Why the social impact of your art is irrelevant

Have you ever wondered about those curatorial briefs that nominate ‘social impact’ in their selection criteria?

It’s a handle applied to artworks to make them easier to deal with, a simple shortcut to appraising a work : good – has social impact, bad – no social impact. But social impact and social comment are not the same, and they are both independent of quality. While it may be reasonable to say that one of the roles of art is that it has a social impact, (as all artworks reflect and comment on the culture from which they arise) to judge a work by social impact is a nonsense, as it is most likely neither evident nor quantifiable. Yet this a key curatorial practice in contemporary art and a measuring stick of many a selection committee who are bullied by funding bodies into making exhorbitant claims about the utility of their exhibitions.

So what is the difference between work that has social impact and that which has a social comment?

'Dedham Lock and Mill' 1822 by John Constable
‘Dedham Lock and Mill’ 1822 by John Constable

Dickens’s writing (to take a literary example) would have to be a case of both. Constable’s painting a case of the former. DEDHAM LOCK AND MILL 1818 (above) was, at the time a picture of the countryside in which Constable was raised. The machinery of trade is literally foregrounded not out of a sense of injustice, but because “the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.” Constable was not from the upper class, as were many of his colleagues at the Royal Academy. His was a mercantile upbringing and his familiarity with and love of his local industry and local area drive his pictures. Perhaps it is hard now to realise the disdain that was attached to trade at that time, as now our heroes are those who succeed at business. Landscape painting was then dedicated to idealised forms, depicting humanity at one with nature in a beautiful world, as we see in the work of CLAUDE LORRAINE. How different it was to love and paint actual landscape with industrial motifs with a technique far from ‘finished’.

So what was the social impact of Constable’s work? At the time it appeared to be nil. He struggled to get his work exhibited, was finally elected to the Acadamy at the age of 52, and sold only 20 paintings in his home country during his lifetime. His huge impact on the history of art, particularly the Barbizon school, is not my subject here. If we take just the one thread of social impact, it is clear in retrospect that Constable’s art changed the way people saw trade, and the way they saw landscape. If his works appear now to the modern eye as charming, rustic images, this is because he has convinced us. His contemporaries, thought the technique rough and the subject matter ignominious.
To come closer to our own time, ANDY WARHOL’S social impact was to wrench the values of beauty from the realm of fine art and transfer them to the commercial world. His ironic celebration of the ordinary, which began with DUCHAMP, has given us permission to both love and disdain a culture awash with popular imagery.

Social comment is of an entirely different nature.

An artwork may or may not have one, and it is entirely independent of the quality of the work. A poor quality artwork may have a very strong social comment. I’m sure I don’t need to give you examples. Or a good quality artwork may have a very dubious social comment.

‘Death of Marat’ Jacques Louis David 1793

David’s Death of Marat 1793 pictured above (click here for Marat’s story or Napoleon Crossing the Alps come to mind. Or sometimes artistic quality and social comment are a perfectly formed whole as in Hogarth’s A RAKE’S PROGRESS or Goya’s deeply affecting LOS CAPRICHOS. Social comment, not impact is what committees are actually looking for and the tacit understanding is that it will be socially acceptable comment. And here I cannot put it better than Peter Timms has done in What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art: “Any artist that wants to to ‘challenge’ or ‘disturb’ must be prepared to do so in inverted commas, so to speak: to play the game according to the rules. Sponsors, promoters, government funding agencies, galleries and museums and, of course, the media all expect, even demand, some semblance of revolt some supposed challenge to accepted ideas, even if there is generally no clear idea of what those ‘accepted ideas’ might be. They expect artists to play the role of court jester, just so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone important or disrupt the smooth wheels of commerce.” This kind of request for social comment comes very close to commissioning propaganda, especially when the committee is government funded. However it does make curatorial decisions simpler.

So what social impact does your work have? You will probably not be around long enough to find out.

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