The ethics of community art, Part 1

A necessary concern with ethics is one of the ways that community art has always been separate from fine art. The latter was substantially the creation of philosophy, and its ethical concerns, where they exist at all, are philosophical: ‘art for art’s sake‘, an idea that still resonates for many today, is a rejection not just of political but of moral responsibility, lightly condemned as ‘bourgeois’. Community art (like its largely unnamed and unacknowledged antecedents) began as a reaction against those art world values, that was at once political, aesthetic and ethical. And at a practical, experiential level – which is surely where art must be if it is not just philosophy – an artist who invites other people with less power than theirs to join in a creative act is immediately confronted with a territory of negotiations, in which different needs and desires demand to be heard. The autonomy of studio practice (even if it is more constrained that the art world likes to believe) is irrelevant or impossible when professional and non-professional artists create together.

So important are these questions that they have often been the subject of posts on this site, and I dedicated a chapter to them in A Restless Art:

Chapter Six looks at some of the ethical issues that arise from the inequalities of power inherent in participatory art. It considers both the nature of change – how art affects us – and the ethical implications that follow, within a human rights context that prioritises the autonomy of individuals to determine for themselves what is in their own interest. It also considers the vulnerability of professional artists and the codes of conduct that can protect them.

TL:DR – ‘A Restless Art in 10 minutes’

In the book, I compared the moral consequences of relationships that community artists establish with those that professionals such as doctors and lawyers have with their clients. These people profess (‘promise publicly’, the origin of the term ‘professional’) to put a client’s interest before their own. That begs a multitude of practical and philosophical questions, and it certainly doesn’t always work, but it is why there are self-governing professional bodies in medicine and law to uphold standards and provide redress. Newer ‘professions’ – including those such as artist, which like the status of being professional but show little awareness of its obligations – do not always see the need for such systems of oversight. In their absence artists who work with people are responsible for their own decisions and conduct. They need to draw up professional standards of ethics for everyone’s protection.

Right now, I’m working on some guidance of that kind for Traction, an EU-funded project researching the potential of new technology in community opera. The partnership includes three universities and is required to satisfy those institutions’ codes of research ethics as well as those of the European Commission. It’s a rigorous process, managed by others with far more expertise in this than me. The questions I’m concerned with arise at the interface between participation in research and participation in community opera. Some of that is complicated but capable of resolution through protocols. Some is much more ambiguous because there is no clear boundary between activities. The partners have very different degrees of knowledge of community art practice or its ethics, so I’m preparing some simple guidance to help establish a common understanding of our obligations. Ten days ago, I tweeted an invitation to share some experience of these issues.

I’m thinking about the #ethics of artists involving people in their work, to draft some simple, concrete guidance. Please let me know if you have advice, ideas or examples that might help. #CommunityArt #ParticipatoryArt

Twitter – A Restless Art, 13 April 2020

To be honest, I was astonished by the number of responses. This is evidently an issue that concerns a lot of people, so when I saw all the responses coming in, I promised to post the material here I’ve copied all the responses into a single document, which you can download as a PDF, with the links to the various resources people told me about. I’ve not included all the tweets from people simply following, signalling the thread to others or some of my thanks, but the essential is here; of course, if you use Twitter, you can also follow the thread there.

Another thing that surprised me was how often people referred to academic research. I’ve read my share of that over the years, and some of it is excellent, but its value to me has been mainly in developing my general understanding than in guidance for resolving equitably a dispute arising from community art practice. I must also admit to some resistance to the discourse, rooted in my ideas about community art itself. I do the work because I believe in value of knowledge created by practice and by anyone. I do not leave the creation of knowledge to the academy, or the creation of art to art institutions. There are other paths to both goals and community art aims to keep them well maintained. A lot has changed in the 40 years since I’ve been working in the field, and many more artists work with people than once did. Most do not call themselves community artists, and many have developed their practice in academia, so the closeness between them is understandable. It’s just that my reference points are elsewhere, in the creative, experiential learning of community art.

In all this, it is vital to remember the principal purpose of ethical standards, which is the protection of vulnerable people (a term that I take to include people who place themselves in a vulnerable position by taking part in a community art project). That is essentially the same for academic researchers and community artists – indeed doctors, lawyers and other professionals would, I think, have the same goal. One constraint that seems logically to impose is that the ethical guidance must itself be understandable to the people who’s interests it is intended to protect. I’m beginning to shape some thinking along those lines, and when I have something to share, I’ll post it here as the second part of this post. in the meantime, thanks again to everyone who responded to the post. I hope that the Twitter thread that emerged is rewarding to revisit.