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



Occupy did harm. Squatting does harm. Revolution does harm. Social change sometimes requires a degree of harm.

I have seen many projects cause harm that had the best of intentions. No project can have a major impact without causing someone harm.

Rather than aim to do no harm, consider the ways in which your project may do harm, and make clear decisions about the sorts of harm you are willing to "do," and to whom.

Understand that there will be unintended consequences that you will need to accept as your responsibility and adapt to mitigate or develop.

As Urban Bush Women phrase it, develop a plan for entering, building, and exiting community. See ACCOUNTABILITY.

— Christopher Robbins

Ethics are essential to the future of a number of socially-engaged disciplines, like medicine, science and the law, and it is both unrealistic and irresponsible for art to not acknowledge that. Rather than look at ethics as Old Testament scripture, practitioners should understand them as a set of workable guidelines that shift and change with context and historical interpretations, but that nevertheless put forward the idea of minimizing rather than justifying any adverse effects social practice may have on other people, animals or the environment. The Hippocratic Oath's "first, do no harm" (which is actually an encapsulation of the oath originated by the 19th-century surgeon Thomas Inman) has been modified throughout history. In fact, David King, the UK's chief scientific advisor, laid out a "universal code of ethics" for scientists and researchers that the English government adopted in 2007.
A version adapted to social practice might read thusly:

-Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
-Be alert to the ways in which work derives from and affects the work and lives of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.
-Minimize and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.
-Seek to discuss the issues that art raises for society. Take account of the aspirations and concerns of others.

Let's not have the discussion of "harm" degenerate into "ethical veganism" or "fruitarianism." Nearly everything anyone does has the capacity to harm another; the issue is acknowledging that fact and trying to minimize the doing of harm for the sake of art as social practice. Among other effects, one hopes it would significantly minimize the actual exploitation of people for the purposes of making art.

— Christian Viveros-Faune

I have seen a lot of oblivious, potentially harmful, totally entitled social practice projects. But I think it's critical to ask whether the current discussions about harm ever limit the work artists do and the roles they play in a community in unintentionally harmful or paternalistic ways. Another way to frame this is to think of harm both in terms of the harm done to a community at the hand of an insensitive artist or a bad project, and also in terms of harmfully limiting or circumscribing the roles artists and art play within these communities because we assume that the participants lack agency or don't get it.

What is the work of an artist, and what expectations do we put on artists? Artists turn mere ideas into a concrete form, make that which was invisible visible, show us something new. Because artists are mere mortals, they often accomplish this work by tricking and manipulating us. Yves Klein didn't really jump out of a window onto a sidewalk. A painting is only an illusion of a three-dimensional space. The mime is not actually in a box. We let artists trick us because we learn and grow when our perspective is challenged and twisted. So we trust artists to take us on a journey, blow our minds, reveal something important. We learn about our own morality and mortality by empathizing with Hamlet, and feel the connection between our eyes and our bodies by standing in front of a Rothko. We also create contexts in which it's acceptable for artists to trick us, and we have permission to suspend disbelief. When the actor playing Hamlet makes us cry, we think it's brilliant and o
ffer a standing ovation. But if he goes home and uses the same techniques to manipulate his girlfriend and she cries, then he is an asshole.

The work artists generally do is dependent upon a social contract in which an audience gives permission to be tricked, actively suspends its disbelief, so that the artist can do something that feels or looks awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, amazing, or transformative. Many socially engaged art projects depend on shifting this social contract to include the participants in the creative process. And many socially engaged art projects are aiming at more than a symbolic change—they are instead leveraging this power art has to trick and manipulate into an actual, if temporary or tiny, expansion of what's possible in the real world. But the social contract itself is pretty straightforward, we've all been working with it for a long time, and it works for all kinds of art. It's what we do when we go see a movie, or go to a comedy club, or watch TV. And we get a lot out of it. Why do we assume that poor people, or people of color, or people in a prison, or people who are not
familiar with contemporary art don't get this social contract? Why do we try to protect them from it? How much of the negative critical writing about Gramsci Monument was assuming a protective, paternalistic stance that completely ignored the actual, nuanced, largely positive experiences of the participants in the project?

I worry.

Yes, because I see two very large social practice open calls every year I do worry that way too many artists who have no business working with other people are doing terrible, meaningless, entitled work in prisons and hospitals and schools and anywhere else they can find a captive audience. I worry that this work is actively oppressive. I worry that this work harms its audience. This absolutely happens.

And I also worry that too much of the conversation about harm focuses exclusively on the artist, and never on the ways in which we worry about or attempt to protect the people artists work with. When does a discussion about harm flatten into paternalistically assuming that community participants don't or can't understand this social contract? Or don't want to try new things? Or have other perfectly good reasons for participating that we could investigate by asking them directly? What are we doing in our discourse when we make them into a "Them" instead of find out exactly who these people are and learn from them how the project actually worked?

I worry that it is far easier to worry about harm than it is to develop a discourse in which participants in projects are actively relied upon as experts in their experience.

— Deborah Fisher

Contribute a Definition

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?
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4. Who are you? (We promise we won't share your information.)