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Socially Engaged Practice Forum



There is pressure through the public funding system for the arts in the UK to create at least the allusion of engaging a broader demographic of the population. The reasoning for this is explained away as public funding shifts to an indirect yet local and media promoted form of taxation through the Lottery, so Government wishes to see -as much for its own PR as continuing Lottery sales- a publicly visible correlation between where the income is generated and on what it is being spent -'good causes'. This can be seen to be having not dissimilar conservative repercussions on what receives public funding as happened with the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.

One outcome has been the supporting of art that adheres to promoting and cultivating 'Social Inclusion'. This has placed the emphasis on artistic engagement as educational, or pedagogic, in a way that attests to inclusion within society as an integrated whole. At least superficially, this is espousing a shift in the terms of engagement between artists and what were traditionally regarded as audiences, to a more therapeutic or correctional interaction with an underscored group of people.

However, expectations and shifts in artistic practice are not a 'given' with legislative changes to government funding priorities, but performative. If a shift is to occur at the point of social engagement then it does not 'happen' coercively or in isolation but as a direct effect of an informed choice shift in formations of artistic practice in partnership with the people with which they work.

Within socially engaged approaches to arts practices there are widely differing dispositions, from what can be seen to be broadly in line with the Government's agenda -uni-directional activity of cultivating what are effectively better 'citizens'/ consumers where 'collaboration' is largely symbolic- to attempts at an equality of engagement, where art is seen as "a medium for discussion with social reality", as artist Jay Koh puts it.

One description of the latter has been 'Littoral' practice. "Littoral-adj. of or on the shore. -n. a region lying along the shore." From its description it can be taken to express a point of complimentary meeting, an inbetween space.

The UK Government's take and emphasis on 'self-help' programmes has generated much skepticism with regard to socially engaged art practices. While there may have been many managerial conferences, effectively bolstering the position the Government is adopting, there has been little to no indepth and critical discussion.

One conference that was established to address issues of socially engaged practice was the Critical Sites: Issues in Critical Art Practice and Pedagogy held in the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, September '98, organised by Critical Access and Littoral in Ireland. At the conference Grant Kester, assistant professor of contemporary art history and theory at Arizona State University, delivered a paper: Socially Engaged Practice-Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art.

To raise and debate some of the issues Variant is hosting an on-line forum on Socially Engaged Practice, commencing with the launch of this issue of the magazine. Given his commitment and work done to date in these areas, to initiate this dialogue we asked Grant Kester (assistant professor of contemporary art history and theory at Arizona State University) to re-present his paper from the conference:
Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art

The paper is freely available both within Variant v.2 #9 (Winter'99/ Spring 2000) and as an easily downloadable text or PDF file:
download paper as text

download paper as pdf

The on-line forum on Socially Engaged Art Practice was initiated in collaboration with the Library and Environmental Art Department of Glasgow School of Art.

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