Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
REVIEW OF ART AS SOCIAL ACTION: AN
INTRODUCTION TO THE PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES
OF TEACHING SOCIAL PRACTICE ART
Lynn Sanders-Bustle
University of Georgia
bustle@uga.edu
Lynn Sanders-Bustle is Chair and Associate Professor of Art Education at the University of
Georgia in the US. She is editor of the book, Image, Inquiry, and Transformative Practice
and has published in Studies in Art Education, Canadian Review of Art Education, the
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, the International Journal of Education and the Arts,
and Art Education. Creative projects include the installation of large-scale mosaics in
Virginia and Louisiana and social practice implementations in community and public school
settings in Georgia. Her research focuses on socially engaged art, community-based art
education, service-learning, and teacher preparation.
Abstract: In this contribution, the author reviews the book, Art as Social Action: An
Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art. Acknowledging
the timely nature of this anthology of essays, interviews, and lesson plans, the reviewer
strongly recommends the book for teachers of contemporary art. In the review, the author
opens with personal context for the review, a brief overview of contents and a description of
the editors’ professional backgrounds. Interested in the usefulness of lesson plans for
teachers, the reviewer analyzes the over 43 lesson plans and identifies three themes around
which to provide a summary. Salient information is also extracted from essays and
interviews. The author concludes by commenting more broadly on contributions and
challenges associated with this anthology, troubling the use of the term “lesson plan” to
describe social practice and calling for widening the conversation to include art educators
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and qualitative/post-qualitative researchers whose work focuses on social justice
pedagogies.
Key words: socially engaged art; pedagogy; social justice; contemporary art
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When tapped to write a review of Gregory Sholette, Chloë Bass, and the Social
Practice Queen’s (SPQ) edited book, Art as Social Action: An Introduction to Principles and
Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art (2018), I was intrigued. The book was already in
my library and I was anxious to make time for it. Having read the texts of authors often
associated with social practice (Bishop, 2006a, 2006b, 2012; Finkpearl, 2013; Helguera
2011,
2017; Kester,
2011,
2004; Thompson, 2013) and having conducted large-scale
community and school-based art projects within the context of teacher preparation, and
more recently social practice (Sanders-Bustle, 2019), I was excited to learn how pedagogical
principles and practices of social practice might be described and to gain a greater
understanding about how to teach social practice.
Published in 2018, at a time when social practice was becoming increasingly popular
in the US and abroad, Sholette and Bass’s book is a welcomed addition to a body of existing
literature that, for the most part, has focused on historical roots, aesthetic theories, ethical
implications, and criteria for the assessment. While some literature (Allen, 2011; Springgay,
2013; Thorne, 2017) directly addresses pedagogical applications of social practice, few
works delve deeply into the ways that social practice might be taught, and given the
increasing number of universities with social practice programs, it makes sense to do so.
Editors Dr. Gregory Sholette and Chloë Bass, both of whom teach for SPQ at Queens
College, City University of New York, and SPQ contributors bring unique perspectives to the
book. A writer, artist and activist, Sholette has written books such as Delirium and
Resistance: Activist Art and Capitalism (2017) and Dark matter: Art and Politics in an Age of
Enterprise Culture (2011) and is co-founder of SPQ, which offers an MFA concentration and
advanced certification in Social Practice. Chloë Bass is a multiform conceptual artist and
public practitioner whose research focuses on interpersonal intimacy and daily life. Recent
work includes, The Book of Everyday Instruction (2018b).
Art as Social Action: An Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social
Practice Art (2018) features five essays, two transcripts of interviews, and 43 lesson plans
contributed by artists/designers, educators, writers, performers, scholars and activists at
both the high school and college levels. Given the vast amount of content and the sheer
number of contributors featured in this book, for this review I highlight themes found in
lessons, summarize essays and interviews and conclude by commenting more broadly on
contributions and challenges associate with this anthology.
Lesson Plans
Written specifically for teachers of contemporary art, the lesson plans are organized around
five main topics: Art as Social Research/Listening/Self-Care, Teaching and Performing Direct
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Action, Art and Social Injustice, Collective Learning and Urban Imaginaries, and Social
Queens Alumni. Information shared in lessons differs, but for the most part, includes some
derivation of the following: objectives, steps taken to achieve the assignment, outcomes,
assessments, and suggested readings. Some authors describe lessons that are activist or
interventionist in nature and, are for the most part, artist driven and involve participants to
lesser degrees. Others read more like descriptions of social practice projects without explicit
reference to pedagogical strategies. Given the aim of the book, I was more interested in
those lessons that highlighted concrete methods for helping teachers/students/participants
understand, design, and implement social practice. With this in mind, I identified three
themes among the lessons based on their purposes, which include: 1) helping students
better understand social practice 2) developing social practice skills and 3) implementing
social practice.
Understanding Social Practice
Two lessons stand out as intentional efforts by teachers to help students understand
characteristics of and qualities associated with social practice. In “Socratic Mapping,” Daniel
Tucker (2018) implements Pascal Gielen’s strategies for mapping community art to help
students
“think critically about the intentions and outcomes of the projects… and to
recognize the porosity of the genre of social practice” (p. 101). Using Gielen’s concepts,
auto/allo relational and digestive/subversive, students collaborated to analyze and map
social practice projects. Mapping provided students with a process for critiquing social
practice and identifying and reflecting upon individual research interests. In “What Will Your
Work Organize?” Ashley Hunt (2018) encourages students to distinguish between social
practice and other more individualized forms of artmaking by involving students in a series of
site-specific activities such as picnicking, walking, and poetry reading aimed at helping
students identify topics of interest, refine ideas, and reflect on collectivity as a key element of
social practice design and implementation.
Developing Social Practice Skills (Deskilling)
Overall, I found that lessons which focused on specific methods utilized by social
practice artists to be particularly informative. As Helguera (2011) points out social practice
requires a deskilling or moving away from traditional art skills to interdisciplinary situated
principles of practice that in many ways mirrors the work of educators, sociologists, and
ethnographers. In
“The Listening Workshop,” Fiona Whelan (2018) demonstrates how
listening is nurtured through deliberative and improvisational processes designed to
encourage risk and promote trust, self-reflexivity, and an awareness of group dynamics.
Related, Sean Taylor (2018), describes a series of acouscenic listening workshops through
which participants document and track the evolution of projects through walking, sound
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mapping, and performance. Similarly, Laurie Palmer, Sarah Ross, and Lindsey French
(2018) describe how balloon mapping can be used as a research tool for gathering
information from difficult to reach or dangerous sites. Finally, Bo Zheng (2018) in “Sensing
Social Space,” describes a series of warm-up exercises he uses with students to help them
better understand how social spaces are used. Activities include visiting a social space,
observing how spaces are organized and how people behave, and performing an activity
that deviates from normal behavior.
Social Practice Implementation
Finally, in some lessons, authors adopt Dewey’s “learn by doing” mantra by engaging
students actively in the implementation of social practice projects, from start to finish. One
example is Matthew Friday and Iain Kerr’s (2018) “SPURSE Lesson Plan” which involved
students in a university project aimed at codeveloping new ways to “sense, understand, and
interact with urban ecosystems” (p. 170). In this case, students participated in all phases
including mapping existing systems, co-designing proposals, collaborating with communities
and implementing projects such as a Multi-Species Negotiation Center and a Materials
Propagation Site. In their lesson, Dipti Desai and Avram Finkelstein’s (2018) describe how
students formed the NYU Flash Collective and carried out a public intervention aimed at
addressing issues of immigration and displacement. In doing so, students learned about
guidelines for communication strategies and collective cultural production and mapped out
questions associated with immigration and implemented and reflected on the project.
Interviews
The book also features two interviews conducted by MFA students Jeff Kasper and
Alix Camacho (2018). In the first, Pablo Helguera highlights similarities between social
practice and performance art, discusses elements of pedagogical practice and pushes back
against the idea that conversations about ethics are particularly fruitful. In one of the most
useful quotes from the interview, Helguera provides teachers of social practice with a
concise explanation of how social practice differs from traditional art. He states, “the break
therefore with conventional art thinking is that, we are not making a piece about politics, we
are instead doing politics within the piece itself” (p. 140). In the second interview, Alix
Camacho (2018) interviews Steve Lambert and Steve Duncombe, co-founders of the Center
for Art and Activism. As expected, their humor served as a spirited backdrop for a robust
discussion on the importance of establishing goals, reflecting deeply on practice, and taking
risks. Like Helguera, they make a distinction between art that is about raising awareness
and goals for social practice which include “affecting power and thinking in terms of real
outcomes” (p. 142). Duncombe and Lambert also consider conversations about ethics to be
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a problematic distraction and encourage artists to be comfortable with unpredictability, failure
and risk.
Essays
The book features a total of five essays, among which are two introductory essays by
Chloë Bass (2018a) and Mary Jane Jacob (2018) as well as a concluding essay by Gregory
Sholette (2018). In her essay, Bass astutely questions the relevance of a social practice
class in the lives of over-obligated students and poses a series of questions about what the
arts can do in our lives. Jacob uses the book’s title, Art as Social Action as a springboard for
a discussion that locates similarities between many of the theories espoused by John Dewey
and the intentions of social practice. Both, according to Jacob are social, transformative,
integral to everyday existence and vital to education and democracy. In “Why Socially
Engaged Art Can’t Be Taught,” Jen Delos Reyes (2018) provides an overview of tropes often
implemented as part of social practice and critiques the value of such practices. In their
essay, the Pedagogy Group (2018) describe pedagogical principles that guide their work,
offer steps for reflecting on practice, and pose thought-provoking questions which are
answered by various members. Finally, in a closing essay, Sholette provides a brief but
comprehensive overview of historical antecedents to social practice and a shortlist of five
pedagogical operations for socially engaged art education (SEAE) and establishes important
links between social practice and the scholarship of prominent theorists such as Paulo Freire
and John Dewey.
Reflections
After careful review, I find Art as Social Action to be a workhorse of a book that is
filled with a vast array of social practice projects, teaching strategies, and resources. In
addition, its reasonable price makes it economically viable and will certainly be among
required reading for a social practice course I will be teaching in 2020. In sum, this book
opens up a much-needed conversation about issues that arise when teaching something
that is, for the most part, always under development, in conflict with traditional ways of
making art, and requires some serious shifts in thinking about the potential for art/pedagogy
in contemporary contexts. With this in mind, I imagine the authors in this book wrestled with
how one goes about writing a “lesson plan” for work that is meant to emerge through
collective action, is fluid, and performative. Claire Bishop (2012) touches on this dilemma
offering that “art is given to be seen by others, while education has no image” (p. 241). This
raises important questions about how to document, represent and plan for social practice.
With this in mind, one might question whether “lesson plan” best describes a process that
pushes against the conventional trappings of education as an institution. Perhaps these
plans or proposals might be thought of as social sketches (Sanders-Bustle, 2019), or drafts,
meant to be fluid and are inherently unpredictable and complicated by the collective goals of
social practice. Like Duncombe, who, in his interview (Camacho, 2018) recognizes the value
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of unpredictability in art and the role of risk and failure in social practice, I found myself
wanting to know more about the missteps, the flops, and the failures; those necessary
nagging moments of uncertainty that are often disappointing and call for critical reflection. I
imagine such conversations to be especially fruitful given the unique challenges associated
with social practice and welcome focused dialogue that invites participation from art
educators and post/qualitative researchers who have valuable knowledge related to social
justice pedagogy and participatory methodologies.
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