Department of Art and Art History News

Ethics in the arts classroom

three women discuss poster at fair
Student presents research during Undergraduate Research Week. Photo by Natalie K. Gomez.

The visual arts are no stranger to controversy. An artist may explore issues that lead to friction or a curator may be tasked with presenting an exhibition fraught with historic tension. In training students to work in the visual arts, the Department of Art and Art History has made ethics and leadership a priority, championed by Julia Guernsey, associate chair of the department.

UT Austin provides undergraduates with "flag" requirements built into their curriculum. Flags are usually ways to highlight classes which prepare graduates to be resourceful leaders in their field of study.

The Ethics and Leadership flag, a recent addition, has been making its way into courses in the College of Fine Arts (COFA). This initiative has been an university-wide effort between the College of Fine Arts, College of Liberal Arts, McCombs School of Business, and School of Undergraduate Studies.

"The arts provides an ideal platform for conversations about topics that are tangible and very real," Guernsey stated. "One excellent example, which will be used to guide classroom discussion is: If one thinks about graffiti, what are the ethical parameters of defining the difference between art, collaborative artistic endeavors, and vandalism? The powerful thing about posing questions like this to students is that they quickly realize that, as practicing artists or scholars, they are already engaged in ethical debate, and that their voices are important to on-going discussions about the arts in today’s world."

Courses that have incorporated the Ethics and Leadership flag include Issues in Visual Culture, taught by Art History Professor Ann Reynolds and Professional Practices Studio Seminar, instructed by Studio Art Professor Dan Sutherland.

“Ethics and specifically ethical reasoning in this class is appropriate as we are discussing commerce, intellectual property, contracts, our public personae, and actions,” Sutherland said.

In Issues in Visual Culture, Reynolds described, “students will choose an object with a complex history or from a culture that prohibits the viewing of the object for religious reasons and consider how to exhibit it and represent these issues to a diverse audience in a museum setting.”

“Our focus on ethics gets them thinking early on about how they make ethical choices all of the time when viewing, making, writing about, and even purchasing and displaying works of art," Reynolds said.

The Department of Art and Art History will continue to integrate the Ethics and Leadership flags in undergraduate curriculum. This past summer, several Visual Art Studies students helped in the making of videos that explore issues in visual art which will be released this coming year as part of Ethics Unwrapped.

In the spring of 2014, Guernsey received a Curriculum Innovation Grant for the College of Fine Arts from the Provost’s Office that focused on the implementation of ethics flag courses in COFA. This grant money was then paired with a larger grant from the Teagle Foundation designed to support curricular innovation in ethics across the arts and humanities. This initiative was implemented in collaboration with the hugely successful Ethics Unwrapped video series developed within the McCombs School of Business, which creates online videos designed to educate about ethics using real world examples; these videos are available for free to educators around the world and have already been adopted for classroom use in over 77 colleges and universities around the globe.