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Unit 1

Socially engaged arts (SEA) is a movement that emerged 50 years ago. The SEA has roots in the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s. SEA is closely related to “as ‘community’, ‘collaborative’, ‘participatory’, ‘dialogic’ or ‘public’ arts” (Helguera, 2011, p. 3). In the same vein, Kester (2011, p. 6) describes SEA as ‘collaborative, dialogic, social, cooperative, participatory and process-based arts’.

Nato Thompson (2012) posits that SEA should not be viewed as an arts movement, for example Russian Constructivism, Fluxus, Gutai, and so forth, nor should it be viewed as having developed along a strict timeline, indicating a Western perspective. He promotes a view on the development of SEA that steers away from a linear orientation to include different global and regional histories and cultural concerns. He justifies his view by stating that art is ‘no longer the primary influence for culture and because of this, tracing its roots is all the more complex’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 21).

Therefore, SEA is viewed by Thompson (2012, p. 21) as ‘Living as Form’. He explains:

For some artists, the desire to make art that is living stems from the desire for something breathing, performative and action-based. Participation, sociality, and the organization of bodies in a space play a key feature in this work.

Art as a collective process can reclaim and reconnect communities to public life. Art produced with and by societies can provide the critical tools that can enable individuals and communities to grasp the social dynamics within their society as it enables them to reflect on, but also disrupt the dominant narratives they are confronted with. Therefore, the arts can help communities resolve the social problems they may face (Wexler, 2019, p. 1-2).

Claire Bishop (2005) argues that SEA refers to the creative outcomes of a participatory social fabric. As a multidisciplinary practice, SEA provides a focal point, or central space, for social interaction to come about, as it depends on actual, and not imagined, social action (Helguera, 2011). Bishop (2012, p. 3) refers to ‘a return to the social’, which she describes as ‘an ongoing history of attempts to rethink art collectively’. Following Thompson’s view by refraining from a Western perspective on SEA, it is argued that the ‘cultural turn’ relates to a Western perspective, but many societies have never perceived their arts outside of a collective realm.

The arts and artists can help communities work toward common goals. SEA ‘falls within the tradition of conceptual process arts … focusing on process and site-specificity’, says Helguera (2011, p. 2). Participatory arts should query how the arts can engage ‘publics’, posits Sachs Olsen (2019, p. 4). These authors affirm the social focus of this art practice.

The arts are used to challenge political conventions. The aim of the SEA is to influence social and political agendas (Belfiore, 2022). Bishop (2012) explains that collaborative or public art aims to achieve social change through human participation. In particular, the past two to three decades have seen politically motivated artists presenting not only their social realities, but they blended ‘art with activism, social regeneration projects, and even violent political action’ (Simontini, 2018, p.71). Penley and Ross (1991) have also referred to activist arts as ‘artivism’, a term that students of SEA may come across in the literature.

Photo 1: Active Witnesses Exhibition, 2022. Valo Gallery, Arkrtikum, Finland


Socially engaged practice, or SEA, is based on two premises: They are community-and place-based. SEA practices are firmly associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics’. By using this term, which he defined in the 1990s, he seeks to describe approaches to art creation that are underpinned and inspired by social relations and the spaces and contexts in which these relations come about. As the social processes involved in SEA are dynamic, the processes themselves are viewed as more important than the finished or final outcomes, the aesthetic products. This creates a tension between practicing socially based arts within public aesthetic spaces and institutionalised arts presented in formal cultural spaces, such as in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector with its implied exclusions.

Although Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics focus on institutionalised arts (hosted in spaces by the GLAM sector), SEA seeks to bring art outside of these spaces to engage with audiences who want to tackle social issues outside of institutionalised spaces (Rasmussen, 2017, p. 62). Wexler (2019, p. 2) ‘post-studio practices’ refer to arts that are practiced outside institutional spaces. SEA, however, continues to be practiced in museums and other cultural spaces, but wherever it comes about, the aim is to overturn conformist notions of capitalist consumption. However, further research needs to understand how SEA can be practiced alongside social entrepreneurship, with a critical view on consumption (Andersen, Renza, and Fieseler will publish on this topic in 2023).

The SEA therefore ask: ‘How should art function in social spaces?’ (Sachs Olsen, 2019, p. 4). This challenging question confronts communities who often seek to practice arts for purposes of wellbeing, social connectivity, autonomy, and self-expression. Such artistic endeavours are often viewed as bad art inappropriate for integration into what is often viewed as the elitist GLAM sector. The question SEA pose therefore continues to inspire critical reflection within the GLAM sector as to how the arts should function within societies.

Another important aspect of SEA is its firm linkage to art pedagogy. Kester (2011, para 2 of introduction) describes this link as important as it enables the ‘opening up of alterity’ (2011, para 2 of introduction), an element important for bringing together disparate communities. In the book chapter by Sarantou, Sillgren, and Pokela (2019), learning, as part of SEA practices, is broadly understood as the acquisition of skills or knowledge through experience, iteration, study, or being taught. Sennet (2008) notes that skills development ‘depends on how repetition is organised’ and that skills are expanded and developed through the open relationships ‘between problem solving and problem finding’ (p. 38). Grayling (2002) understands liberal education as gaining an appreciation of the arts to supplement scientific and practical subjects. He defines learning as the ability to ‘think, and question, and know how to find answers’ when needed (p. 158), and this is where the arts can help as they can inspire, stimulating solution-oriented mindsets. Grayling (2002) adds that an appreciation for the arts and ongoing education enables reflexivity, which means living more knowledgeably and having consideration and tolerance for the interests and needs of others (p. 158–159). The illustrated relationships between the arts and pedagogy are the foundation of SEA practices.

Photo 2: Active Witnesses Exhibition, 2022. Valo Gallery, Arkrtikum, Finland

Photo Credits and references


Photo 1: Active Witnesses Exhibition, 2022. Valo Gallery, Arkrtikum, Finland
Amna Qureshi, University of Lapland, Finland

Photo 2: Active Witnesses Exhibition, 2022. Valo Gallery, Arkrtikum, Finland
Amna Qureshi, University of Lapland, Finland


Belfiore, E. (2022). Who cares? At what price? The hidden costs of socially engaged arts labour and the moral failure of cultural policy. European Journal of Cultural Studies, Sage, 25(1), 61–78.

Bishop, C. (2005). The social turn: Collaboration and its discontents. Artforum, 44(6), 178-186.

Grayling, A. C. (2002). The meaning of things: Applying philosophy to life. London: Phoenix.

Helguera, P. (2011). Socially Engaged Art. Jorge Pinto Books.

Kester, G. H. (2011). The one and the many: Contemporary collaborative art in a global context. Duke University Press.

Penley, C., & Ross, A. (eds.) (1991). Technoculture. University of Minnesota Press.

Rasmussen, M. B. (2017). A note on socially engaged art criticism. Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, 25(53).

Sennet, R. (2008). The craftsman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Simoniti, V. (2018). Assessing socially engaged art. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 76: 71–82. doi:10.1111/jaac.12414

Sarantou, M. A., Sillgren, S. K., & Pokela, L. M. (2019). In her lap: Embodied learning through making. T. Jokela and G. Coutts (Eds.), Relate North, pp. 84-106, ISEAS.