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



Public (Noun): is always plural: publics. Identify your publics. Try not to write off the publics whose politics do not agree with you, who are not art-savvy, who are not needy.

Public (Adjective): Use it as a Verb. Public the private. Public the public. Public your privilege. Public your access.

Public (Verb): Make accessible or exploitable or valuable to a border group of people than currently.

—Christopher Robbins

Noun. Connotes generality, the people, or everybody, in the same frustrating way community does.

What's the purpose of defining everybody, or all the people in general, as the monolithic public? One definition of a public is a constituency, a group of voters or civic participants, and of course this means that there's an in-group an excluded group. In reality, the word public is not monolithic at all--it's a discrete group of people with specific civic agency. There are a lot of other ways to say this idea. You can have rights, belong, identify with.

Acknowledging this fractured,non-monolithic reality, Christopher suggests using the plural--publics. A set of discrete publics can have different experiences, retain distinct cultural identities, account for membership and non-membership.

This fractured reality works against some of the dreamier uses of the word public I've seen. I've seen artists using the word public as a noun, but to talk about what their art is about, rather than who it's for. Pablo Helguera speaks about making an art that is about or for the world he inhabits, as opposed to being about or for art history, and I have heard other artists using the word public in a way that doesn't describe their audience, but defines their art as having that outward-facing orientation Pablo describes. I also think artists are using the word public when they mean that they are trying to put their finger on existential themes like interdependence, or to suggest a different relationship to the self than the long modernist experiment with radical individualism that we are all still in thrall to.

These off-label uses of the term public can feel flabby and naive not just because of this slippage between what the art is about and who it's for, but because they try to leverage the notion that the public really is everybody, when in reality we are much more splintered and tribal than all that. Even so, for selfish reasons, I don't want to take these dreamier examples completely off the table. I believe in interdependence. I like outward-facing art. I, too, am tired of individualism, and am wondering what's next. And I find it hard to talk about these ideas in credible ways. I empathize with this slippery usage, even as it makes me wince.

I am left wondering whether there is a way to talk about public that fully accounts for the existing power dynamics and belongings, and at the same time keeps the door open to the impossible-seeming idea that we might be an everybody one day.

—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.

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