Going on about ethics

In the past 20 years, as participation has come in from the margins, both the artworld and academia have written a lot about art practice with people. I’ve read little of that steadily-accumulating library, partly due to barriers of access, cost and language, but also because it rarely nourishes my thinking. Some of it is performative, like high-wire acrobatics, intended to provoke admiration rather than engagement. It’s not about dialogue, and still less about encouraging others to create their own work. Some is interesting but so specialised in its focus that it doesn’t repay the time spent learning it.  Mostly though, I just don’t recognise my lived experience of community art in these books and articles. It’s the difference between eating a biscuit and reading the nutritional information on the wrapper. They’re both real, but they reflect unconnected interpretation of reality.

That is especially evident in how rarely I encounter serious engagement with ethical questions in this discourse, despite its rhetoric of change. To me, and to those whose work I most admire, those questions are intrinsic to the practice. They arise inescapably from the recognition that change is needed and possible. They are embedded in the unequal distribution of power that exists in every participatory art project and in all social relations. They reveal themselves when political values are enacted rather than declared. Facing ethical problems taught me to take care, to listen creatively, to check my assumptions and my privilege, to open my mind and my heart, to understand that a shared solution is always better than my solution, to see that life is only process. What we do is not separate from how we do it.

None of that is a problem. On the contrary, it’s what makes community art so rewarding. It’s why every project is different, an improvisation built by the people involved with the resources available. It’s why, though I’ve more experience and skill than I once did, every project can only begin in uncertainty and respond with openness.  And I keep learning about new ethical questions, and rethinking those I’ve been aware of for years, because everything changes when life is process. The situations I encounter now are often new, emerging from the reality of 2021 not 1998 or 1984. The underlying principles about human rights and equality might be consistent, but applying them means rethinking what I believe, always in the light of what others say in a lived situation. 

All of this is by way of introducing the latest, modest iteration of that unending engagement with the ethical questions of community art. Last year, Arlene Goldbard and I hosted some online conversations about ethics, and share dome of our thinking one each’s others blogs. Recently, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian invited us to talk about ethics with artists involved in participatory projects in Portugal. It took place earlier this year, and the Foundation has now published a booklet based on that conversation, with Arlene’s original notes about ethics, and a short piece from me. It will be the first in a series of ‘Art and Community Notebooks’ and it can be downloaded here, or from the Foundation’s website (in English and in Portuguese). It’s not long, and it covers just a few of the ethical questions that arise from community art, but we hope that, if you care about this work, it will be worth an hour of your time. 

Ethics and Participatory Art – Arlene Goldbard and François Matarasso

Thanks to Narcisa Costa and Hugo Seabra for guiding this to completion, and to all the people who joined the conversation with Arlene and me at the end of January; it’s always a privilege to be invited to talk about these issues with others.


PS Sometimes, I’ve wondered about trying to write something more ambitious about these questions, but it always brings me to the same conclusion. I don’t have the time or knowledge to do it; and, if I did, it would soon be out of date because the challenges grow out of changing realities. More importantly, ethics cannot be separated from the practice of community art, which is why there’s a chapter on it in A Restless Art: it belongs in that context. We need some basic principles, and those suggested by Arlene in this new text are as good as any I know. But it is not in what we read (or what we write) that we respect our ethical values, but in how we act.