excerpt from today’s opening address

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural Model Model UN: Issues in Practice, hosted by the Social Practice Workshop at the California College of the Arts. I am Jacob Wick, acting Secretary-General. I am going to give a brief address, then go over the schedule for the day, then hand the room over to Stephanie Syjuco, our keynote speaker for today. Before I say anything, though, I would like to thank you for attending. We have, as you can see, a wonderfully diverse crowd of delegates in attendance, and we look forward to your contributions.


I would like to begin my address with a condemnation of a reckless communiqué delivered to myself and the secretariat last night by Randall Szott, the official spokesman for social practice in the rogue state of Vermont. Szott declares that our meeting today will amount to nothing more than a “mere rehearsal of old saws and art theoretical platitudes,” dooming social practice to becoming “an art-historical corpse.”[1] As will become apparent as I continue throughout this address, and as you continue throughout your day, the words of the tyrant Szott could not be further from the truth.


“Social practice” is a term borrowed from the humanities – from sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and so on – that describes the things a society does: its customs, its ethics, even, as early 20th-century German sociologist Georg Simmel posited, its “social forms,” the general means by which specific individuals within a society create content. The “social practice” we are to be addressing, though, has a far less empirical function. The “social practice” we are talking about today is itself a social practice, a field of action that straddles not just aesthetic activity but also civic and leisure activity, a field of action that may at one moment reference an obscure art-historical movement and at the claim or reclaim an activity formerly considered banal or everyday.


This term - “social practice” – exists uneasily with a host of other terms: social sculpture, relational aesthetics, community art, participatory art, socially-engaged art, dialogic art, even as theater – perhaps even as dance. Any one of these terms would be, on the one hand, correct; but on the other, insufficient. Even the term “social practice” itself, as Pablo Helguera points out in his book Education for Socially-Engaged Art, may be insufficient, as it neatly evades the fact that many social practicioners self-identify as artists and produce work that relates to, or is directed at, an art world.[2] On the other hand, it may be correct, as there are certainly some social practicioners, if I may be allowed to use that cumbersome term a second time, who do not self-identify as artists and who do not produce work that relates to, or is directed at, an art world.


Delegates, I place upon you the responsibility of producing considered, thoughtful answers to the question “what is social practice?” You will each have an opportunity to produce, with your fellow delegates, resolutions that define the field of social practice from much wider fields. In the council on Ethics and Engagement, you will have a chance to consider who social practice projects are oriented towards, and for what purposes; in the council on Historical and Theoretical Frameworks, you will consider the various theoretical, political, and/or artistic movements that might frame our current moment; in Duration and Sustainability, you will discuss the nature, in a temporal and/or ecological sense, of social practice; and in Form and Aesthetics, you will consider the ways in which our actions manifest and the spheres of reference they operate within. Each of these lenses is an equally valid means through which to produce a convincing definition of social practice; and each of these lenses is an equally invalid means.


However, the simple fact that there may be more than one correct definition of what the field we are today referring to as “social practice” does not give us license to descend into vagary and relativism, nor does it excuse us from considering where our work comes from, what it contains, who it affects, or how it happens. To do so would be to admit defeat, to acknowledge that, in the words of a colleague, an MFA in social practice is like an MFA in naiveté; to do so would mean giving in to the tyrannical demagoguery of persons such as Randall Szott. Indeed, although the field of social practice might be one where, to paraphrase philosopher Raymond Geuss, clarity may be not only of no use, but may in fact be a “positive hindrance,” this situation compels us not to succumb to nihilism and apathy, but rather to develop and exercise ever stronger powers of “discrimination and judgment.”[3]

[1] Randall Szott, e-mail correspondence with the author, February 21, 2013.

[2] Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially-Engaged Art (New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011), 14.

[3] Raymond Geuss, Outside Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 6-7.