The idea of art as an instrument for provoking change in the world is an umbrella that extends across many media: installation art, performance art, murals, protest art--all draw from that same idea. With social practice art, however, there is a distinction in this general purpose, which states that the art itself is the change.
While audience participation and performance installations are old ideas, it seems as though the concept of change as art is new, and revolutionary: making the world more beautiful and expressive in ways that benefit communities. Artists can bring art into areas where its power is neglected or yet unrealized, transforming the community into a thriving exchange of ideas.
There seems to be an interesting differentiation between whether the art is the product of change--the absence or reduction of lead in water, or the “human encounters” that occur in a South Bronx neighborhood--or the intent to create such change. The latter is referred to by Mel Chin as an “invisible aesthetic, a change that people can’t perceive.” As for “human encounters,” the debate is between whether the exchanges, conversations and discussions themselves, or the physical thing or idea that facilitated them, is the “art.” Art can inspire such encounters, but it can also be the subject of them.
Is there something aesthetically beautiful about human conversation and interaction? Is something aesthetically beautiful necessary to provoke those exchanges?
Art often gets at pointing out or highlighting the ills and shortcomings of society, including issues of racial and economic privilege of opportunity or institutional neglect. But instead of just drawing the attention and maybe sympathy of those typically unaffected by the issues portrayed, social practice art intends to provide solutions for the very problems it is inspired by. Artists wield significant social influence and power in their art, and social practice “arctivists” have set out to channel that influence towards the greater good of stronger, more engaged and healthier communities.