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To Move into Position: A Politics of Critical Engagement

As a start – How can we speak of social engagement if we as critics can’t engage? What does it mean to both document an act and act alongside it? Can criticism also be for the community? Can we be both critically and socially engaged? What if our goals were articulated alongside artists, expanding the vocabulary of social engagement to be for and with as critics, which is always, of course, also against certain forms or acts, systems or structures? Are we critical to or critical of these practices?

As a start – Can we assess the aesthetics of everyday actions, the uncritical spectacle of the sidewalk, backyard, classroom and community center? Should we, or how should we, talk about art that ends in protest or protest that emerges into art? What language is appropriate to art that doesn’t need to be viewed as art, that supercedes it – or perhaps secedes from it – in order to have a new, necessary conversation? Can we see it as a field and critique it as such? If this is the form art takes, can it not be the form we as critics follow? And if we do, in fact, follow artists, perhaps we will follow them out of the art world.

Socially engaged art is an incomplete form and should be written about in equally emergent terms. Does the artwork expand the field or deepen its furrows? Does it shatter the sense of your limits? Does it transform your perception for a second on a Tuesday or two days later on waking when you remember you were changed, almost? Can we discuss this? Are we even critics anymore?

When discussing art writing in relation to socially-engaged practices, it is easy to try to apply the tools inherited from the history of art criticism to this work. Yet, we can quickly shrug off an assessment of the ‘craft’ of social-engagement. We can not be masterful with our material – and this is where we start.  Imported language from another form is wildly inappropriate, yet we don’t know how to build ground up. Are we capable of wandering alongside an artist, of embedding within a practice, prodding it forward, assessing its place in the public, advocating for a conversation, or acting against it, opposing it, protesting it? Can we articulate an end goal? If this end is revolution, or justice, can we articulate revolution, can we discuss justice?

Criticism should be an inquiry on our outside, assessing the edges so that we can leave the edges, abandoning our observership for the precarity of relationship, of community, of transformation with and alongside others – artists, audiences, participants, peers; people. A socially engaged art criticism is one created in context of communities. One that is both critical to those communities and engaged with them.

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In recent protest movements in Ferguson or Baltimore, Havana or Oakland, consider the pattern of coverage of traditional media vs livestreamers, which could also be stated as spectators vs participants. The tenor of an evening news truck and the tone of a protester with an iPhone. Which is more honest, which more critical? When I speak of embeddedness in criticism, I am interested in action alongside artists, or the process of media blurring into protestor, not simply as an onlooker or documentarian. Perhaps one can’t maintain critical distance and be socially engaged, but it is possible to act, comment, critique and yet also tell the truth.

Forget the crisis of criticism, where are we as critics within crisis? Are we “of crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence” of something – of art, of anything? Can we carry the crisis with us and perhaps be a decisive act? Can we ourselves be the crisis?

Perhaps we fumble when it comes to socially engaged work because we don’t see enough of ourselves in it. But isn’t criticism another way to create forms of concern and collectivity? When did we stop short of stating that criticism at its best is a political act? That it is also resistance? That it is engaged? After all, to engage is to be “morally committed to a particular cause,” or, taking cues from its machine-informed term, to engage we must “move into position” – to prepare to act as act, to make ready.

And yes, to critique. To assess. To become critical. To “participate or become involved in;” to “occupy or involve.” To “start fighting against.”

As a start – Can criticism also be for the community? Can we be both critically and socially engaged? Are we already? What if our goals were articulated alongside artists, expanding the vocabulary of social engagement to be for and with as critics? Who or what are we committed to? What are we fighting against?

Can we now move into position so that from this place, we can begin to speak of revolution, carrying the crisis with us?

This text was written for our social response to Open Engagement 2015: Place and Revolution and was first presented for a panel on socially engaged art criticism organized by FIELD Journal at the conference on April 19th, 2015.

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