“The Ethics of Matchbox Art”
By James Huffman
As part of our preparation for our work in Cambodia we have been exploring ethical issues related to the field of art therapy. Our beacon through this, sometimes cloudy area, has been Bruce Moon’s (2006) work, Ethical Issues in Art Therapy, which does an excellent job highlighting various perspectives and providing scenarios for consideration. As prepared as we may feel, however, for whatever ethical dilemmas we may encounter, there will always be situations which fall outside our textbooks and where we will have to exercise our best judgment.
One such situation occurred several weeks ago at a youth matchbox art making party at Sterling Drive Studios. It was the end of the night and we had just begun the tedious work of deciding which scraps of paper and fabric were large enough to keep and which to throw away, whether it is worth it to fish those 7 beads out of the dustpan or should we toss the whole mess… We had given the artists the option of either donating their matchboxes at the end of the night or keeping them and had received several donations. In the chaos of cleanup, some of the donated matchboxes were placed on the same table as scraps and other materials to be sorted. One piece of matchbox art was particularly confusing – several crumpled pieces of paper drizzled in hot glue with matchsticks stuck seemingly at random throughout it. Initially thinking this to be trash, I threw it in the garbage with the other used and discarded materials. When later I saw it back on the table, I was told it was a donated matchbox with a $1,000 price tag (artists are allowed to suggest a minimum bid for their work).
After cleanup we began packing the donated matchboxes for travel and faced the decision of what to do with the cup. In all likelihood, the extravagant pricetag was a joke and the $1,000 minimum bid would not be met. We would then have to make arrangements after the Gala to return the matchbox to the artist, creating more work for ourselves. So do we keep it?
I believe the answer is yes. As art therapists it is important to define the playing field and stick to the boundaries we set, especially in work with youth and adolescents where conflicts over boundaries are more likely to occur (Santrock, 2010). Boundaries can be reassessed as we go, but they should not be applied retroactively. In this instance we had not provided any boundaries around what the matchbox art should look like or what the minimum bids should be. There is also the possibility that the artist is an aspiring trash sculptor – the likes of HA Schult – and honestly believes their work is worth $1,000. We can’t really know. All we know for certain is that the artist created a unique piece of art, then took the time to fill out a donation form and it is up to us to honor that donation.
Santrock, J. (2010). Lifespan Development. New York: McGraw-Hill
*details have been changed to protect the identity of the artist