Social Purpose & Socially Engaged Art (SEA)

We often view the artist in a solitary nature. It is them, their easel and the universe before them. Yet no individual can wholly capture the essence of the society or world they live within. We are all subject to our own innate bias, the core of which comes from the individual's unique life experiences, and this bias effects the artist's point of view. Whilst their work can reflect the world as the artist believes it to be, it is not the ultimate truth of the world we all inhabit.

What happens then if the artist invites others to have a hand in the creation of their artefact? We begin to see different points of view influencing the work, different forces of agency creating an artwork in collaboration, and as such we move closer to a universal truth of the subject.

Marina Abramovic and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) are a prime example of this in their collaborative performance artworks such as the Relation Work Series. To use their joint interests to explore a passionate subject to its limits both physically and psychologically – to understand each other and grow together until the idea can go no further and even then their collaborative journey ends with a significant performance Great Wall Walk marking their separation in 1988. Opening our art to collaboration allows our concepts to remain fresh, purposeful and insightful.

An example of an artist who utilises the general public is Suzanne Lacy, an American social practice artist, who coined the term new genre public art. She's created works such as Crystal Quilt, 1987, bringing together 430 women over 60 years of age on Mother’s Day to sew patterns onto a quilt with the intent to question ‘the visibility, or invisibility of women and their leadership capacity’. Lacy has addressed societal issues such as feminism, imprisonment, violence, rape and ageing. Her work has a common thread whereby these issues are spotlighted via conversation with people and communities.

A disadvantage of SEA is by letting the public in the artist can make themselves vulnerable to unpredictability putting their vision and sometimes themselves at risk. Yoko Ono is an example of this in her performance Cut Piece, 1964. In this work, audience members were told to take turns using a pair of scissors to cut away at Ono's clothing, the scraps they made were theirs to keep as a souvenir. Whilst some audience members were hesitant, taking only small squares from Ono's sleeve or the hem of her skirt, others were more brash, cutting large swathes from the front of her blouse or the straps of her bra in an attempt to expose her modesty.

An artist who is truly looking to utilise the form of socially engaged art must, therefore, be a proficient tightrope walker. They must guide those they collaborate with, but they must not puppeteer their audience. They must talk softly to ensure their idea is understood by their collaborators, but have a voice loud enough that it carries through the final piece to the audience in a way that says “This work is my work, and without me it could not be”.

I have recently made my first steps towards collaborative art, in working with my sister to capture her ongoing fight with cancer. In a recent series of photographs I took, we both had agency in the final result – her in the way she held herself, and I in the composition of the imagery. It is a small step, but a step nonetheless, towards presenting a truer point of view to my audience.

Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Rest Energy, 1980

Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Breathing in / Breathing out, 1977

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964

Suzanne Lacy, Crystal Quilt, 1987

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