J. A. Koster

The first chapter of Kim Charnley’s book on “sociopolitical aesthetics” explores the idea of “collectivity”, which animates much of today’s socially engaged art. Charnley traces the collectivist impulse back to (neo-)avant-garde attempts to socialize artistic production (e.g. Russian Constructivism, the Situationist International, and Fluxus). In other words, today’s engaged artists draw inspiration not from the aesthetic effects of avant-garde art but its social organization. The critical thrust of contemporary socially engaged art is to counter “individualism” with “collectivism”. Of course, the opposition between an “individualistic” society and a “collective” art practice is inadequate. Charnley points out that all social life is “collective” and that artists, instead of creating a more autonomous collectivity, reproduce the social contradictions they oppose. Charnley calls this the “impurity” of the art collective. Mobilizing Peter Bürger’s functionalist account of the neo-avant-garde, Charnley argues that the impact of socially engaged art is confined to the art institution and is therefore not strictly speaking political. Charnley thus critiques the political ambitions of socially engaged art. But what about its aesthetic merits? Ultimately, Charnley dodges this question, though he does hint at an aesthetic evaluation when he says that socially engaged art “actualizes [makes visible] unresolved and perhaps unresolvable tensions”.