Helguera, P. (2011). _Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook_. New York: Jorge Pinto Books.

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist who works with installation, sculpture, photography, drawing, and socially engaged art and performance. In addition to his artistic practice, he has worked as an education curator in contemporary art museums. From 1998-2005, he was the head of public programs at the Guggenheim. Since 2007, he has been MoMA’s director of adult and academic programs. He’s written several books, ranging from novels, to curatorial stories, to essays on memory, and so on. His most recent product is based on his “knowledge, experience, and conclusions derived from specific applications of various interactive formats, from discursive and pedagogical methods to real-life situations” (x).

The goal, which I believe he achieves handily, is to give insight into how to use art in the social realm, while placing it within a larger discussion about the debates, both theoretical and application-based. His main point is that the tools of education share parallels with art — they rely on collaborative dynamics, experimentation, and the development of materials. However, what educators understands better than many artists is their “socially engaged art [SEA] can’t be produced inside a knowledge vacuum” (xiii).

Helguera uses the social work (and planning, too, I think) vs. social practice comparison/distinction throughout. They are both premised on the postmodern understanding of knowledge and a dedication to social justice drives both, but where social work is an active engagement to make the world better, social practice as readily makes negative, contradictory art “to provoke reflection” (35). In addition, SEA’s community service works aim also to engage in a larger art historical discourse.

Socially engaged art emerges from conceptual art; its immediate predecessor is relational aesthetics. However, not all conceptual art is necessarily SEA. Rather, it is characterized by “its dependence on social intercourse as a factor of its existence” (2). Like planning (I think), it is “still a working construct” (2). This social practice “democratizes the process” (3). Helguera distinguishes also between symbolic practice and actual practice. SEA is an actual practice in that it extends beyond the symbolic act, undertaking Habermasian communicative action toward mutual understand and emancipatory political processes.

Community, then, is central to SEA and its core objective, “critically self-reflexive dialogue with an engaged community” (12). The most successful SEA projects are those done in familiar communities with familiar participants. This takes time — artists must engage deeply with their adopted environment, which requires leaving her comfort zone of the art world to engage in “in-depth, long-term exchange[s] of ideas, experiences, and collaborations, as their [artists and the communities’] goals are different” (13).

Helguera presents the taxonomy of participation as useful for SEA. (1) Nominal, or “passive detachment” (14); (2) direct, wherein the visitor does the tasks; (3) creative, wherein the visitor provides the materials within the artist’s structure; and (4) collaborative, wherein visitors develop the structure, provide content, and share agency with the artist. The first two are single encounter activities, whereas the latter two require longer durations.

Even more useful, though, is his application of social work’s categories of participation: voluntary, nonvoluntary (mandated), and involuntary (involuntary in that the participants are already there and the event is happening around them). The willingness of the audience is fluid and yet the “audience is often inextricable from the work” (21). Again, like planning, SEA works within three levels: the participants (communities), the critical art world (professional and academic planning), and society at large (ditto).

Social context is key:

“…while it is not possible to predict the behavior of every individual or community, it is nonetheless essential to have a certain awareness of how interpersonal scenarios emerge and how some of them can be negotiated by developing a better understanding of the needs and interests of the parties involved” (30).

And within that, conversation. Helguera reminds us that art and education have entirely different worldviews of speech. The former holds Foucault and Derrida’s characterization of dialogue as a flawed, power-revealing and -imposing construct as true. Meanwhile, the latter upholds all, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, John Dewey’s pragmatism, Jürgen Habermas’ and Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism, and Paolo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, as underscoring communication’s great emancipatory potential. Somewhere between these two modes, pedagogy and art, is conversation. Conversation’s two variables, specificity of content (undirected subject, directed subject) and specificity of format (open, closed) dictate what kind of talk will take place.

For Helguera, if the point is to have any kind of talk, then great, but SEA should focus on a particular goal or point of consensus. It is certainly more complex and difficult for the conversation leader (or planner), but “far more rewarding” (46). When an artist acts just as an agent and abides by the community’s wishes, she gives up the deeper dialogue and creates a dependent, paternalistic relationship (all the more dangerous a social condition in planning).

Collaboration presupposes shared accountability and shared expertise. Per Freire, the expertise lies in being a “non-expert, a provider of frameworks on which experiences can form and sometimes be directed and channeled to generate new insights around a particular issue” (54). The artist must: (1) remember the value/expertise every participant has and (2) create open frameworks for input/brainstorming. Within all this, Helguera astutely reminds us that people need incentives in order to dedicate their time and energy to a project but again, the artist can’t be just a service agent. (All of this evokes McKnight and Kretzmann’s community capacity work.)

Then there is antagonistic social action, “a fundamental area of activity in SEA” (59). It’s easier than collaborative work in that consensus is unnecessary, but there are pitfalls, so Helguera returns to the categories of participation for elucidation. Voluntary (“clear-cut agreement” [62]); nonvoluntary (“imposition of an experience” [62]); and involuntary (“deceit or seduction plays a central role in the work” [62], e.g. culture jammers). Successful antagonistic SEA practitioners don’t alienate but provoke a larger discussion; know to balance the means and ends; remember the criticality of context — nothing works everywhere; and know proclaimed collaborations that wind up being symbolic actions are essentially antagonistic.

SEA embeds itself performance, thus it shares issues of the relationship of the spectacle with entertainment and documentation. Often, the critique of the spectacle lives within the spectacle itself (e.g. David Bowie). Art making offers “the complication of readings so that we can discover new questions” (71). Documentation helps establish authorship, which is especially tricky in collective action. Per Habermas’ intersubjectivity, it makes no sense for a single, objective artifact — rather, documents should come in multiple formats.

Finally (because while I think it’s interesting, I’m not going to report on Helguera’s final chapter on retooling visual arts’ higher education curricula), Helguera submits transpedagogy. In symbolic practice, education may not be relevant, but it is decidedly so in actual pedagogy — cleaving to goals is essential. Additionally, we should ask whether that project provides new pedagogical approaches. But traditional pedagogy misses three important things: (1) “the creative performativity of the art of education” (80), (2) “the collective construction of an art milieu … is a collective construction of knowledge” (80), and (3) “knowledge of art does not end in knowing the artwork but is a tool for understanding the world” (80).


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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Media Arts, Minor Field, Research Fields


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