5. Practicing ethics

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. Today sees the last in the series, which you can now download as a complete text by following this link:

You can also download Arlene’s guide to arts work with communities in times of crisis, which also contains further discussion of ethical issues:

The next time you learn of an ethical dilemma or challenge in working with a community, take some time to explore it fully.  Singly or in a small group, focus in turn on each of these questions, stopping only when you feel satisfied that you understand the issue in a very full way and feel equipped to work with others on it:

1. What is the issue? Who are the parties in conflict? Describe the issue even-handedly from the perspective of each party, without spinning or favoring any position.  Try to describe it such that every person will feel fairly represented (rather than caricatured) by your account of their perspective.  What is primary for each party, and what does each party see as secondary or irrelevant?

2. How does the issue look through the lens of your own values and commitments? Do your own feelings lead you to a prefer a particular way of seeing the issue? Is there anything you might be missing because it conflicts with one of your own pet theories or core beliefs?

3. List any and all observations you can make about the issue, going above and beyond whatever has been said by the parties in conflict. Imagine yourself as a visitor from another planet: how does the issue look to your newbie eyes? Does it resemble any other type of situation? What might the people involved be missing? What are their blind spots or biases? Include everything you can think of, even if some of your observations are directly contradictory’ Can you see a way to reframe or redefine the issue so it’s less polarized?

4. List all possible resolutions to the situation, whether you like them or not. Consider the implications of each: how each might affect the community, how each might be perceived by the interested parties, how each feels to you when you try it on for size. 

5. Finally, spend some time devising ways to share all of this information with the people involved. How can you help ensure that the issues are explored to the fullest in the fairest possible way? This might call on your creative skills: Can you storyboard it? Create a Forum Theatre around it? Create a web dialogue? Call on respected people to represent certain elements of the controversy in a public meeting? Turn it into a spoken-word slam? How can the issue become an opportunity for everyone to learn more, understand each other better, and create the best possible outcome?

Good luck! May you always know who you are, choose your actions with compassion and care, and inspire others to do the same.

Tonight at 5.00pm BST / 10.00am MT 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.

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


  1. Have loved reading these blogs this week. Todays are really practical ways of resolving issues and can be used in many different ways – which sometimes can be ‘forgotten’ in the midst of things all going topsy turvy in a project. Am looking forward to the conversations later too. Thanks so much. So useful in taking forward in the very different strands of my work.


    1. Thanks very much. I’m especially glad that you have found the series practical – it’s a foundation of what this site is about. I hope you enjoy the conversation later.


  2. I read each day (fof course much too hastily) these helpful posts from the end of a road in New Mexico. For me, Goldbard shines a light on the peculiar feature of the ‘aready but not yetness’ of all our collective labours at the community work bench. That’s rare and it’s helpful. She also nudges me to find my (sometimes but not always) authentic agency by relegating its sovereignty to be next to others. Then, together (sometimes), a we forms who can participate in a fearless and delightful cultural act that…

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