Socially engaged art practice tends to produce experiences rather than objects. Human interaction is therefore an essential quality in this type of work. At root, there is an element of encounter between individuals from which the ‘artwork’ develops. Because this type of art is, for the most part, intangible, it shifts our awareness from the physical to the non-physical properties of aesthetics. It is most often our feelings about socially engaged work that reveal what we find to be pleasing or displeasing the senses.
The generous artist creates spaces for sharing between the artist and the audience. That generosity has numerous manifestations. Sometimes it takes the shape as performance or installation in public space that aims to disrupt the daily routines of pedestrians. Other times it functions as a form of exchange opening up new possibilities for economies based around services and materials. Other times, it is cultivated by the artist through the collection and dissemination of information. Regardless of the artist’s formal choices, socially engaged practice thrives on the generosity of the audience who commits to being present in order to actively complete the creative experience.
Framing social practice in terms of generosity highlights the ethics of social engagement in an important way. Social practice is often contextualized through a moralist framework that posits that art must do some kind of social good. With this project, I stay away from the idea that art has to pay attention to “good” or “bad,” or be in service to some externally defined moral standard. This idea that art have a moral standard is a dangerous one, particularly because it has been used to limit the public advocacy for the visual arts in this country. But I am beginning this process with the hypothesis that morality is a limiting lens for seeing socially engaged art, and that finding the aesthetics of this work through its ethics is a more useful philosophical position.
I am interested in the structures that allow us to build social behavior, not merely the morality of the actions themselves. The artists selected for this project enact generosity as a system. They form relationships within communities to bring awareness to art’s potential to be relevant and necessary to the basic foundation of a society.