3. What are your values and commitments?

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.

Do you know your own values and purposes? It’s easy to think so, but look deeper: do you have a vague notion, or real clarity? To be effective, artists working in community need to know exactly where we stand.  Certain core values are typical of this work, and it’s easy for these to bump up against countervailing dominant attitudes.  For instance, here are some value statements that can lead to values conflicts or ethical challenges (these are discussed in my book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, in the chapter on ‘Theory from Practice. ):

  • Critical examination of cultural values can reveal how oppressive messages have been internalized by members of marginalized communities. People come to know themselves through participation in community arts work, and sometimes that knowing makes them want to stand up and speak out’ Some listeners won’t like hearing what they say. 
  • Live, active social experience strengthens our ability to participate in democratic discourse and community life, whereas an excess of passive, isolated experience disempowers. Community arts work can be a rehearsal for other forms of social action and democratic participation, so it can be perceived as a kind of social agitation. 
  • Society will always be improved by the expansion of dialogue and by the active participation of all communities and groups in exploring and resolving social issues. Not everyone wants all of us to take part in setting society’s direction.  When community arts work helps to raise marginalized voices, those who believe that a good citizen is a silent, compliant citizen may object. .
  • Self-determination is essential to the dignity and social participation of all communities. When members of marginalized communities use community arts work to assert their own rights and aspirations, the powers-that-be may feel anxious. 
  • A goal of community cultural development work is to expand liberty for all, so long as no community’s definition of ‘liberty’ impinges on the basic human rights of others. In a culturally diverse society, conflict can arise over competing values: traditionalists may say that men and women should sit separately at an event, preserving each gender’s decorum; but egalitarians may object, countering that separation impinges on their rights of association.
  • A goal of community cultural development work is to promote equality of opportunity among groups and communities, helping to redress inequalities wherever they appear. Injustice is often a strong motivator, but some resource-providers may not like drawing attention to problems or pressing for redress. They may want all messages to be positive, skipping over what’s wrong. 

What do these principles mean to you? Do you agree with these statements, or do some seem wrong? What are the core values that drive your work? Use some quiet time to make notes, returning to them from time to time to see if your feelings have changed. 

Tomorrow: Part 4: Spotting ethical challenges

Four of Arlene’s recent paintings 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