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

Welcome to Arlene Goldbard’s virtual residency on ‘A Restless Art’, in which she shares her ideas about the values and ethics of participatory arts practice. Between 18 and 22 May 2020, Arlene is publishing guest posts from a 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 (10am Mountain Time) Arlene and François will host an online conversation about ethics and the issues raised in these posts. If you would like to join us, please follow this link to register in advance: there is space for up to 100 people.


Whether you see your own work as education or as art-making, as community organizing or even as spiritual practice, how you approach it will depend on why you are doing it:

  • Have you chosen this work to make a living, to develop and express your own gifts, to help others, to change the world, to gain power, to share power, or for other reasons?
  • Do you see your work as awakening awareness, healing injury, creating capacity, making meaning, making beauty, getting a job done, or something else?
  • Do you see your working relationships as peer partnerships, as student-teacher (or teacher-student), as selfless service, as serving your personal aims, or something else?
  • Are you most like a griot, a magician, a gardener, a rabbi, a coach, a role-model, a tutor, a parent, a clerk, or someone else?

There’s no need to settle on a single answer.  But each person’s unique constellation of answers makes a huge difference in how that individual feels and connects with others. 

Have you had the experience of performing the same action for two very different reasons, completely transforming the way you feel about it? Compare peeling potatoes for minimum wage in a cafeteria kitchen with making dinner for the person you love most in the world.  Compare the drudgery of folding, stuffing and stamping a mailing you care nothing about with the fun and excitement of sending out invitations to your loved one’s birthday or graduation.  Even ordinarily tedious acts are lifted up when they are undertaken with higher intention.  What are your highest intentions?

Just so, ‘working with communities’ can have very different meanings.  Often, there’s a default assumption: ‘the community,’ ‘the artist’ and ‘the educator’ are assumed to be known quantities.  The artist ‘plugs into’ the community the way a power source plugs into a wall-socket.  We develop protocols for plugging in: for instance, adopting a community assessment process involving meetings and petitions to ensure that a mural doesn’t go up on a wall where it is not wanted, that images people find offensive are not imposed on those who will look at them every day. 

These same processes can be carried out as an odious duty or as an embodiment of higher love.  When you know yourself and know your own motives and intentions, you have more power to ensure that your actions embody the intentions you value most.  There’s lots of room for variation in both identity and in practice.  But there is one absolute: every person you work with deserves to benefit from your full presence and highest intentions’ No matter what a phenomenal artist you are, if you can’t ‘work with the community’ as an expression of love and respect, you should find a different place to invest your talents. 


Tomorrow: Part 3: What are your values and commitments?


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

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