Mapping Ethics in Public Art


Mapping Ethics in Public Art

in The Ethics of Encounter, Research workshop

The University of Edinburgh / Stills

3 and 4 March 2011


On how encounters are established, exchange is brokered and relationships are sustained.


The Ethics of Encounter events were an opportunity to focus on an issue woven into the fabric of the Mapping the Future: Public Art in Scotland symposia: what are the ethics of an encounter?


Kirsten Lloyd and Harry Weeks, in their introduction to The Ethics of Encounter described their specific area of focus - as an increasing number of artists site their practice within the social fabric of everyday life, the encounter has been placed at the heart of a newly defined aesthetic experience. Participatory, collaborative, community-based and documentary methodologies that engage directly with interpersonal relations and social realities now proliferate both within and beyond the institution. This move away from traditional forms of representation into the territories of use and action has endowed art’s latest ‘social turn’ with a renewed and expanded ethical significance. In parallel with these developments, it is claimed that ethics has triumphed in the public debate to reign over culture and displace politics.


Ken Neil and I focused our presentation Mapping Ethics in Public Art on the practice of Jeanne van Heeswijk, a participant in Mapping the Future: Public Art in Scotland, and on my 1998 collaborative project with Edwin, Ed and Ellis in Schiedam, placing both under the lens of political debate and theory.


Building on the discussion around the nature of good practice in commissioning, curating and that strand of public art which might be classified as participatory art in Mapping the Future: Public Art in Scotland, we focused on the impact of Jeanne’s contribution to the discussions, and how this influenced the summary which Ken presented as symposia correspondent, emphasising ‘commissioning’, ‘projects’ and ‘discourse’. In particular, Jeanne’s terms ‘temporary fields of interaction’, ‘intensification of trivialities’ and ‘expert citizens’ stimulated discussion on a potential grouping of considerations that could begin to describe a suitable ethic for public art practice.


We introduced two references to recent texts that could illuminate such projects. Firstly, American academic David T Schwartz speaking in defence of public subsidy of the arts while artworks may indeed have instrinsic value as perfectionists suggest, I argue the best reason to subsidize them is instrumental: engaging an artwork practises politically useful skills of interpretation, empathy and judgement. This line of argument can present a persuasive philosophical defence of the ethic of much participatory practice, and what we proposed was that to work with Jeanne and her projects is to practise politically useful skills of interpretation, empathy and judgment, all with a socially-orientated outlook.


Importantly, there is a need to question whether this proposition runs the risk of a complacency of criticism. Does the uplifting and engaging interaction with the work of art or project shield the fact that the normative structures at issue in the participatory project are left stable and unreformed? Jacques Rancière might offer a useful note of caution here - which is not perhaps evident in Schwartz’s arguments – namely – participatory art in particular can unwittingly make a contribution to the emergence of what he terms consensus, which might mean that the actual political terrain which relates to the project remains unchanged or undisturbed by the project.


In Rancière’s thinking, this is because consensus can describe the state of a culture that is able to tolerate different perspectives: it’s not an issue of exclusion or fascism, indeed a culture of consenus can express a mature tolerance of same difference. The issue with consensus is that it tells of a consensus in respect of what normatively constitutes criticism and of what normatively constitutes those elements of the status quo that ought to be critiqued, so the normative positions of the status quo are maintained, although difference of opinion is cherished. A work of dissensus by contrast introduces a rupture which disturbs the conventions of the status quo, of the terrain of critique, and newly defines normative positions of tolerance and intolerance, for example, or redefines what lies where in respect of ‘mode of criticism’ and ‘what is in need of being criticised’.


What we proposed in our presentation is that the ethic of participation or encounter summarised by Mapping the Future: Public Art in Scotland, is closer perhaps to constructive dissensus than tolerant but non-revisionist consensus. The focus on Ed and Ellis in Schiedam highlighted a constructively disturbing critical practice that overturns normative positions in pursuit of a dissensus and that following Ken’s point from Rancière, disturbs the critical terrain.



The Ethics of Encounter Research Workshop

Dr Ken Neil

Jeanne van Heeswijk

Mapping the Future: Public Art in Scotland

Ed and Ellis in Schiedam


Schwartz, David T; Art, education, and the democratic commitment: a defence of state support for the arts, Springer, 2010.

Rancière, Jacques; Dissensus, On Politics and Aesthetics, Continuum, 2009.