1. Values and Ethics of Participatory Arts Practice

Welcome to Arlene Goldbard’s virtual residency on ‘A Restless Art’, in which she will share her thinking about the values and ethics of participatory arts practice. Between 18 and 22 May 2020, she’ll publish guest posts from a short text she prepared for artists and students, Each one is short, practical and grounded, drawing on practice developed over many years in the United States. On Friday 22 May at 5pm BST Arlene and François will host an online conversation about ethics and the issues raised in these posts. Tomorrow, on Tuesday 19 May, we’ll publish a Zoom link in the post: there’ll be space for up to 100 people to join us.

Values and ethics aren’t carved in stone.  Like so many things worth having—excellence, love and democracy, for instance—they emerge from collaboration and negotiation, from real-life experience.  That’s why the values and ethics shaping our work depend on who we are and what we are trying to do: what’s right for one set of people and circumstances may be quite wrong for another. 

The key is being able to size up each situation and respond with skill and flexibility.  That skill comes with practice.  Thinking and talking about values and ethics strengthen our self-knowledge, giving us ethical ‘muscles’ to handle future challenges.  Engaging with these questions, we become more present, skillful, and creative.  Then, when ethical challenges arise—as they inevitably will—by knowing ourselves, by together exploring meaning and value in the situation at hand and achieving common understanding of what’s at stake, we can find mutually acceptable resolutions and move on. 

Five things to remember about ethical challenges

This workshop is structured around five principles:

  • The most important ethical self-knowledge artists working in community need is to know their own values and commitments, to whom they are accountable, why, and how. 
  • The most important ethical capacity artists working in community need is awareness, the ability to sense an ethical challenge before it erupts into full-scale conflict. 
  • The most important ethical aim artists working in community must master is bringing out the full complexity of a situation, including all of its contradictions and ambiguities. 
  • The most important ethical skill artists working in community need is the ability to engage everyone in an ethical challenge in a way that is enlightening to all, that uplifts the moment into true learning and creates maximum possibility. 
  • The highest form of resolution is one that redefines issues so that everyone feels heard, respected and included in the outcome.  We tend to think of resolutions as ‘you win, I lose’ or vice versa.  Some conflicts have to be settled that way, but much of the time, there’s a resolution that allows all to feel respected. 

Tomorrow: Part 2: Self-knowledge: who are you and what do you want?

Four of Arlene’s recent paintings will illustrate these posts. This is what she says about them

‘I had been painting others’ portraits when I realised that if I started a series of self-portraits, my sitter would always be available. It came to me to do a series of four: fire, water, earth, air. Fire came first, and with it came the words that appear on the painting: “We burn and are not consumed.” This is an allusion to the burning bush Moses encounters on Mount Sinai. It felt like a message, speaking to me of an elemental fire and also something like the slogan in recent U.S. politics: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I realized that the painting depicted what is called Gaia in contemporary environmental thought and Shekhina in Hebrew mysticism: the indwelling feminine spirit of the Earth. I decided that the other three would offer aspects of the same enduring determination to heal the Earth. This intention allowed me to paint myself without vanity, because it was precisely the combination of aging face and burning eyes that fit my subject.’ 

Arlene Goldbard


  1. All of the principles are excellent and I will continue to explore these in the work I do. We often negotiate them as we go but underpinning all the work as you describe is a set of values that are understood and many moved on through experience. Is there five or four aims?


Comments are closed.