Is it possible to create a code of ethics for the arts?


Is it possible to create a code of ethics for the arts?

By Art Practical Editors June 25, 2015

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.

When Kate Rhoades and Maysoun Wazwaz aired their most recent episode of Congratulations Pine Tree (CPT), it got us thinking about ethics. The show opens with Rhoades and Wazwaz parsing the differences between ethics, morals, and social mores. They suggest that an individual determines their own moral code—what is right and wrong—whereas a code of ethics is decided by a group or a society, often to represent their institutional or professional standards across regions.

To add to their distinctions, we would say that an ethical decision is one that prioritizes collective obligation over individual circumstances, meaning that an ethical decision is not one made based on the desirable outcome but the one that will create the greatest good. In this sense, an ethical decision is not always a comfortable one. Additionally, ethical positions acknowledge when imbalances of power exist and seek to correct them. It is not surprising then that codes of ethics are often concerned with financial transactions or economic gain.

As CPT points out, many industries have codes of ethics: jugglers, dog walkers, and even art historians. Ever wonder what an historian should do with their research? Here’s a line from the “Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History”: “An art historian has the moral obligation to share the discovery of primary source material with his or her colleagues and serious students. He or she is not obligated to share anything of an interpretive nature that has been done with the source material.”

For practitioners in the contemporary art world (artists, writers, curators, performers), no real shared code exists. As Rhoades points out, perhaps the art world doesn’t have a code of ethics because we are all a bunch of “wishy-washy anarchists” who want to unravel the capitalist/academic art world. But are we? And would a code of ethics validate the current system? Or would we all work better with shared standards?

When CPT asked all of their past guests, many of whom are Art Practical contributors, to call in and offer a single piece of ethical advice for the art world, the results were, well, mostly moral reasoning along the lines of: “Don’t be a jerk.” There were several gems, however. Artist Jenifer K. Wofford suggested, “If you see something, say something,” a call for speaking out against work that is sexist or insensitive. Carrie Hott advocated for a standard of institutional transparency regarding acquisitions and financials, while Anu Vikram introduced the term “equity,” and Julia Bryan Wilson brought up issues of pay, both at the top and the bottom.

Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 100 Posterworks, 2009-2013; printed poster; 11 x 17 in. Courtesy of the Artists. 

Standards for equitable pay and for transparency in decision-making bring to mind W.A.G.E.’s (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) efforts to create a certified minimum payment standard for creative producers, as well as Helena Keeffe and Lauren van Haaften-Schick’s Gauging the Grey Area workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum last April. There, as a result of guided conversation and debate, a broadsheet for evaluating exhibition opportunities was created. Through a series of questions designed to weigh the potential gain against time, labor, and cost, an artist can select ranked answers and use the total score to assess whether a project is worth undertaking.

In her talk at Superscript, a recent two-day conference about arts criticism in the digital age at Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, Los Angeles Times critic Carolina Miranda echoed this evaluative process when she considered contributing writing to projects for low pay:

“Think critically about what you're going to be getting out of [taking on free or low-paid work.] Does this job give you a portfolio of worthwhile clips? Is it improving your reporting skills? Are you getting good editing so that you're improving your writing? Are you getting something that you wouldn't get just by writing your own blog? [These] are important questions to ask… Writing is an art, and it's not any one thing, and so people are going to do it for different reasons.”1

Values and ethics are as closely aligned in the art world as in any other field, but with their own set of complications. We require measurements and analytical tools to define success across a broad spectrum of categories, including, but not limited to, financial compensation. Being an artist includes operating as a freelance worker, whether we want to admit it or not. Being an artist also tends to include the desire to contribute to a better world. Sometimes a decision to undertake a project is driven by the impact or clout it produces and may override any financial gain. If we are going to advocate for transparency as part of an ethical code, what obligation do artists have, then, to be transparent with their motivations for choosing one exhibition opportunity or another? Does it benefit artists (and writers, performers, and curators) to be frank about the compensation they seek or receive, or at least how they determine what fair compensation is? We would argue, yes, if only to provide artists with the measures they need to evaluate what they gain from an experience. There is real danger in defaulting to a claim of exploitation with unpaid production if these other motivations are not accounted for, because it perpetuates the sense that artists do not have agency in choosing their collaborators. Gauging the Grey Area is immensely useful, then, in developing an ethical code that incorporates the full spectrum of motivations for making work in the art world.

While W.A.G.E.’s, Keeffe’s, and van Haaften-Schick’s efforts center on the ethics governing compensation for the production of individual practitioners, there is also the ethics of those representing artistic practice, including magazines, galleries, and museums. As Wazwaz points out in the CPT podcast, institutions such as art museums have professional codes of ethics, but from a community standpoint it’s easy to perceive they aren’t adhering to them.

So what would a perceptible ethical agreement between an artist and exhibiting venue look like? In our response to Keeffe and van Haaften-Schick’s Gauging the Grey Area workshop, we identified four terms that would ameliorate the entrenched inequity of these working relationships. The terms reinforce Gauging the Gray Area’s line of inquiry yet go beyond assessing an individual’s desired outcomes in favor of an agreement that serves the greatest good. They include:

  • Frank assessments of the costs, risks, and investments present in the production of work on the part of the artist;
  • Negotiation of terms as an essential component of exhibition production by both artists and venues;
  • Transparency and entry on the part of organizing venues into institutional operations;
  • Cognizance that fair labor practices manifest in the day-to-day interactions between individuals, and that all parties—artists as well as administrators—are responsible for their perpetuation.

This last term is especially crucial for creating any code of ethics that artists with very disparate practices might adhere to. The negotiations an artist undertakes (or doesn’t undertake) in order to participate in an exhibition may create precedents for how institutions will subsequently approach working with other artists (or at least raise expectations for negotiations to happen). So we return to our definition of an ethical position as one that seeks to correct imbalances of power. A code of ethics not only protects the motivations of the individual artist, it also outlines objective standards for labor, regardless of what motivation compels it. In other words, we can think of a code of ethics as a form of collective bargaining that puts demands on art administrators, institutions, and funders to be accountable to fair labor practices. A code of ethics also enables artists (and writers, curators, and performers) to set the terms for such practices rather than be acquiescent to current conditions. So we join Congratulations Pine Tree in posing the question: What does a code of ethics for artists include? 

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Patricia Maloney is the founder of Art Practical and the Executive Director of DSAP.

Kara Q. Smith is Art Practical's Editor-in-Chief.



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