For (A Broad) Social Practice – A Reply to Daniel Tucker – Bring on the Arty Party
The title is somewhat misleading as Tucker is not arguing against social practice per se, but the way it is being institutionalized. I also have reservations about the professionalization of social practice, but for very different reasons. He opens with a troubling assertion about the rise of social practice programs and the connection to neoliberalism:
Education in an era of the neoliberalization of capitalism has placed a premium on choice. The opening up of new markets is key to this expanded choice, exemplified in charter school expansion at the primary and secondary level, the growth in distance and online higher education, and newly specialized affective fields like social practice art, social justice, social entrepreneurship and community partnerships in higher education. Realistically, all of these examples produce new choices at the expense of old choices.
What I would note here is that there needs to be a healthy skepticism towards this zero sum assertion. Some new choices may well come at “the expense” of others, but it isn’t necessarily so. More importantly, we need to asses the qualitative dimensions of those choices. It may well be that social practice programs siphon students from say (sympathetic) sculpture programs, but this might also entail opening access to those sculpture programs for students that are a better fit. It may also be that social practice will turn out to be better suited to ask certain types of questions or explore certain types of experience and thus the “expense” incurred by older forms could be justified.
Tucker then worries, “Far from a conservative cry to preserve the past, I am concerned that our educational choices have already been made for us by forces more human and corrupt than any mythical market could concoct.” This begs the question – Have the previous educational choices somehow been exempt from this corrupting influence? If so, how? And if not, Why are we holding social practice programs to a higher standard?
He then moves on to a series of questions and issues that he feels social practice programs need address before winning his support. He acknowledges that these programs might be uniquely situated to foster “specific conversations that deal with the ethics, logistics and aesthetics of organizing people,” yet cautions, “the traditions of art have a lot to teach social practice, as they have mastered the translation of the social into material resolutions that provide necessary and different points of entry into complex ideas.” Maybe. But it is curious that there are so many who feel dissatisfied with this alleged “mastery.” Perhaps he is right that this new academic “market” is merely a neoliberal consumer choice, but that seems implausible. It certainly is cynical to dismiss the apparent desire of these students to find a better home for their curiosity than what the traditional art disciplines offer – are all of them chasing an art world trend? most of them? Or could it be that the arts are not the masters of translation Tucker imagines?
My foremost concern though is with the limitations he sets out for the field of social practice. Obviously we all bring competing agendas into this discussion around such a burgeoning field. But I feel Tucker’s questions, as interesting as they may be, are symptomatic of a deep desire to prescribe an intellectualist and activist agenda for social practice:
Can it retain the gains of the past movements for educational representation while moving beyond representation to a politics of redistribution? Can it respect truly complex social world from which it borrows and in which it intervenes without relegating the social to an image—a fixed commodified version of the everyday? Can it experiment with social relations in a way that builds new insights into what we can do together that acknowledge the inherently political nature of that act, while also proposing (socially or materially) ways to work through inadequate politics of the past?
I have argued again and again that there may well be incredible opportunities to address these sorts of questions in social practice programs, but it would be a mistake to desire to limit ourselves to them. There certainly are, and will continue to be, people who have no interest in such questions. They may not have any interest in antagonism as a social form, maybe they want to make people happy- gasp! I hope we can reserve a place for fun, sweetness, and love amid all the smashing of capitalists. I don’t like the idea of a litmus test or the obligation to make every walk a dérive. The “the old academy” Tucker invokes certainly has its strengths, but one of its biggest shortcomings is the narrow band of human experience it has focused on – the intellectual. There is more to being human than being book/theory “smart.” And rather than settle for the truly “false choices” of exploring the world from different positions along that narrow band, I argue for a social practice filled with activists and intellectuals, but also party people, hippies, malcontents, and maybe even a few capitalists. In short, I argue for the social practice program that many in the academy and the critical establishment fear.