4. Spotting ethical challenges

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..

While all of us are connected, everyone is unique.  We see the world through individual lenses shaped by experience, capacity, and belief. Therefore, human beings in community present almost unlimited potential to generate ethical challenges’ When a conflict or challenge arises, it isn’t a mistake or failure; it’s an inevitability.  Expect it; embrace it; learn from it.  But don’t feel you have failed when it happens. 

A common pitfall of collaborative work is to carry a fear of making mistakes into a realm that thrives on trial-and-error, which can lead to dismissing signs that shouldn’t be ignored.  Often, our bodies are more reliable guides than our brains.  If you pay attention to your own responses, when you perceive an ‘oh-oh’ feeling in the pit of your stomach, you will welcome it as an early alert rather than telling yourself it’s nothing.  The earlier your awareness is engaged in an evolving ethical challenge, the less likely it will escalate into a full-scale drama. 

Here are a few common types of ethical challenge that come up in the context of community cultural development practice:

Freedom of expression. Probably the most common challenge, this typically arises when an artifact or performance includes content that makes someone uncomfortable.  The discomfort can worsen when that someone has significant power to affect a project’s fate—a funder, an organization’s executive staff or board members, a politician, a media personality, or an advocacy group.  How do you balance the legal contract you have with a funder or employer with the unwritten moral contract you have with community members? This is a key question for anyone working in community: to whom are you accountable and how?

Personal boundaries. Intimate material often surfaces in community cultural development work.  Participants may be asked to share their life stories or their deepest feelings about the way a problem affects them, their families, their communities.  The artist who works in community is responsible for ensuring that no one is coerced into a premature or unprotected intimacy, while simultaneously helping to create a respectful climate and caring container for anything that people do choose to share.  How do you balance openness and confidentiality? Protection and expression?

Identity. Even the nicest people may be surprised to find undigested bits of prejudice clinging to their speech.  What happens when one group’s vocabulary includes names others find objectionable? What happens when the members of one group adopt a moral code that another perceives as harmful, as when young people brought up to abhor same-sex relationships are involved in a project with gay or lesbian kids? What happens when the members of one group have ideas about how women or children should behave that seem too restrictive to other community members?

Cultural appropriation. Appropriation is part of many artforms: hip hop artists sample other musicians’ work in their own music; Marcel Duchamp called some of his works ‘readymades,’ exhibiting a urinal in a gallery as a sculpture, calling it ‘Fountain’. The heightened meaning appropriation has taken on is cultural theft.  The accusation is frequently made against artists—but also entrepreneurs and corporations—who adopt and profit by something emblematic of a culture not their own’ Contemporary cultures all borrow and exchange from the past and each other: imagine if only people of African descent were allowed to play jazz, opera was reserved for Italians, and only Jews could bake bagels.  But there’s a difference between exchange and exploitation, between sharing stories and seizing another’s story for profit; the difference is heightened when the culture being exploited has been otherwise marginalized and oppressed.  Who has the right to tell your story and how?

Artist’s role. Where is the line between your own right to creative expression and the imposition on others of your personal ideas or aesthetics? Some artists try to be invisible facilitators, assisting participants without making their subjective influence felt; others see their own training and skill as paramount in shaping a project; still others see the main point as reciprocity, an equality of exchange and sharing.  How do you balance these considerations?

Tomorrow: Part 5: Practicing ethics

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