Social Art Practices and Identity

This was my last essay written for my 2021 history class, as if the year wasn’t hard enough, this essay was a pain to get through. It was a response to the question “What are the problems and opportunities presented by socially engaged art practices?”, but I added a little wrinkle by talking about identity, and anonymity in social art practices.

I’m usually pretty nervous about posting my essays, and this is no exception. Mostly I’m worried I’m talking about things I really don’t understand, but that’s why I would really appreciate any feedback from people who know more than me about these topics!


A social practice, when in the context of fine art, refers to an art making ethos guided by social justice, community and charity. Moving away from an art practice that revolves around the capitalist notions of product and consumer, a social practice would see the artist engage with community, blurring the lines between activist and artist. In this essay I will be addressing the problems and opportunities that a social art practice contains.

Social practices are largely concerned with human relations, and critiquing or investigating society. There are many ways to engage in this practice, some make ephemeral art, others art that resides in galleries but defies the auction block, and other practices are so steeped in activism that they’re indistinguishable from an activist organisation. A common way artists are framed in a social practice as aiming to aid, educate and improve the conditions in a society through acts of service (Phaidon 2021). Though a social practice by no means has to be generative, but instead could be destructive; artists challenging the status quo through outrageous public stunts and messaging. In this essay I want to focus on three art practices that revolve around questioning and critiquing society, with work carried out in public spaces. In answering this question I want to focus on how identity, or the lack of identity affects a social practice, how it affects the message, and the message of the art.

A social practice provides a framework for artists to create work in public spaces, this presents an opportunity to reach people who most need to see the message, and confront the people whom the message speaks out against. The Guerilla Girls are a group of female artists who perform public acts of fact spreading through posters, stickers and action, all while wearing gorilla masks. Instead of appearing as a collective of named women standing up for their own desire to be represented, through their anonymity they become representative of all women, meaning they cannot be appeased individually, or as a collective. Their work speaks out against injustices towards women, and initiates conversations around feminist issues, particularly in the art world. They began pasting up posters in the mid 1980s, calling out galleries and exhibitions where female artists were underrepresented. De Certeau describes how the powerful create a sense of place in society that is beneficial to them, while the weak and underserved have to take up space within this greater ‘place’ (Matzkin 1997). The Guerilla Girls found that invading this patriarchal ‘place’, spreading their message forcefully and with wit, was a far greater solution than attempting to affect change from the inside. While the guerilla girls rely on statistics as the basis for their message, humor is also another important aspect, both in their work and personal presentation. The Guerilla girls present themselves as gorillas, donning large black hairy masks, some with eye holes cut for their glasses to poke through. Wordplay aside, representing themselves this way separates them from feminine stereotypes that are so often used against women to devalue them. In their work The Advantages of being a Female Artist, one of the tongue in cheek points states that no matter what you create it will be labeled feminine. This use of humor had its drawbacks though, The group worried that their message could come across wrong, not be taken seriously, or be too aggressive, with one proposed poster asking for male artists to surrender their genitalia. Humor is often harder to agree on than sincerity, an earnest message is relatable and something most people can empathise with, whereas humour is a fickle complicated medium, Leng (2020, p.  123) notes “The text’s profanity and injunction to violence caused considerable internal dissent”. It’s difficult to comprehend how The Guerilla Girls are affected by the pros or cons of having a social practice, as utilizing this practice may well have been the only way to force their way into the art sphere. To exactly what degree they opened up the art world to women is hard to determine, but they did help to reframe the reasons why women weren’t in galleries from a function of women being inferior artists, to an issue of entrenched patriarchal systems (Babu Paul 2020).

INDECLINE is an American art collective whose practice involves defacing public property, such as tearing down billboards to make shelters for the homeless, public graffiti questioning policies and politicians, and covert installations in hotel rooms. Their work is highly illegal, and defamatory, and as such they require anonymity to maintain their practice. They first rose to prominence through defacing pubic billboards with the phrase “a clown can get away with murder  -Gacy” alongside a naked clay and silicone statue of Donald Trump wearing clown makeup. This project was undertaken during Trump’s presidency, an incredibly volatile time in America, and this work likened the president to John W Gacy, notorious serial killer, after Trump said he could shoot someone in the street and still get elected. Their anonymity acts as a shield to protect their personal lives, and allows them to continue spreading their message. Authorities and lawmakers make the distinction between two types of graffiti, one imitates the aesthetic of traditional art, and is palatable for a general audience, the other being defined by tagging, scrawling, gang signs and a lack of permission (Gomez 1993). This distinction rests on antiquated ideas of what art is, 65 years earlier Duchamp exhibited his readymade piece Fountain, so I find this distinction of what is and isn’t art very narrow minded. It draws a line between two forms of graffiti, painting one side as desirable and the other as undesirable, the question becomes though, undesirable to who? IDECLINE focuses on messages such as housing inequality, class struggles, and political tyranny, which are uncomfortable conversations for those in power, but life defining for those affected. With Make Kids Disappear – I.C.E they have defaced a public billboard overlooking a highway, transforming an advertisement for a junk removal service to indictment of the government’s treatment of immigrants. The illegality and defacement frames the message as a form of protest, that the artists are dissatisfied with the current establishment. While it would be a stretch to say all graffiti is purposeful, when considering how to frame street art done in a social art practice, it’s important to consider the location and the time in when it was created, as the work inherits meaning and context from these two factors (Chackal 2016).

An artist maintaining a social practice, and speaking out against a system, has to decide whether they are going to operate within the legal confines of that system, and to what degree. This can cause a complicated dilemma, if you choose to operate outside the law then you run the risk of the established powers using your law breaking as a way to devalue your message, but it is also sometimes the only outlet for impoverished and downtrodden people (Chackal 2016). We’ve seen this in action these last few years in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. When George Floyd was murdered, his drug use and criminal record were used to paint him in a negative light. Three days later when protests broke out in Minneapolis, which later led to rioting and looting, the media reported on the protests as filled with ‘thugs’ and violence, undercutting the original purpose for the protests (Brown 2020). Choosing to work within the system, or outside it, both have pros and cons, though a way INDECLINE mitigates this dilemma is to separate their processes. IDECLINE the group is chiefly involved with carrying out the public art interventions, while they commission other artists to create work, such as the piece The Emperor Has No Balls from artist Joshu Monroe. This separates the illegal action taken to display the art, from the actual art being made, giving the message a better chance to not be tainted by its association with a crime.

Ai Wei Wei is a contemporary Chinese artist, and son of poet Ai Qing. He is known for his outspoken political opinions, and harnessing modern communication platforms like blogs and twitter to criticise the Chinese Comunist Party’s policies and practices. Unlike the other two artists I’ve talked about in this essay, he does not hide his identity, which affects how we receive his message. His political criticism poses a problem for Ai, as China is concerned that letting people openly express their political opinions breaks down the hold the CCP has on its position of power (Associated Press 2020). In a way that is almost diametrically opposite to how The Guerilla Girls hide their individuality to represent all women, AI position as an individual is integral to his message being communicated. Historically the concept of individuality in China is different than in western society, in the west the individual is singular and defined by how it exists separate from society, whereas the merit of an individual in China is defined by how they serve the greater systems they inhabit (Brindley). In this way Ai’s identity and the action of speaking out work together to strengthen his message. This power that comes from his identity would not be possible without performing it in a social sphere, It’s through his social practice that the work gains its ability to affect change. A downside to gaining global attention though is that others place upon him their own ideas of democracy and liberal thought, that Ai is a weapon for the west to use against the CCP, instead of an individual critiquing how he thinks the government could serve the people better (Sorace 2014). In a sense this takes away ownership of his identity away, he becomes a tool used by the west to push their own agenda against China’s global position.

After examining this question in relation to the artists above, I feel framing a social practice in the context of it’s merit seems disingenuous to how a social practice comes about. It becomes clear that there is no other way their practices could operate outside the realm of social practice, so debating the efficacy of the approach seems futile. These three artists all have engaged with society at large, and have had to make deliberate decisions about how they want to be perceived. Like all of us though, how you are perceived and how you wish to be perceived are not always the same. This public aspect of a social practice means the artist’s identity is under more of a spotlight than other artforms. Systems within which you operate affect the ability to convey a message, the intersection of your identity and your environment defines what is possible through social practices.

References

  1. Phaidon, A Movement in a Moment, viewed 10 october 2021, <https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2016/april/25/a-movement-in-a-moment-social-practice/>
  2. Babu Paul, S 2020, ‘Art Against Art: Looking at Selected Posters of Guerilla Girls in their Resistance Against Sexual Politics’, Navajyoti, International Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Research, Vol. 5, Iss. 1. 
  3. Matzkin, J 1997, ‘Masking feminism: A cultural analysis of the Guerilla Girls, a feminist art movement’, Masters thesis, University of Wyoming, Wyoming. 
  4. Miller, M, Wolf, J 2021, Feminist Street Posters, Beyond the Streets, viewed 10 october 2021, <https://beyondthestreets.com/blogs/articles/guerrilla-girls>
  5. Leng, K 2020, ‘Art humor and activism Art, Humor, and Activism: The Sardonic, Sustaining Feminism of the Guerrilla Girls, 1985–2000’, Journal of women’s history, vol. 32 no. 4, pp. 110-134.
  6. Gomez, M 1993, ‘The Writing on Our Walls: Finding Solutions through Distinguishing Graffiti Art from Graffiti Vandalism’, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, vol. 26, pp. 663 – 709. 
  7. Make Kids Disappear – I.C.E., Streaming Video, INDECLINE, viewed 11 october 2021, <https://thisisindecline.com/flicks/make-kids-disappear-i.c.e>
  8. Sorace, C 2014, ‘China’s Last Communist: Ai Weiwei’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, pp. 396–419.
  9. Associated Press 2020, ‘Orwellian’ China silencing dissent at home and abroad, says human rights chief’, The Guardian, 15 January, viewed 11 october, <https://www.theguardian.com/law/2020/jan/15/orwellian-china-silencing-dissent-at-home-and-abroad-says-human-rights-chief>
  10. Brindley, E, ‘Individualism in Classical Chinese Thought’, Internet Encyclopedia of Phylosophy, viewed 12 october, <https://iep.utm.edu/ind-chin/#H3>
  11. Rajghatta, c 2016, ‘Anarchist artist tests limits with nude statues of Donald Trump’, The Times of India, 19 August, viewed 13 october, <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/Anarchist-artist-tests-limits-with-nude-statues-of-Donald-Trump/articleshow/53775625.cms>
  12. Chackal, T 2016, ‘Of Materiality and Meaning: The Illegality Condition in Street Art’, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 74, Iss 4, pp.359-370.
  13. Brown, D 2020, ‘Riot or resistance? How media frames unrest in Minneapolis will shape public’s view of protest’, The Conversation, 30 May, viewed 16 october 2021, <https://theconversation.com/riot-or-resistance-how-media-frames-unrest-in-minneapolis-will-shape-publics-view-of-protest-139713>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s