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



Authority, n. |əˈθôritē; ôˈθär-|

1 a legitimating construct that permits the state to equip its constabulary with such regulatory instruments as truncheons, pepper spray, Tasers, hand-cuffs, tear gas, revolvers, shotguns, assault rifles, and armored vehicles.

2 the state of owning specialized knowledge, power or property, which may under certain circumstances be acquired through an act of tactical trespass from one field into another, as for example with interventionist art (see N. Thompson, "Trespassing Relevance"), or through a process of "upclassing" in which one "self-promotes" oneself up out of a lower social status by joining a loosely defined profession such as fine art (see Pierre Bourdieu, Photography, A Middle-brow Art, Stanford University Press, 1965, p 171).

3 the antithesis of "Participatory Democracy," "Leaderless, Leadership," and "Leaderless Resistance," the first of which is associated with Occupy Wall Street and the Zapatista movement, while the latter two are associated with such contemporary forms of collective organization as the Tea Party and Al Qaeda.

"Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it." – Rudolph Giuliani

"Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence." - Leonardo da Vinci

— Greg Sholette

Something happened to me recently that might help me move around Greg's definition, which is interesting becuase it feels so complete, and... well...


Someone's been applying for credit in my name, and this is a crime, it's "identity theft." They, whoever they are, have no authority to apply for credit on my SSN.

So the banks who have these fraudulent applications for credit in my name tell me to file a police report--to talk to the authorities.

I call the police department and they tell me to drop everything and come in to file a report. So I do.

But when I get there, all I've got is my credit report, and the names of the banks, and the knowledge that I did not apply for credit cards with them, and the knowledge that when I talked to the bank, they said that I should file a report.

The police didn't have enough to go on. They kept saying they "didn't have anybody to blame." They had reached a limit of their authority.

So I called one of the banks, and they said that the police were being stupid, that if the police just talked to them, they could release the fraudulent report immediately to the police. That usually that's how it happens. The police have the authority to receive this information. Why aren't they using this authority?

The police replied that they weren't going to talk to some disembodied voice on the phone, that if it's my identity, I am the only person with the authority to present the police with evidence of fraudulent activity. They asked me to come back with the application for credit that I did not fill out.

It turns out that it is very difficult for me to obtain this document--it's something that the bank will hand over to the police immediately, but I don't quite have the authority to ask for it.

Unfortunately, there are more chapters to this story, but you get my points, right?

First, I would say that this state of specialized knowledge, power, etc, that denotes authority is flexible, dependent, performed, navigated. I'm interested in how that works, even though right now it's burning me. It's an opportunity.

And I would also say that authority is valuable. An absence of authority, or games in which the authority becomes too hidden, are frustrating and threatening on a practical level.

—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
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