Mega-Spectacles of Engagement

Dr. Connell Vaughan, Lecturer in Visual Culture, DIT/ Lecturer MA SEA+FE, NCAD (2016)


What’s in a word?

The tricky contortions of the vilified weasel are an apt t for the language of contemporary aesthetic theory, practice and policy. There is today, in Ireland and beyond, a palpably cavalier and casual attitude to the language of aesthetic sensibility. Aesthetic concepts are routinely reduced to keywords to be cited, referenced and namechecked. Words such as ‘deconstruction’, ‘modern’, ‘critical’ and even ‘aesthetic’ itself, are recycled like fashion trends. Rarely are they consciously complicated, interrogated or even reappointed.

No buzzword pervades contemporary aesthetic jargon quite like the all-encompassing descriptor ‘engagement’. From course titles in art colleges, to a principle championed in cultural policy documents, to the everyday language we use to comprehend art, ‘engagement’ is the quintessential term of our times. It is a term, however, that does not point to a particular aesthetic style or ethic. Rather it is a dangerously dull, empty and hollow term. As such, it is properly approached with caution. It is a ‘weasel word’. Such words are so called because the much-maligned weasel was mistakenly thought to feed by sucking the contents out of eggs, leaving shells intact. The word ‘engagement’ tricks us into unquestioningly accepting all manner of contradictory practices as valuable. Like a Rorschach test we come to see what we want to see in its graphic outline. The façade of clarity that the weasel word generates is something that we must not hesitate to crack.

Almost two decades ago, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner saw in the advent of the internet a new age of what Guy Debord and the Situationist International had earlier critiqued as ‘spectacle’. Where Debord et al had, following Marx, sought to resist a society of consumers passively in thrall to the rei ed spectacle of mass media and culture, Best and Kellner argued that the current formation of spectacle has successfully incorporated a practice of passive interaction on a ‘mega’ scale. Given the developments of the last two decades in aesthetic theory, practice and policy, I argue that this situation has only deepened to a state where we can now witness Mega-Spectacles of Engagement. This critique is not a call for a return to a classical aesthetic of cool detachment. Rather it is an attempt to avoid shallow engagement.

We must not be naïve about ‘engagement’. It is not a panacea for society’s ills in modernity. In the warp and weft of ‘engagement’ we should also remember there is the suggestion of a battle. This reminds us that some ‘engagements’ can be catastrophic. The material scars of aesthetic ‘engagement’ range from the annotations on a well-read text to the erosion of a public statue through acid rain, from fan fiction to the literal appropriation of everyday objects, to the ideological instrumentalisation of art for institutional ends. ‘Engagement’ should thus be among the most marked of our dictionary of art terms.

This loaded term and its synonyms: participation, involvement, interactivity etc., disguise an agenda. That agenda is encapsulated in one of the greatest problems facing art today, namely: measurement. By the problem of measurement, I do not mean that we are missing a ruler or criteria to apply to artworks but, rather, that we are increasingly channelled into a single-minded assessment approach that blinkers our reflection on, and understanding of, art. This façade of measurability requires artists, educators and administrators alike to twist their language weasel-like to justify practice in terms of deliverables, outputs and impact.

At stake in the discourse of ‘engagement’ is justification – and increasingly that has come to mean a narrow economic justification – for art. We are evermore asked to consider art in terms of the labour it provides. When we as artists, educators and administrators ask: what does the work do?, we are increasingly asking what labour the work does. The purpose, impact, effect and utility of art are thus compressed into the ambiguous term ‘engagement’. If the work is engaged in labour, manual or intellectual, it behoves us to address the accompanying history and politics. In post-crash Ireland that perspective means considering what employment the art will bring. This is clearly a lame approach to art.

Where ‘cool aesthetic detachment’ was the sensibility of the modern art gallery, the turn to social engagement, as recognised by theorists such as Nicolas Bourriaud, has in recent decades explicitly sought to activate and employ the beholder. This turn has occurred within a greater shift away from morality and towards politics in contemporary aesthetics.
It is understandable that artists, curators, educators and policy makers, in the spirit of constructivism and in their own different ways, sought to overcome the concrete legacies of Kantian disinterestedness and its associations of cultural elitism. However, we must now recognise the limitations of this ‘engagement’ turn in aesthetics. The move to management in aesthetic theory, practice and policy has almost extinguished the rich moral ideas of beauty and sublimity.

Instead, we see an increased consideration of the purpose of social engagement. Jürgen Habermas, for example, proposes an open, rigorous debate, grounded in reason and a spirit of disinterestedness, aiming towards a common consensual good. In contrast, Jacques Rancière regards the political subject as brought into being through acts of ‘dissensus’ that disrupt the sensible order. Chantal Mouffe argues that a certain degree of ‘conflictual consensus’ is an essential element to managing and creating a healthy democratic public space. She thus argues for ‘a common symbolic framework’ that allows ‘room for disagreement’.

The ideology of engagement allows for artistic practice across this spectrum of consensus to dissensus. Socially- engaged artists such as Suzanne Lacy, Rikrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick explicitly prioritise the audience’s participation in the artwork, if not the artwork itself, as a means to ameliorate social ills. The work of Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschorn, however, deliberately produces discomfort and unease rather than conviviality or appeasement. In each case, the spectacle of the artwork is incomplete without the participant.

As something that might fight the alienation of the modern artwork and gallery, ‘engagement’ has come to replace ‘emancipation’ as the goal of art, not to mention politics. Where emancipation was equally vague, it at least suggested a project that could be conceived of and directed toward a better future. ‘Engagement’ seeks simply to activate but to no purpose. ‘Engagement’ is the end in itself. Employment for employment’s sake. ‘Engagement’ appeals to the modern economist who can devise means to tabulate its ever-increasing trade and conceive of a Gross National Engagement.

However, truly prosocial art and aesthetic sensibility must aspire to more than economic growth. Nowhere has the language of managed engagement been so visible than the London Olympics of 2012. Its Cultural Olympiad was officially assessed as providing “43.4 million public engagement experiences”. Engagement was calculated as a combination of attendance and participation. Yet, as Robert Hewison notes when reflecting on such apparent and fleeting success, “Jerusalem remains on the drawing board”.1

Like other weasel words, such as ‘effective’, ‘efficient’ and ‘support’, it is precisely the hollowness of the term ‘engagement’ that makes it so appealing. Its deployment is often strategically vague. In its abstruse use, it deceives and eludes responsibility. By eliding tangible quantitative and qualitative metrics, the vague language of ‘engagement’ commits a double crime. Not content with an approach to aesthetics and art that frames experience in terms of measureables, it hedges on the value and power of art. If you commit to the language of ‘engagement’ then there is a responsibility to specify what that entails. This double obfuscating contortion marks ‘engagement’ as the weasel’s weasel. The atmosphere of cynicism that accompanies claims of ‘engagement’ is, I suspect, a sign that this is something that the public and practitioners alike inherently recognise.

‘Engagement’ is appealing to the artist as it suggests an audience. But the suggested audience is not an audience. There is a risk that when the artwork, like the classroom, is conceived as democracy laboratory premised on ‘engagement’, that we think of such spaces as democracy substitutes and abandon other aesthetic virtues such as beauty, sublimity, veracity and profundity. ‘Engagement’ is particularly appealing to the third-level trained artist, informed by their postmodern readings that the author is to be challenged and of the critical, social function of art. Yet, social authorship as it is so often conceived, resorts to the anonymous authority of ‘engagement’ as art’s sole defining style. ‘Engagement’ can no more be a style than listening, reading or thinking can be. ‘Engagement’, when claimed, must be specified and elucidated in formal terms.

‘Engagement’ is appealing to the arts administrator as it suggests a way to manage and account for the aesthetic experience of the public/masses/tax-payer. It can be crudely measured in scores such as footfall and tickets sales. Such tabulations are important, but there is an increasing tendency to con ate presence with ‘engagement’. The presence of a white cube as a ‘neutral space’ for exhibiting is a Eurocentric standardisation that writers such as Peter Weibel have called for us to transcend. Museums in today’s global art world are akin to those ancient colonising city states of Greece. So called ‘peripheries’ are to be ‘engaged’ as emerging markets. The expansion of the global cultural industrial complex sees all territories outside the Western metropolis as Magna Graecia, a place to be settled. Charlotte Bydler, for example, sees such colonial globalisation in the expansion of the biennale format.

‘Engagement’ is appealing to educators as it allows them to reconcile the alienation of contemporary education with constructivist-sounding language. ‘Engagement’ points to a learner that is actively paying attention. Attendance, however, as every teacher knows, is not ‘engagement’. It is a disservice to limit the exchange between teacher and learner to a frame of ‘engagement’. This applies to both human and non-human teachers. The interpretive tasks of education require us to go beyond mere ‘engagement’.

‘Engagement’, of course, also denotes a promise and an obligation. We could see this as a promise between artist and beholder or vice versa or both. There is risk in art, and this risk requires trust that cuts both ways. Where there is no trust in either artist or beholder, ‘engagement’ will remain shallow. As with art, so too the study of art. As with practice and policy, theory must attack the most egregious uses of ‘engagement’.

We do a disservice to Mega-Spectacles such as Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (2003–), Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (2014) and Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here (2016) if our only measures of assessment are a crude calculation of attendance plus participation.

Given their privileged position, students have an obligation to thoroughly research and assess the terms of ‘engagement’ at play in contemporary art. The study of the eld of ‘engaged art’ is a discipline in the process of developing its glossary. There is thus a demand to wade through the verbiage of ‘engagement’ in the service of constructing the discipline’s lexicon. Foremost amongst the challenges for this academic study will be, I argue, to develop taxonomies and typologies of ‘engagement’. Specifically, this entails interrogating so-called ‘engaged art’ with the following questions:

What counts as ‘engagement’?
What counts as ‘good engagement’?
What are the institutional limits of ‘engagement’?
How is ‘engagement’ managed and measured?
What is meant by social?
What is the role of the artist/professional/mediator/technology in structuring ‘engagement’?

These are but an initial collection of questions that students of socially-engaged art practice must not shy away from. Furthermore, as those with qualifications in the field students must recognise, they will be likely to assume the managerial role of curator of engagement. If that well-worn debate between Claire Bishop and Grant Kester (begun in 2006) should stand for anything, let it be a reminder about the terms of engagement in the politics and curation of socially-engaged arts practice.

Bishop claims that effective critique is best enacted through a leader or author figure, like a curator. As a result, the idea of the creator of the work as autonomous is maintained, the passivity of the viewer remains and the cardinal nature of the piece is unchanged because of being experienced. Kester, however, is willing to accord a more radical role to the collective. Regarding the reductivist approach to the collective witnessed in Bishop as an abdication of the political force of the collective, Kester is quick to emphasise the “organised political resistance” available through collectives. In Kester’s approach, the curator, the spectator and the artist are only effects of the collective. Emancipation and engagement, then, if they are to be accorded in terms of aesthetic practice, need to be seen in terms of concepts such as communal and collective action. This is a debate that clearly remains relevant.


It is productive to conceive of words as drugs (pharmakon). The dangerous discourse of ‘engagement’ we have seen is akin to an addictive drug. Like any drug there are beneficent and maleficent uses of ‘engagement’. It is thus not a term to be singularly privileged or ostracised. Rather it is a term to be approached with caution. This caution must ask: is ‘engagement’ being invoked solely as a box-ticking exercise or is there something substantial at play?

Much ink has recently been spilled over the new ‘attention economy’. Anxiety about the effect of new technologies on our memory however is not a new concern. As far back as Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates worried about the impact of writing on memory. It is clear however that that the digital does not herald an age of extreme disengagement, as those who seek to berate millennials for being ‘engrossed in their smartphones’ would have us believe. Rather it marks a new stage for ‘engagement’ in all its forms, from shallow to deep. Digital platforms, in offering repeated viewing, opportunities for comment and production, are undoubtedly the terra incognita of our time and socially-engaged art practice must not hesitate to explore. The challenge is to inculcate a cultural and critical policy that deepens not simply the language of ‘engagement’ but the nuanced understanding of its rhetorical function.

To be critical of the language of ‘engagement’ is not to pine for a return to cool aesthetic detachment. There remains after all much to value in the aesthetics of ‘engagement’. That value must be deep, sustained and exhaustive. If its embrace means crushing the work of art so be it. That is a risk worth taking.

While I have necessarily focused on the male cent aspects of this term there is of course beneficent potential to the use of the language of ‘engagement’. What George Lipsitz might call “strategic anti-essentialism” remains available insofar as there remains the possibility for ‘engagement’ to be deployed in order to resist these imposed cultural norms. My hunch is that this resistance may entail the firm and deep accounting, cataloguing and listing of anti-economical measurables as a rhetorical strategy. That is, however, for socially-engaged arts practitioners to negotiate and for students of the discipline to research. In both cases, shallow ‘engagement’ and its surrogate forms must be recognised and resisted. To rework an old maxim attributed to John Muir, what is needed is not blind opposition to ‘engagement’, but opposition to blind ‘engagement’. We must not study the term in the pursuit of purity but rather in the search for a deeper understanding of the word and its contextual use.

Given that one of the five pillars of Ireland’s current arts and cultural policy (Éire Ildánach/Creative Ireland 2017–2022) seeks to “lead the engagement of citizens with our arts and culture”, this is an idea of our time. As an arts community, and specifically as students of socially-engaged arts practice, we must be wary as we head into this initiative of Creative Ireland. This means attending to the details of its Mega-Spectacles of Engagement. Engagement is a voluntary activity and it is futile and dangerous to demand it and to demand to lead it. Cruinniú na Cásca, an annual culture day of talks, workshops and performances, is the first of Creative Ireland’s programme of events. It will be revealing to see if this too is assessed in so-called ‘public engagement experiences’.



1 Robert Hewison, Robert, Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain (London: Verso, 2014) 139.


Best, Steven and Kellner, ‘Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle’ in SubStance 28, no. 3, (1999), 129–156.

Bishop, Claire, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’, Artforum (February 2006), 178-183.

Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses Du Reel, 2002).

Bydler, Charlotte, Global Artworld, Inc.; On the Globalization of Contemporary Art (Sweden, Uppsala: University Press, 2004).,

Debord, Guy, The Society of Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1996 [1967]).
Garcia, Beatriz, ‘London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Evaluation: Final Report’ (Liverpool: Liverpool and John Moores Universities, 2013).

Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, tr. and ed. Hackforth, Reginald (Cambridge: Polity, 1962).

Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).
Hewison, Robert, Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain (London: Verso, 2014).

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, tr. Paul Guyer and Eric Mathews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Kester, Grant H., Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (California: University of California Press, 2004). Lipsitz, George, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmoderism, and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994).