Critical gaps: a curriculum for socially-engaged art

Fiona Woods,
Artist and part-time lecturer MA SEA+FE, NCAD

Fiona Woods T2 image web

In socially-engaged art, several distinct critical impulses can be identified in the practices of artists. A genealogy of these impulses can be traced through many of the cultural practices that emerged in the modern period, all of which were responding in different ways to tensions generated by art’s contradictory politics as a practice at once autonomous and heteronomous.

Theoretical debates framing socially-engaged practices, from community arts in the 1970s up to the present, have been characterised by an antagonism between ethical and aesthetic values. Arguments concerning instrumentalisation and the effects of art also play a role in shaping the choices and decisions that practitioners make.

The internal complexity of the practice is set against a matrix of infrastructures and dynamics that constitute the social field. Devising critical tools with which to navigate this multi-layered complexity is an important part of the work. As a practitioner operating at the intersection of critical practices of art and education, I have developed a curriculum based on analysing some of the foundational critical impulses of the practice, to support students in the production of tools appropriate for their chosen approach. Presented here as a diagram, I will consider the implications of two strands in particular: art-into-life and counter-knowledges.


Art’s contradictory politics of autonomy and heteronomy is evident in debates concerning the uneasy intersection of art and life, with origins in the philosophical discourse of aesthetics at the end of the eighteenth century. Deeply concerned with the matter of human freedom, Enlightenment philosophers perceived a conflict between the material and the sensuous natures of humans and our capacity for reason, with moral implications. If we are governed by our senses and appetites then we are not really making free, rational choices, they surmised. The idea that sensation and reason might be brought together harmoniously in the form of aesthetic judgement was first articulated by Alexander Baumgarten, laying the foundation of modern aesthetics.1 Kant further developed the idea of judgement as a human capacity, and aesthetic judgement as the means of bringing the sensible world within the scope of reason.

Friedrich von Schiller took a different view. He challenged the jaundiced idea of the sensuous impulse in humans and argued for a transformation of the inner condition of the human by combining the “sensuous drive” and the “formal drive” in the living form of the “play-drive”.2 Feeling and reason, he argued, must be equally valued and educated to produce “an aesthetic disposition of the mind”.3 Through the cultivation of our aesthetic sensibility, we develop our capacity both for free thought and for loving the world, which has a liberating effect with moral, theoretical and political implications. The aesthetical state of mind, as Schiller described it, is the only point at which humans are free (not subordinated to any utilitarian aim).4

From a feminist perspective, this is a gendered idea of freedom, which does not take into account the meaningfulness of caring activities that provide sustenance both to the individual and to their society. There are also significant class critiques of this philosophical position, specifically that it was designed to mould the newly-emerging bourgeois subject. In spite of this original class bias, Terry Eagleton argues that the aesthetic obtains a radical power which lies in its ability to resolve a particular dilemma of bourgeois society: “its very atomizing individualism and competitiveness threatens to destroy the ideological solidarity necessary for its political reproduction”.5 Aesthetics calls for forms of judgement in which one brackets one’s own interests in the name of a common humanity, acting as a counterpoint to the social alienation inherent in the bourgeois social order. This, according to Eagleton, is the basis of aesthetics’ “utopian critique of the bourgeois social order”.6

Enlightenment philosophy marked out aesthetic experience as a space freed from domination, a space in which contradictory aspects of human existence might be unified in what Kant called the ‘free play’ of the faculties7 and what Schiller called the play-drive. This aesthetics has a politics, of course, which has been comprehensively interrogated by Jacques Rancière,8 drawing substantially on Schiller’s work, particularly in relation to art’s capacity to play a transformative
role in the world. Rancière argues that around the time of the French Revolution an aesthetic revolution was also set in motion, as artists, writers and critics attempted to “reinterpret what makes art or what art makes”.9 These practices began
to overturn the boundary which had previously defined art as separate from life; the aim of this revolution, as Rancière 15 explains, was nothing less than to propose that life can be reformed as an art.10

The conceptual framework for Rancière’s inquiry is what he calls “the distribution of the sensible”,11 a system of divisions that assigns parts, supplies meanings and defines the relationships between things in the common world, structuring the field of possible experience and expression.12 This distribution of the sensible creates a particular “regime of visibility”,13 which defines the nature of art, including the question of art’s relationship with or separation from life.

Rancière describes the regime of visibility inaugurated by Enlightenment philosophy as the aesthetic regime of the arts.14 The “ first manifesto” of this regime, he argues, was the work of Schiller, because it proposed an “aesthetic formula [that] ties art to non-art from the start”.15 In this account art is reinvigorated by being brought into contact with life, while life, it is thought, can be re-formed under the influence of aesthetic values. This binding together of art and non-art, according to Rancière, means that art can settle neither for being mere art nor mere life, resulting in three scenarios: “Art can become life. Life can become art. Art and life can exchange their properties”.16

This creates a paradox: for art to be art, it must be more than art; it must carry a promise of impacting life. However, it is art’s distinction from the everyday that allows it to carry the promise of a new life, and therefore art can be the harbinger of a new life only to the extent that it is defined as distinct from life. The aesthetic regime therefore encapsulates a fundamental tension which is that art is art only in that it carries the promise of being more than art, and it carries that promise only to the extent that it distinguishes itself from life. In Rancière’s assessment, “aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on the ambiguity”.17

In the field of socially-engaged art this matters enormously. The socially-engaged artist, by definition, sets out to make art. If Rancière’s analysis is correct, art’s vitality depends on its occupation of an ambiguous condition between autonomy and heteronomy – not-merely-art and not-quite-life. However, the kinds of social relations that can occur in this space are unclear and possibly not what they seem; in a practice constructed around ideas of relationality, this complicates issues of ethics and politics considerably.


In 1913, when Marcel Duchamp placed a readymade urinal in a gallery, the act of framing/reframing was revealed as a key aesthetic operation and a critical tool of great significance. This relates to a second argument in Rancière’s analysis which is relevant here, namely that art is uniquely positioned to challenge regimes of visibility. The “re-framing of the real” is equivalent to a “framing of a dissensus”,18 a term which he uses to mean a ‘rupture’ between what we sense and how we make sense of it.

The gap between what we sense and how we make sense of it is the crucial site for a struggle between ideology and criticality. Ideology seeks to bridge that gap in a way that conceals it entirely, guarding the internal structures of a given order from exposure to critique, the means by which to “produce the instruments, the elements of intelligibility, which would allow for an analysis and resolution”.19 The gap between what we sense and how we make sense of it is essential to the production of counter-knowledges. “The oppressors,” argued the radical educationalist Paulo Freire, “develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given to which people as mere spectators must adapt”.20 As one of the main architects of critical pedagogy, Freire developed pedagogical methods to analyse the constructed nature of social inequality, particularly with those who bear the brunt of it. Freire reframed the classroom as a pre- figurative site for challenging the hierarchical power structures through which social injustice is perpetuated and proposed that knowledge is always a co-creation between people.21 The goal of critical pedagogy is not so much the education of a self as the collective reformulation of what can be seen, what can be thought and what can be said,22 in the interest of emancipation from dominant and limiting structures and norms. Education is a relational matter aligned with common rather than private interest.

Socially-engaged art practices often draw on the pedagogical either directly, by creating alternative spaces of learning, or indirectly through exchanges of knowledge or the production of critical counter- knowledges. These practices often operate at what Stephen Wright has termed “1:1 Scale”;23 they are simultaneously what they purport to be (such as schools or social movements) and propositions of the same, rather than representations. This, in Wright’s assessment, moves them out of the paradigm of spectatorship, making it possible for them to elude the “ideological and institutional capture” implied by the ontology of ‘art’.24 Wright’s usership model proposes that artworks which appear as other kinds of social initiatives embody a meaning that is supplementary to the initiative itself, not evident on the surface, but existing as a kind of subterranean knowledge, a “double ontology”, as Wright describes it.25

To retain the category of art whilst simultaneously rejecting that category almost in its entirety, Wright’s theorising of ‘useful art’ sometimes engages in a conceptual acrobatics that has a whiff of mystification to it. A colleague recently wondered whether the whole problem could be sorted more easily by simply replacing the word art with the term craft: socially-engaged craft. However, Wright’s invocation of Marcel Duchamp’s “coefficient” of art – “an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed”26 – suggests that ‘user art’ sits more comfortably in the tradition of institutional critique, an artistic strategy that attempts to reform (rather than do away with) the institution of art by making visible the historically and socially-specific conditions of its boundaries.

Any practice which understands itself as ‘art’ cannot shake off entirely its complicity with the system of commodity production inherent in the category of art, nor its connection to the problematic fact of representation. A strong argument for retaining the artificiality suggested by the term ‘art’ over the term craft in the area of socially-engaged practice arises from a need to guard against mistaking the performance of desirable social relations for the reality which it attempts to pre-figure. Social inequalities are often made visible through a clash of conflicting realities, and to theorise those inequalities was seen by Freire as the greatest opportunity for self-emancipation.27 Performing the equitable social relations so lacking in the life-world is not necessarily a basis for developing “the instruments [and] elements of intelligibility”, which Balibar sees as the essence of critique.28

Art which looks political may not be the work most likely to create a rupture in the regime of the visible, according to Rancière.29 While socially-engaged art borrows from education and from activism, ultimately it is neither. Its status as a critical practice with pedagogical aspects rests on its capacity to render intelligible matters which may be concealed in the gap between what we sense and how we make sense of it.



1. Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche, second edition (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).

2 Friedrich von Schiller, ‘Letter XIV, 1794’, ‘Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Mankind’ in Literary and philosophical essays: French, German and Italian (with introductions and notes), The Harvard Classics (New York: Collier [c1910]), 32. Published online by Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook (

3 Friedrich von Schiller, ‘Letter XXII’,
Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Mankind.

4 Friedrich von Schiller , ‘Letter XV’,
Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Mankind.

5 Terry Eagleton, ‘The Ideology of the Aesthetic’, in ed. Stephen Regan, The Politics of Pleasure; Aesthetics and cultural theory (Bristol: Open University Press, 1992), 24.

6 Terry Eagleton, 30.
7 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987 [1790]).

8 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, (London and New York: Continuum, 2005); Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London and New York: Continuum, 2010).

9 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 25.

10 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 25.

11 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 12.

12 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 12.

13 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 20

14 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 22.

15 Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 132.

16 Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 119.

17 Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 133.

18 Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 141.

19 Étienne Balibar, ‘Critique in the 21st Century’ in Radical Philosophy, issue 200 (November/December 2016), 11.

20 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Ramos Bergman (New York: Continuum, 2005 [1970]), 139.

21 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

22 Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 13.

23 Stephen Wright, Towards a Lexicon of Usership (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2013), 3.

24 Stephen Wright, Towards a Lexicon of Usership, 5.

25 Stephen Wright, Towards a Lexicon of Usership, 3.

26 Marcel Duchamp, ‘The Creative Act’ in eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975 [1957]), 139.

27 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

28 Étienne Balibar, ‘Critique in the 21st Century’, 11.

29 Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics.



Socially Engaged Practice, A very partial genealogy, Fiona Woods, 2015