a couple of weeks ago i had the great pleasure to see pablo helguera speak at my school. he is a social engagement artist, director of adult and academic programs at MOMA and the author of many books including ‘education for socially engaged art’. as i prepared for the lunch seminar he would be leading by reading his book, i was immediately intrigued. he mentions in his introduction that he wants this book to act as an introductory reference and i appreciated the fact that he offers up his definitions and criteria for art that is termed socially engaged or social practice. he dismisses the term social practice because it doesn’t claim art explicitly and proposes instead socially engaged art because it makes it clear that the work is first and foremost art and not say, anthropology or social work.
i found that super interesting coming as i do from a family of social workers and from my planned parenthood background. i love social work and i love ‘doing service’ to borrow (perhaps inaccurately) from bell hooks. and i love doing art work and am interested in where these seemingly disparate trajectories can come together.
for his lunch seminar helguera focused on a critique of social engagement art. in fact we literally critiqued three projects that he presented to us (just to name one, he proposed a “poverty project” in which the artist would spend no money what so ever but would live in a gallery and/or a fancy all expenses paid residency in france. hilarious). the majors criticisms of the projects were that they were self-centered, indulgent, not really helping or bring attention to the cause they purported to, etc. totally valid and i was glad to hear him critique this kind of arty behavior but then i was even more surprised to see his own artist’s talk. it was kind of a snore and i honestly didn’t see where his work really intersected with anything social. his work was in my opinion self-centered and self indulgent. in one project he didn’t have childcare so he took his daughter with him and performed a reading of a play, while holding his daughter and comforting her when she fussed. in the second he has created this elaborate system of envelopes that will be mailed long after his death. i wasn’t really sure how they enriched society at all or how they might “affect the public sphere in a deep and meaningful way” to quote his book.
not that they had too or that it was his intention but after reading the book and sitting in on the lunch seminar that is what i was expecting.