If there is confusion regarding what constitutes art in the emerging realm of socially engaged  art, that is understandable. As not only artists, but architects, city planners, grass-roots organizers, environmentalists, graphic designers, and many others grab at the numerous tool sets made available through the arts, we find ourselves in a jumbled realm where the descriptions of what things are seem to be turned around. As many artists in contemporary art have begun to turn their attention toward that thing we call the social, we that, as a matter of necessity, they must borrow equally from disciplines in order to make their work more effective.

Let’s take an example. The artist Rick Lowe has made an intricate piece that is instructive in demonstrating the complexity we are talking about here. His work, located in Houston’s Third Ward, is called Project Row Houses. It is a series of shotgun row houses that he purchased in a low-income, predominately African-American neighborhood. Over the course of 15 years, Lowe has slowly developed an artist residency and resource program that has inspired the neighborhood to converse with visiting artists, and vice versa. Project Row House then, in essence, is a long-term, socially engaged artwork that works across city agencies to provide much-needed cultural resources from the bottom up. At the same time, it conflates many traditional ideas of what constitutes an at practice because of its (at times) utilitarian nature, its entanglement with economics, and its hands-on approach to issues of poverty and race that are a central part of the American story. (Project Row Houses is an important progenitor of two more-recent projects featured in Spontaneous Interventions: Power House by Design 99 in Detroit and 1415 by Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation in St. Louis.)

This is the kind of artwork that makes cynics roll their eyes, because they feel that it limits what is often described as “the autonomy of art.” Referencing the pioneering beliefs of skeptics such as Theodor Adorno, they often voice a concern that this kind of work is neither good politics nor good art. Such critiques should be expected, for socially engaged artwork certainly does defy one of art’s most longstanding principles: uselessness.

But let’s not assume that we know what art is. Whether or not we agree with this mode of working—a mode we could summarize as people working with culture in the realm of the social—you should understand that this kind of engagement is a growing, global phenomenon. Putting their heads in the sand will not save the critics from the inevitable tide of cultural producers who are frustrated with art’s impotence and who are eager to make a tangible change in the world. What scares these artists more than art losing its supposed autonomy is the possibility that the world will keep going the way it is.

This is muddy territory. Escaping the rules of formalism, social works must encounter the complicated terrain of people—in all of their complexity. From language to sociology, from pedagogy to urban planning, the skill sets needed for this way of working are vast, while rigor is understandably lacking. What are the criteria for a successful socially engaged artwork? Who is the work for? What does it do? Are aesthetics even a consideration?

Instead of trying to lump all of this work into one large pile, it might be helpful to see the works as more of a range of affinities of methods. In grabbing skillsets from numerous disciplines, what truly binds socially engaged and experiences based on generosity, usefulness, and pure play.

Finally, a new politics of collaboration underlies many of these efforts, and it is not based on preconstituted subjects or roles. Instead, the new politics involves particular groups and individuals emerging in response to highly specific circumstances, and it takes innumerable forms, ranging from crowdsourcing to intimate personal encounters.

Lefebvre proposed building “experimental utopias”—imaginings given concrete form—as the first step in acquiring rights to the city. Doing exactly that are the projects featured in Spontaneous Interventions, all of which are grounded in actual cities yet are expansive in their reimagining of urban life. The projects’ divergent goals, varied methods, and multifarious participants should be seen as strengths rather than weaknesses. They are openings towards a new urban politics, still to be discovered.