The work I make is socially engaged – it has been very much moving to that sphere for a couple of years now and I don’t think I’d work in any other fashion. However, social engagement is a difficult and challenging way to the work – not least in terms of how it can alienate a community if done badly.
Claire Bishop and other critics of socially engaged practices point out that much socially engaged work functions as a sticking plaster, a distraction or a force of gentrification and clearance. Concern to give respect can lead artists to duck away from discussing difficult issues and controversies. Their ethics are more concerned with avoiding confrontation or disharmony, rather than confronting what could/should be confronted.
It’s not always as simple as that, but there are truths in these criticisms that should give those of us who work in this way reason to review and reconsider what we do, and have done. I tend to think that while contradictions and agonies are to be expected, perhaps even useful at times, the moment contradiction and negotiation gives over to compromise, things get sanitised, the artist is instrumentalised.
This excellent article demonstrates how artists who are unwitting, who fail to really engage with the social and political aspects of a subject, can find themselves severely compromised. There’s an interesting critique of Catherine Yass’ commission of Didier Pasquette’s tightrope walk at Red Road as well.