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Social practice or Trojan horse? The need for an ethical framework to guide art in the public sphere

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The twenty-first century has seen a burgeoning swell of artists seeking to make a difference/to engage with their neighbours/or with someone else’s neighbours/to be activists/to be urban planners/to ‘make places’ and ‘build bridges’/to connect more directly with the people who would otherwise serve as anonymous audience to their work. But among those notable ambitions, what is painfully absent is an ethical framework to guide all involved. Artists who have been doing this kind of work for generations may bring with them a personal history of being radicalized and mentored in justice- and community-based work. But an adequate compass is missing for those who are endeavouring to make a positive change, equipped with skill sets derived from MFA programmes and their personal supplies of empathy. The absence of a shared set of professional ethics, or at least a standard set of questions for all involved to consider, stands in the way of good practice and ultimately the larger goal of creating a better world sought by these artists and their projects. Exploring issues of power and privilege, collective generosity, and the full range of support needed for artists and communities to work together equitably and effectively, this article introduces a range of instances where ethics are implicated but too often are missing.
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Keywords: art and activism; community-based art; equity; ethics; evaluating artistic practice; social practice; socially engaged art; standards

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and The Laundromat Project

Publication date: 01 December 2015

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  • Art & the Public Sphere provides a new platform for academics, artists, curators, art historians and theorists whose working practices are broadly concerned with contemporary art's relation to the public sphere. The journal presents a crucial examination of contemporary art's link to the public realm, offering an engaged and responsive forum in which to debate the newly emerging series of developments within contemporary thinking, society and international art practice.
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