Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011)

Education for Socially Engaged Art is the first “Materials and Techniques” book for the emerging field of social practice. Written with a pragmatic, hands-on approach for university-level readers and those interested in real-life application of the theories and ideas around socially engaged art. The book, emphasizing the use of pedagogical strategies to address issues around social practice, addresses topics such as documentation, community engagement, dialogue and conversation, amongst many others.

The book was published by Jorge Pinto Books in 2011 and can be acquired online.

An interview on the subject can be found here:

“For too long Social Practice has been the notoriously flimsy flipside of market-based contemporary art: a world of hand-wringing practitioners easily satisfied with the feeling of ‘doing good’ in a community, and unaware that their quasi-activist, anti-formalist positions in fact have a long artistic heritage and can be critically dissected using the tools of art and theatre history. Helguera’s spunky primer promises to offer a much-needed critical compass for those adrift in the expanded social field.” –

—Claire Bishop, Professor of Contemporary Art and Exhibition History, CUNY, and author of Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship

“This is an extremely timely and thoughtful reference book. Drawn from empirical and extensive experience and research, it provides a curriculum and framework for thinking about the complexity of socially engaged practices. Locating the methodologies of this work in between disciplines, Helguera draws on histories of performance, pedagogy, sociology, ethnography, linguistics, community and public practices. Rather than propose a system he exposes the temporalities necessary to make these situations possible and resonant. This is a tool that will allow us to consider the difficulties of making socially engaged art and move closer to finding a language through which we can represent and discuss its impact.”

—Sally Tallant, Artistic Director, Liverpool Biennial

“Helguera has produced a highly readable book that absolutely needs to be in the back pocket of anyone interested in teaching or learning about socially engaged art”

—Tom Finkelpearl, Director of the Queens Museum, New York, and author of Dialogues in Public Art


[From the chapter 1., DEFINITIONS]


The term “social practice” obscures the discipline from which socially engaged art has emerged (i.e., art). In this way it denotes the critical detachment from other forms of art-making (primarily centered and built on the personality of the artist) that is inherent to socially engaged art, which, almost by definition, is dependent of the involvement of others besides the instigator of the artwork. It also thus raises the question of whether such activity belongs to the field of art at all. This is an important query; art students attracted to this form of art-making often find themselves wondering whether it would be more useful to abandon art altogether and instead become professional community organizers, activists, politicians, ethnographers, or sociologists. Indeed, in addition to sitting uncomfortably between and across these disciplines and downplaying the role of the individual artist, socially engaged art is specifically at odds with the capitalist market infrastructure of the art world: it does not fit well in the traditional collecting practices of contemporary art, and the prevailing cult of the individual artist is problematic for those whose goal is to work with others, generally in collaborative projects with democratic ideals. Many artists look for ways to renounce not only object-making but authorship altogether, in the kind of “stealth” art practice that philosopher Stephen Wright argues for, in which the artist is a secret agent in the real world, with an artistic agenda.[2]

Yet the uncomfortable position of socially engaged art, identified as art yet located between more conventional art forms and the related disciplines of sociology, politics, and the like, is exactly the position it should inhabit. The practice’s direct links to and conflicts with both art and sociology must be overtly declared and the tension addressed, but not resolved. Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists.  And the artist as social practitioner must also make peace with the common accusation that he or she is not an artist but an “amateur” anthropologist, sociologist, etc. Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity. It is this temporary snatching away of subjects into the realm of art-making that brings new insights to a particular problem or condition and in turn makes it visible to other disciplines. For this reason, I believe that the best term for this kind of practice is what I have thus far been using as a generic descriptor —that is, “socially engaged art” (or SEA), a term that emerged in the mid-1970s, as it unambiguously acknowledges a connection to the practice of art.[3]


To understand SEA, an important distinction must be made between two types of art practice: symbolic and actual. As I will show, SEA is an actual, not symbolic, practice.

A few examples:

Let’s say an artist or group of artists creates an “artist-run school,” proposing a radical new approach to teaching. The project is presented as an art project but also as a functioning school (a relevant example, given the recent emergence of similar projects). The “school,” however, in its course offerings, resembles a regular, if slightly unorthodox, city college. In content and format, the courses are not different in structure from most continuing education courses. Furthermore, the readings and course load encourage self-selectivity by virtue of the avenues through which it is promoted and by offering a sampling that is typical of a specific art world readership, to the point that the students taking the courses are not average adults but rather art students or art-world insiders. It is arguable, therefore, whether the project constitutes a radical approach to education; nor does it risk opening itself up to a public beyond the small sphere of the converted.

An artist organizes a political rally about a local issue. The project, which is supported by a local arts center in a medium-size city, fails to attract many local residents; only a couple dozen people show up, most of whom work at the arts center. The event is documented on video and presented as part of an exhibition. In truth, the artist can claim to have organized a rally?

These are two examples of works that are politically or socially motivated but act through the representation of ideas or issues. These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end.

This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force.

Most artists who produce socially engaged works are interested in creating a kind of collective art that impacts the public sphere in a deep and  meaningful way, not in creating a representation—like a theatrical play—of a social issue. Certainly many SEA projects are in tune with the goals of deliberative democracy and discourse ethics, and most believe that art of any kind can’t avoid taking a position in current political and social affairs. (The counter-argument is that art is largely a symbolic practice, and as such the impact it has on a society can’t be measured directly; but then again, such hypothetical art, as symbolic, would not be considered socially engaged but rather would fall into the other familiar categories, such as installation, video, etc.) It is true that much SEA is composed of simple gestures and actions that may be perceived as symbolic. For example, Paul Ramirez-Jonas’s work Key to the City (2010) revolved around a symbolic act—giving a person a key as a symbol of the city. Yet although Ramirez-Jonas’s contains a symbolic act, it is not symbolic practice but rather communicative action (or “actual” practice)—that is, the symbolic act is part of a meaningful conceptual gesture. [4]

The difference between symbolic and actual practice is not hierarchical; rather, its importance lies in allowing a certain distinction to be made: it would be important, for example, to understand and identify the difference between a project in which I establish a health campaign for children in a war-torn country and a project in which I imagine a health campaign and fabricate documentation of it in Photoshop. Such a fabrication might result in a fascinating work, but it would be a symbolic action, relying on literary and public relations mechanisms to attain verisimilitude and credibility.

To summarize: social interaction occupies a central and inextricable part of any socially engaged artwork. SEA is a hybrid, multi-disciplinary activity that exists somewhere between art and non-art, and its state may be permanently unresolved. SEA depends on actual—not imagined or hypothetical—social action.

[1]. In this book it is not possible (nor is it the goal) to trace a history of socially engaged art; instead I focus mainly on the practice as it exists today, with reference to specific artists, movements, and events that have significantly informed it.

[2]. See “Por un arte clandestino,” the author’s conversation with Stephen Wright in 2006, Wright later wrote a text based on this exchange,

[3]. From this point forward I will use this term to refer to the type of artwork that is the subject of this book.

[4] Paul Ramirez Jonas’ project, produced by Creative Time, took place in New York City in the Summer of 2010.

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