Art & Social Justice Working Group
Vera List Center for Art and Politics

Conflict no. 5

'Do-Gooding' and Criticality

Artists and other cultural workers working at the intersection of art and social justice are compelled to use art to engage in and question the world, and perhaps actualize change. This is important work—art has the capacity to shift our sense of what is possible, to model or prototype new ideas, and to enable us to see intractable problems differently. Shifting our sense of what's possible is also audacious, even arrogant work that challenges humanitarians and creators to address tough questions. One of the most important aspects of artistic production is the way it engenders critical discourse. The intentions, levels of engagement, process, and impact of art driven by social goals are therefore open to such critique. "Doing good" is often seen as lacking criticality, as a mixture of arrogance and naivete. At the same time, criticality implies a distance that cultural workers with a social justice agenda might perceive as a luxury. As artists, curators, and cultural producers, we are implicated in the particular conditions we are working in, and at the same time our roles are inherently reflective, synthesizing, and critical. This is further complicated by political agency: both the individual agency of artists and participants, but also the agency of art within a global context. How are we to manage this difficult position of being implicated, while also retaining a sense of critical distance?

This is an important moment to question our work and the conditions that shape both its creation and consumption. What is the relationship between the unique contribution of art, and its intention, and is there a unique contribution art can make? How does political agency influence this debate? How are projects implicated by greater structural conditions, and how can we maintain both critical distance and true commitment? Can we leverage ongoing critical reflection to aid in navigating our work through this difficult terrain? What does our dual role as insider and outsider mean in the larger context? What tactics (such as listening, collaboration) do we bring to this work? Is intention visible, or relevant, and if so, to what good?


Welcome to the Art & Social Justice Working Group.


The purpose of the Art + Social Justice Working Group is to examine core conflicts that propel, enrich, and complicate artistic efforts that assume agency to enact social change. In this examination the group expects to foster clarity around both terminology and effective artistic and curatorial practice.

This site is home to the developing dialogue of glossary terms for describing this work and strategies for enacting it.

Core Conflicts

The ASJWG is organized around conflicts central to current conversations and practice in socially and politically engaged art. The six initial conflicts include: Accountability: Artist, Curator, Institution, Funder; Authorship, Collective and Other; Audience, Participation, Spectatorship, Modes of Address; Aesthetics and Usefulness; Local and Global, Specific and General; and Now and Forever: Do Gooding, Criticality, Oppositional.

Case Study

Each conflict is grounded in a case study to provide context about a specific project and artist's practice. For example, the first conflict Accountability: Artist, Curator, Institution, Funder begins with Thomas Hirshhorn's Gramsci Monument as a case study to launch a larger dialogue.


Writing from artists, scholars, community members, curators, and others augment conversation about each conflict. You are encouraged to add your own favorites to further the conversation.

Glossary Terms

These key terms and concepts evolve out of the conflict and case study. There is no single official definition, rather many perspectives are aggregated here about each glossary term to develop a complex understanding.


Following a similar format to the glossary, effective strategies for enacting this work in artistic and curatorial practice are aggregated from many individuals. Together they create a series of suggestions, guidelines, and warnings for all participants in this work.

Your comments, fresh perspectives, and contributions of new strategies and glossary terms are welcome and needed to advance this field and support our work.

Commissioned Artwork

Artists were commissioned to attend the initial six conflict meetings and develop new artwork in response to the ideas and perspective shared. Artists include: Liz Slagus and Norene Leddy, Laura Chipley, Fran Illich, and Nobu Aozaki.

Core Group Members

Thomas Anesta
Sascia Bailer
Beka Economopoulos
Deborah Fisher
Elizabeth Grady
Gordon Hall
Larissa Harris
Kemi Ilesanmi
Jason Jones
Kim Katatani
Grant Kester
Pam Korza
Carin Kuoni
Cynthia Lawson
Laura Raicovich
Paul Ramírez Jonas
Yasmil Raymond
Prerana Reddy
Christopher Robbins
Barbara Schaffer Bacon
Robert Sember
Greg Sholette
Radhika Subramaniam
Johanna Taylor
Niels Van Tomme
Christian Viveros-Fauné
Jennifer Wilson

Plus additional guest participants.

The Art + Social Justice Working Group is launched by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School and A Blade of Grass, with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The Vera List Center and A Blade of Grass are both dedicated to supporting individuals in pursuit of the intersection of art and social justice, and to developing related programs and scholarship.

Questions? Comments? Contact
1. What would you like to contribute?
2. To which conflict does this pertain?
3. What is the definition?
3. What is the link to the reading?
4. Who are you? (We promise we won't share your information.)