches on some social issue, but on many occasions, the social issue does not occupy a prominent place in the intention of the artist nor in the public discussion generated by the artwork. In contrast, for socially engaged art, addressing the social issue is one of the top priorities for the artist, and the issue gets discussed when people talk about the artwork. We see this in all three projects we looked at this week.
Second, the mode of production and exhibition is different. Socially engaged art is not crafted by the artist in her studio as an art object, to be exhibited in a white cube devoid of social context; instead, it is usually produced outside the studio, as a durational and often performance-based project. Nowadays, socially engaged projects do get exhibited in art spaces and museums, but the pieces in these exhibitions are not framed as standalone objects, but presented as documentations or material components that enable social processes. And when exhibiting socially engaged art, it is crucial to explain the social context in which the project was situated.
Third, in socially engaged art, collaboration and participation are common. Wang Jiuliang worked alone, but Xiong Wenyun collaborated with truck drivers, and Xu Bing involved many students and supporters. In fact, almost all of the projects we will discuss in subsequent weeks are realized by collectives, not individual artists. Many of these projects invite communities or the general public to participate. We will examine the idea of participation in a later week.
Fourth, socially engaged art moves away from the modernist trope that art should awaken the viewer’s critical consciousness through shock. Instead, socially engaged art focuses on teaching and learning, aiming for gradual transformation through an iterative process. It often reminds me of the difference between gradual enlightenment (Jianwu) and sudden enlightenment (Dunwu), two competing ideas in Chinese Buddhism. The features I have listed are by no means exhaustive. I encourage you to come up with additional features as we proceed in this course.
Next, let’s talk about the social impact of socially engaged art. You probably won’t disagree that art is an important aspect of our social life, and constitutes a force that shapes our mindset and way of life. But the effect of a single artwork is difficult, if not downright impossible, to locate. This has not been a problem for other kinds of art because we do not expect a painting or a sculpture to have an immediate and measurable social impact. However, when we encounter something that is called “socially engaged art,” it seems quite natural to ask, what has this project been able to achieve socially? Some projects do bring about concrete results.
As mentioned earlier, after Wang Jiuliang’s project, “Beijing Besieged by Waste,” was widely reported, the municipal government decided to invest 10 billion yuan to clean up 1000 garbage sites around the city. But more often, the impact of a socially engaged art project is not immediately visible. For example, Xu Bing’s “Forest Project” may leave a strong impression in the mind of many students who took his class, but it is difficult to say how they might live their lives differently because of this project. Social change is a complex process. It is not helpful to imagine social change as a set of linear causal relations.
Having said this, I also believe that we should investigate the social impact of socially engaged art, but we need to think carefully how we should do this. Grant Kester, a leading thinker on socially engaged art,
suggests this: “…as socially engaged practices often cross boundaries between art, activism, urbanism, anthropology and many other fields, the criticism and analysis of this work requires a new, trans-disciplinary approach that moves beyond the traditions of existing art theory and criticism and opens out to other disciplines, including those which possess a more robust model of field research and a greater sensitivity to the complex function of social interaction at both the micro- and macro-political level.”
In other words, tools from many disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, and cognitive science, could be valuable to us.
Lastly, I want to remind you not to forget the word “art.” Socially engaged art differs from other forms of social action political writing, investigative journalism, petition or protest because aesthetics play an important role. Many socially engaged artists strive to contribute to social change; they also strive to push artistic boundaries, to develop new techniques and new languages. Good socially engaged art is effective both socially and aesthetically. Research on socially engaged art is still in its infancy. Analytical methods are still being developed. I encourage you to think about how we study socially engaged art throughout this course.
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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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