The Artist as Social Worker Vs. The Artist as Social Wanker

The Artist as Social Worker Vs. The Artist as Social Wanker Anthony Schrag

In the build up to With For About we though we would share a little provocation from one of the participants Anthony Schrag.

The article 'The Artist as Social Worker Vs. The Artist as Social Wanker' was first published by Anthony Schrag on 28 November 2013 and can be found in its entirity here.

A recent conversation with a student doing her dissertation on ‘social betterment through art’ has led me to realise I need to clarify my position on the “artist as social worker” praxis. When one’s practice involves working with people, this becomes a persistent concern – how and why are we interacting with the public and to what end? It is a concern that pertains to the instrumentalisation of art and requires an exploration of the semantics of the terms that grow out of the practice of ‘participatory art:’ When we choose to work with people, are we a socially engaged artist? A community artist? A community-engaged artist? A community-based artist? Someone with a social practice? A dialogical practice? A relational practice? A participatory artist? An activist artist? A public artist? Someone who does public art? Or someone who just works with other people? Each of these terms will connote a different relationship with the public with different desired outcomes and while I would reject a simplification and elision of these terms into a single monolithic and formal practice, I similarly reject the lack of clarity that comes when these terms are used interchangeably.  This is particularly apparent in the diversity of intent – especially relating to the ‘betterment’ agenda –  that is revealed when interacting other practitioners within the participatory realm. We may all be working with people, but we all seem to be doing it very differently – and for very different reasons.

As a practice, working with people is still relatively nascent and forming: there are no overarching formal bodies or collective agreements on the specific definitions of the sub-genres of the practice. Therefore, before I discuss the ‘social betterment through art’ concern, it is important that I provide my own distinctions of the above terms.

While there are variations and additional verbs to clarify meanings (ie, community-based vs community engaged: one signifying a locational practice and the other signifying an engagement with from an external body) broadly, the main terms in use are: community arts, activism art, socially engaged art, dialogic art, relational art, public art. I have excluded ‘participatory’ practices in this list of definitions as this seems to be the over-arching terminology that defines the practice as a whole, in the same way that ‘painting’ incorporates the many different type of paintings. Below, I give a brief description of each of thee sub-genres and have also included an web-based example after each.


  1. Community arts: an ‘older’ form of a participatory practice, this way of working came to the fore in the 70s and 80s as a practice rooted in the artist working in collaboration with communities, usually in a disadvantaged state (poverty, substance abuse etc) and with whom artists “sought to empower though participatory creative practice.” (Bishop, 2012, P 177) It often resulted in community-based and community-constructed objects – ie, murals/mosaics.
  2. Socially engaged art: aligns itself to a social betterment like community arts, but is also concerned with the systems that sustain community oppression. However, it is less concerned with direct political action (like activism art below) and more to a commitment to community change and development via (political) consciousness raising. It often, though not necessarily, results in public events authored by the artist, in collaboration with participants.
  3. Activism art: aligned with leftist politics and dedicated to the betterment of participants via a critique of oppressive (capitalist) regimes, with a primary concern being direct intervention into power structures and is primarily event-based .
  4. Dialogic: this way of working is fundamentally concerned with the ethics of working with a public that is not an ‘art audience’ and avoiding the paternalism which might be engendered via an ‘outsider’ working within a community that is not his/her own. It assumes the power structures to be more egalitarian between the artist and the participant, where both can be influenced by the other and often results in a plethora of outputs, both gallery based and public.
  5. Relational: a practice described by Nicolas Bourriaud that was based within the (conceptual/physical) structures of art institutions, but that sought new ways of engaging with publics other than with object-base works. The events were primarily structural and/or events-based, and primarily within institutional frameworks – ie, Gallery constructs
  6. Public Art: works that are funded or approved by public bodies, usually sculptural or formal, that iterates a public concern and/or interest and primarily results in objects places in public.

A further breakdown of these terms is necessary to discuss the intent of each of these works, and this can be illustrated by the diagram below that features the above terms and their ‘domain.’ By domain, I mean that which gives the work its meaning; the frame through which the work’s presence in this world is justified. As above, this does not constitute a binding or rigid structure, but how I am defining this practice for my own purposes:


Within the diagram, the definitions are clustered into pairs, each pair sitting into one of three spheres: institutional, political or social practice. Within the Institutional sphere, the working processes – relational and public art – defer to the institutions of power that define the works intention: Public art is funded and ordained by public bodies and Relational works are concerned with new types of (public) relationships within the art galleries/museums. Both defaults to the power of the authority that funds/organises them, and therefore the intent of their work is to recapitulate and reinforce that power, either of the public institution (ie, local government) or to the institution of art (museum/gallery). The general mood of these works are serious and deferential.

The Social Practice sphere illustrates that both Socially Engaged art and Community art defer to the community and their needs and desires. The works do not necessarily therefore contain any criticality of the systems that sustain the social sphere, but instead work from within those systems and the intent is to sustain a status quo – and defer to the construction of – community. The general sentiment of these works are nice and convivial.

The Political sphere defers to a criticality via Activism art and Dialogical artworks. The intent within them is to critique the politics that sustain oppression via either direct action (activism) or exploring a mutual line of inquiry between artists and participants which initiates a transformation for those engaged (dialogic). While not wholly replicating Grant Kester’s Dialogical Aesthetics, Dialogic intent is similar in that that the works created aim to find a consensual meeting point that can transform society into a more egalitarian condition. The general mood of these political works is politically ‘charged’

There are two last clarifications that should be discussed in regards to these definitions. Firstly, two more spheres of intent should be placed overlapping the whole diagram – they cannot be represented visually, as they are both the substrate on which these circles are places and can be present (and/or absent) in all spheres: these circles represent education and participation.


These two exist in constant tension, and are the very fabric of the question of intent when working with people: does an artist/institution/community want to engage in a ‘participatory’ project or and ‘education’ project? In latter – education – is a process of ‘knowing/unknowing;’ a power system of knowledge, and the assimilation of ‘those who don’t participate’ into ‘normal’ structures via hierarchies such as schools and correctional facilities (i.e., prisons) into ‘good citizens’. The former – participation – suggests a more collaborative and egalitarian process that has no premeditated outcomes. While the two are often collapsed, and complexly interwoven – no doubt participation involves some education and vice versa – the clarification of whether a project is educational or participatory will reveal its intent either as a form of social engineering to “construct civic identities” amenable to the sate, or if it is a true collaborative approach that is based on a dialogic, relational model with a mutual, shared and common inquiry.

Lastly, I would add a final term that is not situated within the diagram, but like the education/participation praxis, can occur across the different spheres, and specifically at the intersections of the different forms of practice. This term is ‘conflictual participatory practice’ or an agonistic approach. I would suggest this represents a new way of thinking through this type of participatory practice that can clarify intent and promote new ways of working. Agonism art derives from Chantal Mouffe and her understandings of an agonistic approach to both politics and philosophy. It is an approach which critiques power, but does so not as a binary and oppositional enemy, but as an adversary: something/someone ultimately aiming for the same goal, but whose utopias may very well collide. As a method of working, it closely aligned to a ‘dialogic’ practice, as above, but frames itself via dialogic disensus (as opposed to consensus) in order to reveal the intent of a project first and foremost, both as content of the work but also in its mode of participation. The general feel of these works are confrontational and uncomfortable.

Additionally, it is important to differentiate between the dialogic intent of an agonistic approach to the dialogic intent of Grant Kester’s Dialogical Aesthetics: agonistic intent is critical of the political, whereas Dialogical Aesthetics default to a criticality of politics – the former is concerned not with manifesting a specific utopia, but unravelling and revealing the political hegemony; the latter is critical of a specific oppressive politics and seeks to create the world in a more egalitarian manner (See for example Conversation Pieces (Kester, 2004) P 69 – 81.) I have illustrated this argument elsewhere, specifically here.

Examples of agonistic art would be: Please Love AustriaThem, and my own work, Legacy of City Arts Projects. It was the objective of these works to explore the intent of ‘institutions,’ or of ‘community,’ or of ‘politics,’ thereby revealing the power dynamics at play within those spheres and it is only through the revelation of those intents can we begin to discuss ‘social betterment through art.’  In other words, once we know what the intent and reason of an artist has for working with people, then we can clarify what is meant by ‘social betterment through art.’ If a work is Relational, betterment can be decoded as deferring to specific kinds of ‘authority’; if it is Social then it can be deigned as assisting and formulating ‘community’ and social bonds; and if ‘Political’ then betterment can be seen as revealing and critiquing power dynamics. If it is a combination of two or more of these spheres – i.e., social and political – then it can be said to be agonistic, and the subsequent opportunity of a multiple perspective gives the work the potential to present a wider critique and insight to notions of ‘social betterment through art.’

I will return to the agonist mode of participatory practice one last time below and explain it further, but for now, through the above clarification, we can begin define what each different type of participatory artist might mean by ‘social betterment.’ Knowing this allows us to decode the works and through what processes we judge them, thereby allowing us to understand the intentions of why an artist might be working with people and for what reasons – this returns us to the ‘artist as social worker’ praxis.

The discussion I had with the student which spawned this text stemmed from the following Grant Kester quote:

Both the community artist and the social worker possess a set of skills (bureaucratic, diagnostic, aesthetic/expressive, and so forth) and have access to public and private funding (through grants writing, official status, and institutional sponsorship) with the goal of bringing about some transformation in the condition of individuals who are presumed to be in need. (Kester, Grant. Aesthetic Evangelists: Conversion and Empowerment in Contemporary Community Art. Afterimage 22, January 1995.)

 Kester’s proposition to collapse the two careers of social work and artist reveals a common conceptualisation of participatory practices in its relation to social betterment, specifically about the artist working with people and how and why he/she does this (and upon whose authority). Kester presents this argument by eliding the Social Worker with that of the Artistbecause of some similarities he sees in what participatory artworks try to do, and what social workers try to do – ie, bringing around transformation to those ‘in need’

My concerns about this collapse are twofold – one is about practicalities and the other is about intention.

Firstly, however, as I (non-prescriptively) defined different types of artists above, and so it would be useful to similarly define the social worker: A Social Worker is someone employed to provide social services (especially to the disadvantaged). (Wordnet) Additionally, the social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. (International Federation of Social Work)

I have highlighted two key words in the above – ‘profession’ and ‘employed’ – as I think these provide a clue to my first concern with Kester’s proposition of the ‘artist as social worker’ which relates to practical issues. A profession suggests a practice with specialised training, formalised schools of thought and education. Similarly the notion of ‘employed’ suggests someone who is part of a larger organisation with structures, hierarchies, institutional policies and various different levels of support. Therefore, to conduct social work requires specialised training, regular funding, inter-agency co-operation, systems of support and guiding policy/theory in order for it to achieve its goal. In contrast, an artist is a single individual or group without social-work training or institutional support or even regularly employed in a structured system, or even indeed, can he/she be said to cohesive identity to help define him/her. So, on a practical level it would be highly problematic to assume the artist could effectively or practically conduct the business of social work without the practical structures surrounding him/her.

Similarly, and regarding my secondary concern of intention, social work is often run out of governmental agencies or funded by them, thereby operating within a public mandate that gives it the ethical framework to act on/with/for such disadvantaged people. (Granted, it is more problematic for my argument that there are wholly private organisations which run aspects of social work, but I would argue these are the exceptions rather than the norm.) An artist, by contrast has no public mandate that justifies him/her to act upon/with/for a public group of people, thus making his/her actions of engaging with them ethically problematic at worst and paternalistic at best.

This is also illustrated by (and a concern of) the institutional intent of art projects within participatory settings in regards to ‘social betterment.’ The social worker operates within an institutional setting whose policy is holistic, and has strategies about how and what needs to be done to achieve their social work goals – it may be different from other social workers and there may be a plethora of perspectives of how to achieve goals, but there are a set of decided upon policies within agencies that guide a social worker’s project. Again, b contrast, an artist (if not working alone) does so from with a gallery/museum context, which has multiple intentions, but primarily is concerned ‘art’ and as such, an artist working on a ‘social betterment’ agenda either becomes a tack-on or an addendum to a wider programme at best, or at worst, an ersatz government employee enacting propaganda via publicly funded art gallery outreach programmes.

If the institution does manage to embed participatory practices effectively – and there are few who have – then this work falls close to the ‘is it art’ vortex, which can be – when done well – incredibly exciting, but when done poorly, can drain one’s reason for living in seconds. The ‘doing it well’ is done via clear intentions and an alignment to criticality via the agonist approach above – but that is for a different article. For now, we’re left with a the concern that the artist (even working with an institution) is a poor substitute for a social worker and it would be dangerous to suggest one could do the other, leading down the instrumentalised path where the artist is the state’s cheaper option to proper and appropriate social work.

I have a last brief point about this concern about collapsing the fields of ‘social work’ and ‘art’ before I conclude with reference to the title of this text. To collapse the fields into one devalues both; it disavows the unique specialisms in each – art’s ability to ask deep and probing questions and social works ability to be wholly committed to social betterment. This does not suggest that the separate worlds can never collide, only that it would be dangerous to as Kester suggests to replace one with the other because they would both be made weaker, not stronger.

So where does this leave us – those artists who work with people? How and why can we discuss ‘social betterment through art’ if it is not via the mantle of social work?

My proposition refers to this text’s title – The Artist As Social Worker Vs. The Artist as a Social Wanker – and alludes to the notion of a conflictual participatory artwork and argues that the artist not be the a benign and ameliorating force for ‘good’ but rather a more aggressive character.

The word wanker in this context stems not from the pejorative for a masturbator, but rather for the uniquely British slang for “a contemptible person.” In a more international context is can refer to a “jerk.”(Wordnet). As I have alluded elsewhere someone who is contemptible is guilty of the offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful to accepted structures authority and order (as in: ‘contempt of court’).

The ‘Social Wanker’ then is the artist who freely employs strategies that are disobedient or disrespectful to systems of order and power. Referring back to the diagram – and keeping the notion of agonism close to hand – this understanding becomes clear when considering the intersecting spheres of intent. For example, a work whose ‘political’ intent is further complicated by the disobedient Social Wanker who disrespectfully adjusts the intent to include the ‘institutional’ or the ‘social’ can, in doing so, reveal much more about the intents and power dynamics at play between and within spheres than staying stoically and benignly in a single and known sphere. In other words, by being disrespectful to specific intents and systems of power, the Social Wanker can provide multiple ways of thinking and be critical of hegemonies, allowing a multiplicity of perspectives and avoiding the recapitulation of the spheres that limit social experience.

The social betterment that this provides allows participants and audiences to break out of the spheres of intent that limit them and offers the potential for transformation – allowing those involved in the project to see the world for what it is and its interactions afresh. I therefore propose the artist interested in social betterment be less of a social worker and more of a Social Wanker. It is only via this mode that true and ethical social betterment can be possible.

(Post Script: My last comment would be to suggest the Social Wanker – like wanking itself – provide a pleasurable experience (be it a pleasure of happiness, of anger, of resistance, of politics, of a nihilistic hate, whatever) as it is only through a provision of rejoicing that the people we are working can be offered an immersive experience which pertains to the very core of their being, and through which their own agency could build to an ejaculation of experience wherein they take the social betterment into their own hands. )

Anthony Schrag