One artistic discipline that is confronting this question has been identified as socially engaged art, or "social practice." In the past five years, this discipline has rapidly received academic and institutional recognition and popularity amongst both artists and their audiences. Pablo Helguera is a pioneer of socially engaged art and his project School of Panamerican Unrest (pictured above) is one of the most far-reaching and enduring public art projects on record. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Art Practical in which he speaks about how he sees this discipline's development:
You know, in truth, it’s not a new thing that social practice suddenly discovered. What I think is happening is an extreme reaction against modern and postmodern notions of the artist as this demigod who comes and reveals the truth to the world and becomes this kind of cult figure. So many people who are working in this realm of socially based work renounced that to the extent that nothing associated with that idea can possibly be admissible.
But this is what I was going to say: What happened is that we started treating social practice as something that’s not even art. Now, we don’t even say the word art. We say, “I’m a social practitioner.” I think it’s very meaningful that we have done that. We are trying to detach from the whole thing. We’re trying to turn it into a technique or maybe into a profession.
That’s a very contradictory thing, because on the one hand, we’re saying we’re amateurs, and on the other hand, we’re saying we’re professionals. The problem is that art just can’t be professionalized that way. Because art has a degree of ambiguity that cannot possibly be pinned down, ever.
Whatever you do, what’s powerful about art is that it’s ambiguous. It’s something that has multiple values in different moments and contexts. I always remember what Matthew Barney said once, that “everything that I do, there’s a degree that I don’t want to know about.” I always leave a blank section of questionable aspects of the work that even I don’t understand—that viable room for not making it completely didactic, or completely spelling out exactly what it is.
And that’s a very important thing to preserve, and that is the one thing that no other scientific disciplines have. You don’t do physics just for free expression! The scientific approach is trying to prove something and going through these processes, but in art, you can just say, “I'm going to do this crazy stuff, and nobody knows what it means and it’s okay.”
-Pablo Helguera in an interview with Bad at Sports and Art Practical
Pablo Helguera, a pioneer of socially engaged art, has used installation, photography, drawing, writing, musical performance, and large-scale projects as elements of his work. Helguera’s work takes a pedagogic approach to exploring the relationship between art and language, as well as the social dynamics of contemporary art and our daily lives. In addition to his art and music practice, Helguera is Director of Adult and Academic Programs at MoMA, and he formerly served as the Head of Public Programs in the Education department of the Guggenheim Museum.