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April 5, 2019 protest by Decolonize This Place at the Whitney Museum, New York NY, over board vice chair

Warren Kanders' ownership of Safariland, a manufacturer of tear gas and other weapons.

The Social Turn of Art Toward Ecology

Anna Chapman, 2021

In this essay I consider the ecologically minded initiatives of the Social Turn, a term coined by art historian Claire Bishop, to denote the emerging shift within the art world toward the social sphere. To begin I will make note of today’s socio-ecological context. To understand changes in the art world, it is important to understand the changes in the world at large. In light of this context I will point out the inadequacies of representational art and the complicity of the art market to appreciate the impetus behind the emerging field of socially engaged art. I will also shed light on some short-comings of environmental art to emphasize, all things considered, what I am most interested in finally pointing out, which is: a socio-ecological orientation within the Social Turn using an intersectional lens to locate matters most pressing. Socio-ecology, as pointed out by TJ Demos, “insists on putting ecology, often thought as a matter of “nature that's out there” and insists on connecting it to the the social, the technical, the political, and the economic and arguing that they can’t be pulled apart.” (1)

Our world is rapidly changing as we accelerate into the era of globalisation. Over the last few decades, a new neo-liberal order has emerged. “Loosely defined, neoliberalism as a political order privileges free trade and open markets, resulting in maximizing the role of the private sector in determining priorities and deemphasizing the role of the public and state’s function in protecting and supporting them.” (Nato Thompson, Living as Form. pp 29) Today political and economic insecurity are pervasive as the social sphere lies in tethers. All this amidst a destabilizing climate. Which, from a systems ecological perspective, can be understood as a direct response to the anthropocentric project of globalization. And quite bewilderingly, the climate shift taking place is indifferent to our fate as a species. Art, being a reflection of culture, is rapidly shifting in light of these matters. But more specifically, why and how?


First let's consider the inadequacies of representational art in today's context. When I say “representational art” I am referring to artwork that objectifies rather than participates in lived experience. That is, art that is static in form, and sell-able at that. It could be said that representational art is made for consumption. There is nothing wrong with this interaction in and of itself (perhaps I make this point clear for my own reconciliation as a painter). But within today’s context.. Houston, we have a problem. 


Art as consumption plays a part in the financialization of the social sphere. While the wealth gap continues to accelerate, the exclusive, high priced market of the art world is beginning to induce widespread disillusionment as its complicity in the perpetuation of socio-economic inequality becomes more apparent. 


As Gregory Sholette suggests in his book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, the art world is imploding on itself and artists (save those very few who are selling art at exorbitant prices) are responding in two ways: (1) the fight for equity within the art world and (2) flight from the art all-together (often toward the social sphere).


Both responses have an activist tendency. Peter Weibel writes, as mentioned in Claire Bishop’s The Social Turn, “Art is emerging as a public space in which the individual can claim the promises of constitutional and state democracy. Activism may be the first new art form of the twenty-first century.” And, as Guy Debord presses, (quoted again from Bishop’s text) participatory art is important because “it rehumanizes a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production. Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire… the artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps - however small - to repair the social bond.” (The Social Turn, pp 11)


Considering the fight for equity within the art world, I offer the example of Decolonize This Place, an action-oriented movement mobilizing around critical issues such as Indigenous struggles, Black liberation, the freedom of Palestine, workers rights, de-gentrification and the dismantle of patriarchy. They have organized at major museums, such as the Whitney in New York City. 


For those that are fleeing the art world all-together, they are doing so in large part because they feel ostracized and/or unrepresented by the elite art world and leave it behind for financial reasons as well as ethical. It is a growing phenomenon for governments to withdraw funding from the social sphere and dangle grant money like carrots for artists, educators, and community organizers to step in. 


As Nato Thompson suggests in his introductory text to Living as Form (a survey of socially engaged art of the last 20 years), this shift is not necessarily a new art movement, but rather a new social order that emphasizes participation, challenges power, and spans disciplines (pp 19). And the point is not to destroy art, but exercise the capacity for art to blur into the everyday. To participate in life. (pp 26) Maybe art is becoming the place to learn civics. 


As the socio-political systems in place fail to meet people’s needs amidst the ever-encroaching reality of a destabilizing climate, a critical need for self-determined sociality grows. Artists are turning their attention toward community solidarity issues such as food security, clothing, education, and housing. It's important to note, though, that for historically marginalized peoples such as the First Nations peoples and African Americans in the United States, the precariousness of today is nothing new, nor is organization around mutual aid. Agriculture, for instance, plays a key role in self-determined sociality. Historically, consider the example of the Black Panther Party’s strategic focus on food security in the fight for social justice. And contemporarily, the example of Soul Fire Farm: an “Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system.”(3) Human beings are dependent upon the non-human world for survival. The encroaching destabilization of climate will be shaking us all, though not equally. Understanding that our fate is inextricably bound to the fate of our environment is nothing new to most, if not all, indigenous peoples. The industrial world, however, is just catching up in time to see more clearly its trespasses. 


Artists in the Western canon have been calling attention to the natural world for decades, perhaps sensitive to where things are/were heading. Yet in Chapter 1, The Art and Politics of Sustainability, of his book Decolonizing Nature, TJ Demos problematizes examples of environmental art. A key attribute of the shortcomings Demos points out is the failure to recognize and address the intersection of the social, the political, and the ecological. This is likewise a common shortcoming of environmental movements outside the art world. That is, the failure to acknowledge environmental racism. When we hear corporations or governments using the term “sustainable” to mobilize the project of Green Capitalism, it is imperative to ask “Sustainable for who?”. TJ Demos justly points out that to locate the most pressing matters at hand, we must look through an intersectional lens at the socioecological factors at play in a given context, be it local or global. Yet a further common shortcoming: environmental art of the last few decades often upholds a nature v. culture binary that fails to queer the boundaries between human and non-human, casting the “environment” as something outside of human culture. This binary is indicative of the exploitative perspective at the root of pervasive socio-ecological degradation.


It is imperative moving forward, for our survival as a species in the precarious times ahead, that we develop the ability to prioritize crises using a socio-ecological lens. This ability to sift out matters most pressing is one that will likely have to be realized and demanded by the people in face of corporate power. It makes sense that artists have and will continue to play a key role in doing so as they are functionally culture’s compass helping us locate meaning. As is pointed out in the collection of essays in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Suzanne Lacy, 1995), art is being redefined ‘not primarily as a product but as a process of value-finding, a set of philosophies, an ethical action.’ (The Social Turn, pp 23)


(1) Demos, TJ. “The Politics and Aesthetics of Climate Emergency. А Lecture by T. J. Demos” YouTube, uploaded by GARAGEMCA, 4 October, 2019,


(2) Screen shot from the website of Decolonize This Place, 9 Weeks of Art & Action page,



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