Recently, I have had a few experiences that have encouraged my thinking on how a socially-engaged art project, or any experiential artwork that actively facilitates and engenders interactions among its participants or with the work itself, aligns with theoretical educational models. As the definitions of social practice continue to expand, even as the term itself shifts (or perhaps becomes dilute and impractical), many projects that I may have considered “art education” a few years ago have fallen under that umbrella and I find myself interrogating why.  This month, as I have been training student educators in constructivist educational techniques as preparation for their giving tours in the museum, I have simultaneously been documenting the conclusions of seven social practice art projects wrapping up in Philadelphia as part of the Asian Arts Initiative’s inaugural Social Practice Lab. Though I don’t have room here to go into all of the details of the many disparate and complex projects, artists, organizational roles and neighborhood contexts (an essay and case studies are forthcoming), sufficed to say it has been a uniquely comparative experience to trace such different projects from conception to completion over the past two years.

I have learned on the ground, as George Hein tells us in his chapter on educational theory in his book Learning in the Museum, that not all experience is educational; nor is every artistic experience transformative or enlightening. But often, experiences that are novel and rich with ideas have an educational “potential” and therefore a position on how we acquire knowledge and what that body of knowledge is. Therefore it is common sense and many participants intuitively understand that experiential artworks “follow some pattern, adhere to some theory, and reflect the beliefs of the people involved and the larger culture in which they are embedded.” (Hein, 15)

Social practice works fall into the category of projects with educational potential, whether their embedded positions on the acquisition of knowledge are actively considered and reproduced in the making of the works–or not. Hein urges us to be deliberate about our positions on a theory of knowledge (what an epistemology is, and what is the nature of knowing) as well as a theory of learning (how people acquire knowledge) in any situation with an educational potential, and especially one tied to a desire for positive change.

Then, Hein explains, practitioners must begin to enact a theory of pedagogy, or how to actively facilitate for others the acquisition of knowledge that will contribute to that change.  Artists must be incredibly aware of their context, and specifically, how that very unique context colors their reactions to, treatment of, and decisions made about their participants.

Even the artist that professes no expectation at all, that resists aiding participants in decisions, that desires no certain outcome (i.e. I’m going to throw all of this conceptually-laden, experiential stuff at you and see what happens, and there is no wrong answer) is taking a stance, in that case one that falls to a more constructivist pole, rather than the opposite position of didacticism. It is problematic that so often personal expectation, and how that effects embedded theories of knowledge and learning, is not adequately considered in art.


On the side of  institutions, particularly museums, art spaces, and funding entities, we run into conflict when we consider the impact of social practice. We ask questions like “what were the goals, what was the artist’s intent, how do we measure impact?” without acknowledging our own assumptions about epistemology and learning evident in that approach. So we struggle over the unattainability of defining and then quantifying these slippery metrics. I never knew what bothered me about this kind of evaluation process, and I realize that it is the embedded assumption of a realist theory of knowledge within the art world infrastructure as a whole. Hein describes realist theories that “claim that the ‘real’ world [essential truth] exists out there, independent of any ideas about it that humans may have,” with Plato as a paragon of the classic realist position. Though many cultural producers I know (myself included) would consider ourselves on an opposite pole from Plato (as the critical and contextual thinkers that we like to be) artists are not immune from clinging to essential truths. We cloak this tendency in terms of intentionality (whether or not the reactions measured up to the artist’s goals for what would happen) and then rationalize the value of what did happen according to an acceptable moral or conceptual benchmark.

But in this process, you end up with a lot of “I learned a lot” and “we had unexpected success” and “this was a blessing in disguise” and the one I love the most; “we learned by embracing failure.” Even this language of failure and success and must be interrogated – it reveals our deeply engrained assumption of knowledge as external truth. It underscores the notion that there is some right answer, or at least some expected conclusion, and that we strive towards breaking down into specific steps the essential principles of success. Like a recipe, we expect scalability and replication by others and on a larger scale. Perhaps this resonates with the Fordist model of mass production, and the factory model of education (see Sir Ken Robinson‘s Changing Education Paradigms talk).  This realist position is opposed by the other end of the continuum, the idealist end, which states that all notion of truth is constructed in the mind of the learner, as a result of the learner’s cognitive schema, or unique set of contexts and experiences.

When Popular Science recently got rid of its comments section after articles (saying it was “bad for science”), it stirred up a lot of mixed reactions, and serves as another demonstration of how engrained realist theories of knowledge are. More modern theories of realist epistemology as described by Osborne (1996) are softer than Plato’s, acknowledging the malleability of human ideas, but maintain a belief in objective fact. As explained by Hein: “Osborne argues that it makes no sense to consider scientific knowledge as only constructed by individual minds, since scientific knowledge must correspond to the behavior of “real” objects in the world.” This distinguishes a “stable body of objects of scientific investigation” (or objective, fact-based knowledge) as distinct from constantly shifting theoretical constructs (which might be considered subjective knowledge, or the realm of human ideation).

The idealist view according to Hein, states that “knowledge exists only in the minds of people and does not necessarily correspond to anything ‘out there’ in nature. There can be no ideas, no generalizations, no ‘laws of nature’ except in the minds of people who invent and hold these views.” (17) Conceptually, this is what most artists I know and respect regard as their epistemology. Artists are trained in school to question context, to critique what they think they know, to investigate and experiment. But they struggle against an infrastructure that values a realist construction of knowledge, whether that truth be the artist’s intention, or a moral vision of what is right. These are both arenas that critics of social practice buck against, and then begin insisting that the art be judged on its aesthetics rather than its intention to do good (for if art is all judged by its capacity for social amelioration, then there can be no bad art. Meanwhile, art must be categorized as good or bad according to its existential aesthetic qualities, despite the opacity of what that means to individual critics, curators, or collectors).

In the art world, we are at war between these epistemological poles.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen curators baffled when asked to explain to a non-art viewing member of the public why some artwork is considered more valuable (culturally or financially) over some other artwork, because often, they can’t. Yet the curator will insist that there is a shared history, DNA, lineage and background that informs them of an essential value (or lack of value) attributed to an artwork. This is realist at heart, no matter how it is rationalized, and no matter how open cultural professionals are to different interpretations; it suggests that there is an appropriate set of interpretations, and less appropriate ones.

As experiential art trends to the active, the interactive, the participatory we may confuse an active approach with an idealist epistemology. Constructivism as an educational model, which combines active learning methodologies with the notion that knowledge is constructed by the learner, seems aligned with artistic praxis. But though we may think that socially-engaged art projects are constructivist by their very nature, many are not. In fact, I feel that the majority conform to what Hein dubs the “discovery learning” model, which is experiential and active in nature, but with a specific (stated or unstated) outcome in mind. Hein points out its major flaw; that despite its “hands-on” nature, it can barely be distinguished from didacticism. If there is a certain outcome in mind, then the activity is constructed to support that outcome. Hein asks “can an ‘experiment’ be an experiment if there is no chance of getting any but the correct results? … we cannot claim that someone has discovered something when there was no chance for error. Being able NOT to discover the appropriate conclusion would seem to be a necessary minimum condition to make discovery learning different from didactic, expository education in any subject.” I suppose I like artworks that have purpose and structure, but are very, very open-ended as to their direction; that are actively co-produced. Most works that are called “social practice” simply are not so radically open — they aim to produce certain results.

Ultimately, the best argument for embracing constructivism is that constructivism is inevitable. In art especially, we know that exposure to any set of phenomena leads people to completely different conclusions.

So why even consider educational models in art (or teach at all, for that matter)?

Perhaps change occurs in the way that knowledge is approached, and in the self-awareness of the learner and how she acquires knowledge. Perhaps a well-considered and tactical pedagogy can facilitate the construction of strategies for specific groups and contexts that can help them effectively solve problems in groups, to overcome challenges, to innovate. This active process leads to movements, and catalyzes action. This shifts rather than reproduces culture. I have written previously about this as co-production, enacting these strategies to determine, understand, and address the challenges facing different sectors of society.

Social practice projects are an active part of that endeavor, and therefore have high stakes for human relationships. They cannot be divorced from their educational position in society, and in social action.

**Thanks to  Zoe Silverman for conversation about constructivism and for pointing me towards Hein.