The Ethically Neutral Dilemma of SEA

To have a catch-all phrase or not to have a catch-all phrase, that is the question. It strikes me that Ben Davis’s response has a simple solution. We can either accept that SEA is a term that encapsulates a form of culture making that has no direct link to social justice or we can limit SEA to those ways of working that we feel are more productive in terms of social justice. It strikes me that when looking at such a stark picture, the answer to what must constitute SEA will have to remain ethically opaque.

Davis is right that such a term that holds little political stakes might even lose its use. That is true. It is, in a sense, a formal term with no ethical prescription. I long for the day when SEA is no longer necessary as a term and we can push the discussion outside the arts toward the broader realm of cultural production. For now, it seems, the term SEA continues to focus on cultural projects produced within the infrastructure of contemporary art. When I included Tahrir Square and the celebrations in Harlem as part of “Living as Form,” it was intended as a provocation to highlight that yes, in fact, the formal aspects of SEA do actually exist outside the realm of art. And yes, Ben Davis is correct in stating that one could easily include James O’Keefe’s performance stunt of tricking ACORN. Absolutely. Formally, this could fall under the rubric as well.

For the present, it seems to me that SEA continues to mean art and politics work that in some way touches upon the social realm. I realize that this definition is extremely loose but, well, it is a pretty big tent. First we must define the field of this aesthetic engagement and then we can move toward the cultural realm outside the arts to actually tackle the uses of culture writ at large. We are in the beginning phases of this. The avant-garde has historically always tried to move art outside the realm of art from Dada to Futurism to the Situationists, but what is particularly different in this historic period is that the tools of art are in vast use by all mechanisms of power. The sheer scale of cultural production over the last fifty years has made a large swathe of the planet aware of the formal language of artistic action such as representation, reflexivity, site-specificity, participation, and performativity as examples. The writings by Critical Art Ensemble touches upon similar issues with a different methodology. CAE were perfectly aware that the uses of culture were being used in broader culture and their call to arms was to use the methods of art to disrupt the circuits of power. But their work always considered their art to be a tool that one could use for good or bad (they of course spent as much time on the formal aspects of their tools as the political stakes behind their use of these tools). That is to say, art actually exists outside the art world on a large scale for good and bad.

In a sense, the art world is slower to catch up to this historic shift and continues to depend on its model of scarcity and antiquated notions of autonomy. Scarcity might work for the market but it doesn’t work for all that many artists. And autonomy, that dream of an unattached cultural gesture, perhaps is the ultimate goal of a social justice movement writ large. For the purposes of responding to Davis, SEA needs to slowly produce a language, criticism and praxis that respond to it being situated in the larger field of vast cultural production.

I am currently under way on a book that discusses some of the uses of culture from the position of power. It is called The Real Culture Wars. Basically the premise is that power in its myriad of permutations—from corporations to advertising to real estate speculators to election campaigns—all use cultural production as a set of tools in their working method. As part of the book, I recently wrote an essay in E-Flux that compares the work of Suzanne Lacy to the uses of culture in the United States counter-insurgency programs. While this might appear to be a leap, it is meant to demonstrate that the tools of SEA are quite outside the good and bad politics of the art world. In this case, community organizing and social relationships are a method of working that people with a wide array of politics have built upon.


Between the Door and the Street,by Suzanne Lacy. Photo courtesy of Creative Time.

It would have been nice to include examples of not only ethically neutral projects but also perhaps right-wing and racist politics in the array of projects listed in “Living as Form” but I didn’t feel like the field was ready for quite that kind of jump (plus who likes to give a platform to horrible politics). That said, one need only look to the Tea Party for examples of using Saul Alinsky-inspired community organizing mixed with a brash array of cultural symbols to see a complex SEA project at work.

If so much of contemporary political and social action shares the formal qualities of an expanded notion of SEA (could we call it Socially Engaged Culture?), then where does one find the political stakes? Again, I think Davis is absolutely correct in being suspicious of a field that assumes a progressive agenda based on a formal category. This is like being FOR all painting or FOR all video art. As though the mediums determine their particular politics.

However, what we benefit from in expanding the notion of SEA towards broader cultural life is that we can finally grapple with the powerful affects of cultural production as a way of being in the world. We can finally grapple with the fact that yes, attacks on ACORN and artworks by the YES Men share formal qualities, but possess different political stakes. The skill of reading these differences is of the utmost importance.

As this response has gone on for long enough, this will need to be an initial reaction. Of course, rising to the challenge on reading the political stakes in SEA is another critical task that must accompany the understanding of its formal maneuvers.


Read more from Growing Dialogue: What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?

“What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?” – September 18, 2013

“Ben Davis Responds” by Ben Davis – September 18, 2013

“Spaces of Possibility” by Nato Thompson – September 23, 2013

“#DoWeHaveThis?” by Tom Finkelpearl – September 24, 2013

“Working Towards Justice” by Rick Lowe – September 24, 2013

“On Bullshit” by Deborah Fisher – September 26, 2013

“Round 2: The Ontological Question” by Ben Davis – October 21, 2013

“The Ethically Neutral Dilemma of SEA” by Nato Thompson – October 23, 2013

“A Belated Conclusion” by Ben Davis – November 26, 2013

“The Name Game” by Louisa McCall – January 11, 2014

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By Nato Thompson
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