Engine Room column


Engine Room column: Ethical guidelines for arts – more rules for artists?

Kuva: Lauttasaaren kartano lumisateen jälkeen.

When working in groups or teams, one can expect conflict and ethical issues to arise. This can happen to artists, too, since artistic work is increasingly being done in work groups, Kone Foundation Director of Funding Kalle Korhonen writes.

In previous blog posts, I have discussed ethical challenges in privately funded research. Here I will consider ethical guidelines for art.

In Finland, ethical guidelines for the fields of art are being drafted. In 2020, the Ministry of Education and Culture published a report by Jukka Liedes entitled Ethics Council for Cultural Domain (in Finnish, but with an English summary). It was proposed that the Ministry of Education establish an ethics council for the cultural sector, which would be part of Arts Promotion Centre Finland. The institution would be tasked with preventive action, including “compiling, summarising and promoting ethical principles and guidelines” as well as retrospectively “investigating concrete actions and practices that have been claimed unethical”.

However, in the end, such an institution was not established. Instead Forum Artis, the national co-operation organ for Finnish artists’ associations, was tasked with producing ethical guidelines for the cultural sector. The guidelines will be completed in spring of 2022.

At least from the perspective of an art-funding foundation, it feels that ethical guidelines are necessary, because they benefit both the foundation and the grantees (and the applicants for funding). At the same time, however, we want to respect artistic freedom. Recently, visual artist Siiri Haarla commented in Taide magazine (1/2022) on the public initiative to create ethical guidelines for art, saying, “In a democracy, art must have the opportunity to raise concerns and accusations that others do not see or dare mention. […] An artist should be expected to have an even stronger ethic than others but also the ability to define it.” (Summary of the article in Finnish).

We at the Foundation are in favour of ethical guidelines for the field of art. If there are none, actors outside the field would probably see an opportunity to create their own ethical guidelines for artists.

So when is guidance needed? For example, if the following happens:

  • There is disagreement in the working group about the contribution of each artist in the creation or production of an artistic work.
  • There is a conflict, bullying, or harassment in the group.
  • It is not clear to what extent and how the work of other artists can be used or should be credited.
  • In the funding application, people who have not been asked if they want to be involved in the work are mentioned.
  • The artistic work plan changes significantly once the project is underway.
  • The production or content of the artistic work seems to violate the dignity of individuals, groups of people, or other species.

Ethical guidelines are not intended to apply to situations where it is felt that the law has been broken. If harassment occurs in a project, such matters are addressed by the Penal Code, and cases must be reported to the police. Defamation can also belong to the sphere of the law. The question of the authorship of works or the use of other artists’ work, on the other hand, touches on copyright law. However, boundaries are rarely fully defined.

So should ethical guidelines concern funding applications, or are such matters left to the discretion of the funders? The funders will, of course, decide on funding principles. This applies, for example, to project plans. In artistic work (as well as in research), plans usually change, and it is up to the funder to decide which kinds of changes can be accepted. However, at this point, the funder must understand the nature of artistic work.

Still, some issues related to applying for funding may otherwise fall into a grey area. If someone uses the name of a better-known artist in their work plan to increase the credibility of the application, the situation does not concern just an individual foundation’s practices but more general ethical issues.

If no laws are breached, who decides what is right or just? Art schools have their own processes for resolving conflicts at work, but when art is done in independent groups, which are absolutely essential to the future of art, it is not easy to find an impartial person or jury to solve ethical dilemmas. Funders are also aware of this challenge, as we are occasionally asked to help resolve conflicts. Some projects have even established their own principles for solving problems, such as the NO NIIN art publication.

In Finland, allegations of misconduct in research are ultimately settled by TENK, the National Board on Research Integrity. The number of cases undergoing investigation is growing. Furthermore, due to the nature of artistic work, ethical guidelines built on the TENK Guidelines for Research would not work, and the guidelines are currently being reformed.

In all, ethical guidelines for art are necessary, but they should facilitate and not complicate artistic work. It is important to take into account the variation between different fields of art. The tone of the instructions needs to be thought through carefully, as a patronising tone would only result in instructions that no one finds useful. Art funders, too, can commit to guidelines that understand the characteristics of artistic work.