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Redefining the Future of Socially Engaged Art

September 2, 2020

Header image: Sari Carel, Out of Thin Air (2018) — As the culmination of a series of breathing and sound-recording workshops held with New Yorkers living with asthma and various breathing conditions, Carel built a multi-channel soundscape in City Hall Park out of unconventional respiratory sounds; visitors were led blindfolded through the installation to better perceive the nuances of breath. Project commissioned by More Art.

We made a prediction last summer about the future, specifically regarding the next 15 years of socially engaged art among other aspects of society (so delineated in our recently published book More Art in the Public Eye). Normally, a year after the fact might seem a bit soon to revisit such an outlook, but of course, nothing is quite normal right now; in fact, the direness and urgency of this year’s public health crisis and uprisings for racial justice demand it. (Furthermore, it’s indisputable that “normal” was part of the problem, and is not what needs going back to. Consider the dismal labor conditions and workplace protections, state-sanctioned violence against Black communities, police and now civilian brutality against protesters insisting that Blacks Lives Matter, and the precarity and inequity of American economic outcomes that both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives have laid bare.)

It is all but impossible not to prognosticate when many futures feel uncertain — but how can we use the impulse to look ahead, to speculate, and to rightly worry, to instead actively envision and work toward our collective future? Here’s what we thought a year ago; while we could have never predicted the way 2020 in particular would unfold, many of our most challenging current conditions have underlying causes and long-term effects that are far from novel or unknowable. Can we use what we once imagined — and what we now know, today — to move us into a future of our own making? We believe that “Socially engaged art is the testing ground for building possible futures, models for experiences of collectivism yet to come. This is art’s active role.” This month on Medium, we turn our attention towards those tomorrows.

What does the future of socially engaged art look like?

Reports suggest that by 2040 the impacts of human-caused climate change will be inescapable and we will be facing the prospect of a post-human and post-Anthropocene era.¹ It is inevitable that artists in the future will have to confront the potential for greater divisiveness and competition wrought by AI as well as resource insecurity. Our conception of migration may be radically altered as environmental realities such as flooding or droughts force us to redefine our understanding of national borders. Movements around social equity and human rights will have to continue to grow and join forces as citizens assert their demands for political and cultural representation. Art will evolve as well, becoming increasingly diverse, more collective and experiential. It might not look, in form and in content, like we have expected.

It is hard to predict the exact role that art will play, but based on our frontline involvement in dozens of artworks and creative initiatives, we have a few educated guesses.

— Art will take an active role in shaping society and will be considered critical to politics, rather than autonomous or just a reflection of the time. It will quite literally define the times.

— Art will transform ways of living in the age of climate disaster and the end of the Anthropocene.

— Art will model equity and radical inclusivity.

— Art will lead new expansion of participatory and direct democracy practices.

— Socially engaged art is the testing ground for building possible futures, models for experiences of collectivism yet to come. This is art’s active role.


Screen on a boat during a sunset in the seashore. The screen shows the portrait of a person while the sky is full of colors.

Shimon Attie, Night Watch (2018) — Attie produced a short silent film made with New York’s refugees and asylum seekers, developed through research and collaboration with legal aid organizations, such as Immigration Equality and Safe Passage Project, and community empowerment groups, including Queer Detainee Empowerment Project and RIF Asylum Support. Comprised of a series of portraits of individuals from a wide array of backgrounds and ages, the film was projected on a LED screen mounted on a barge that traveled up and down the East and Hudson Rivers for eight nights, during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly. Project commissioned by More Art.


We spent our first fifteen years as an organization defining the way we work. Now we feel even more assured of the critical role that art — in particular public and socially engaged art — plays in society, and of the ever-more relevant role that it will continue to have in the next twenty years, as we grapple with earth-shattering issues. Even if the terms “socially engaged art” or “social practice” become obsolete and are replaced by new ones in a continued transformation of the field, the idea of art being more collaborative and inclusive, inextricably linked to equity, social justice, and direct democracy practices, will gain more and more traction and urgency. In an increasingly fragmented and disconnected world, we predict that people will fight for authenticity, connectedness, and a sense of belonging, and will seek out substantive experiences that touch the individual, as well as speak to a shared future. Artist Alfredo Jaar has written that, “Regardless of what others believe, the center of the world is everywhere where we can find a human being,” speaking to the universal and the particular of socially engaged art.² We believe we need to recenter art towards a model of intervention and engagement, wherein art as it acts on one person ultimately acts on the world at large, and vice versa.

We have been struck by the foresight of the assessment that writer and activist Wendell Berry made in 1981 about European settlers coming in with vision but not sight.³ We see this as one of the most dangerous pitfalls in our society, particularly when it comes to thinking of doing good. Art celebrates diversity with all its idiosyncrasies. As social practice producers, we may become so certain of our positive role that we manufacture expectations regarding how we should best represent the concerns of a community. As well-intentioned as we might be, there is the risk of imposing our own vision of the perfect resolution without paying attention to, or seeing, the actual realities of a community and truly listening to the individuals involved. Some projects are meant to reach thousands of people, others only one person; we assert the value, success, and impact of each and all those in between. Informed by this awareness, this listening and learning with humility, in thoughtful collaboration with local organizations working on the ground, and the acceptance of criticism and our own shortcomings along the way, socially engaged public art is ideally positioned to act in the next twenty years as a catalyst for experiential, long-lasting change.

1. “Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” New York Times, October 7, 2018. The Anthropocene is the epoch in which humans have started having a significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including climate change. See Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural Story (Henry Holt and Company, 2014).

2. In a statement to the authors, regarding Jaar’s 2010 project Dear Markus. During a research trip to Finland, Jaar waited for a boat to take him on the four-hour journey back from Utö, the furthest of the islands he was visiting. Jaar wondered why the near-empty boat was leaving at 5:45 am; the captain told him that a boy living on a small island along the route had to get to school on the main island. Dear Markus consisted of a series of billboards with letters from Finnish authors placed across the islands on the route to Utö from Pärnäs in Finland, made specifically for this one boy.

3. “As we felled and burned the forests, so we burned, plowed, and overgrazed the prairies. We came with visions, but not with sight. We did not see or understand where we were or what was there, but destroyed what was there for the sake of what we desired. And the desire was always native to the place we left behind.” Wendell Berry, “The Native Grasses and What They Mean” in The Gift of Good Land (North Point Press, 1981), 82. Berry was addressing the European settlers’ dismissive or blind attitude toward Native Americans’ ways of cultivating the land, which resulted in the complete destruction of the prairies, but his words encapsulate the greatest risk for so-called human progress in every field.

How do you imagine tomorrow? Join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.

This excerpt is from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.