Is it time the art sector started to assimilate to disabled artists rather than harassing us to assimilate to their world?
Attending zoom meetings and talks during the pandemic highlighted this lack of presence of people with protected characteristics or, in some cases the same few people (with protected characteristics) being used as a safe token gesture. Either as a person of colour, someone from a working class background or a disabled individual, my presence is either fleeting or non-existent. At times it feels as though people like me are thought to be made of antimatter and two of us are completely unable to simultaneously occupy the same place just in case the world explodes. Institutions are one of the main culprits, who usually only associate with people who buy into very narrow definitions of acceptability
However, when it comes to those few individuals accepted as token gestures – what makes them more palatable than others to an institution or group? More importantly, why do some prejudices dissolve into nothing whereas other prejudices are coded into quality indicators and values, on which institutions are built.
In order to answer these questions, I explored the parallels between the cultures of the institution’s or group’s and people beyond that group. One aspect I found that encouraged a narrow definition of fraternity was the shared culture of people working in different institutions. An example is the Plus Tate network the aim of which is “to support the development of the visual arts across the UK by fostering a climate where exchange and partnership can flourish. By sharing practices, the Plus Tate members enable more audiences to participate and engage with modern and contemporary art”. There are members within the network who do very forward thinking work and sharing culture and values is what enables us to see each other as equals. However, we need to look closely at who is at that table, which cultural values are shared and in particular how a strong culture is used both, to expand and discourage membership.
I examined other instances with very strong and consistent ideas of culture and how they control access to outsiders.
Looking at American society, I found very defined notions of local and national culture, a willingness to hold on to a particular view of culture and control outsiders. Looking at some of the attitudes towards outsiders amongst Americans, may offer an insight to what is happening in the arts when we look at the process of social assimilation.
“Much folk wisdom has viewed assimilation as a linear process of progressive improvement and adjustment to American society. The general assumption is guided by an implicit deficit model: to advance socially and economically in the United States, immigrants need to ‘become American’ in order to overcome their deficits in the new language and culture. As they shed the old and acquire the new, they acquire skills for working positively and effectively—a process that may not be completed until the second or third generation after entry”.
National Research Council. 1996. Statistics on U.S. Immigration: An Assessment of Data Needs for Future Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
The preceding paragraph provides clues to the expectations of a majority when some up from a minority is seen to be muscling in on the action. Every time there is a knock at the door by someone beyond the norm, that individual needs to be risk assessed in terms of their ability to assimilate and their commitment to assimilation to date. Moreover, assimilation is tied to their chances of success within society. This goes well beyond measurable skills or ability to do a job. Sounds insidious but it happens all around us in the arts?
Every time an artist approaches an institution, they are assessed in terms of their “calibre” or “suitability” to that institution and in many cases there is not even a reply until the artist has assimilated to the institution’s language and meets the expectations of the institution.
We have a wide range (unwritten) of spoken, gestural and visual languages in the arts that are used as KPIs (key performance indicator) to assess suitability. Look at the expectations of the way art is meant to be finished, framed, displayed, valued, promoted, and sold and you will see art languages in action. Look also at shared attitudes towards neatness, a fixation with clean, consistently white walls and precision practiced by most galleries. When we look at the arts, we come across a dominant vocabulary for explaining creative endeavours and indeed funding them.
So called “artspeak” is something that many leaders in the arts have spoken of getting rid of but strangely, however, we seem to be addicted to it. The ability to speak, write or understand artspeak is an affirmation that one speaks a common language, is not a risk and therefore can be one an article of assimilation that acts as a passport for someone from the margins to access an institution or group.
Code switching is when one feels compelled to change one’s approach to practice, general demeanor or modus operandi in order to progress. I prefer to call it risk harassment as I prefer to focus on bullying as this is the catalyst for change by the dominant culture. My observations and interactions with other disabled and neurodivergent artists suggests risk harassment is a prerequisite as they try to progress their careers.
I have often spoken of a cognitive block between myself and the art sector around me and I fear risk harassment sits at the heart of the problem. The problem is that, in many instances there was (and still is) an expectation for me to assimilate to the accepted ways of doing things.
There is also a divide of approaches. The neurotypical way of doing things is referential – an emphasis on looking at others and deriving what you create from them. We see this referential approach in art education which has a heavy emphasis on European art history and emphasis on grouping artists by similarity.
The opposite to this the neurodivergent approach which takes in experiences but the eventual creative output is a reaction to stimuli. I would include in this art brut and outsider art which defies convention.
Many neurodivergent artists feel a need to assimilate to the referential way of creating art instead of following their individual modus operandi of creation. Many still find it difficult to break through. The few who do, see themselves progressing but still struggle with the dominant culture.
Last year I had the privilege of talking to a young autistic artist about his approach. He had always created work instinctively without heavy reference to the way others worked. He felt pressured into formalise his creative practice by studying for a degree. The main advice from universities was to look at other artists and reference them in his work. In other words, if he wanted to access education it needed to be framed by the normative, referential culture of most art schools that forced him to let go of his instinctive practice. The change from an instinctive to formalised referential approached was confused his practice and left him feeling inferior.
The real frightening aspect of this issue is that disbaled and neurodivergent artists make up a massive percentage of artists the world over however, we are constantly underrepresented in arts funding and opportunities. So, in my opinion, it is the artworld that needs to assimilate to artists, not the other way round.
Is this where we all really want to be?
Is it just me?
Is it that only I can see the absence?
Is it maybe because that absence is me?
Is this another struggle for me to make you see?
Is this because of a different difference?
Is it that I don’t fit?
Is it that there’s enough of me?
Is it that I’m not exceptional?
Is it that you don’t expect much from me?
Is this because I’m a luxury?
Is this really you taking this seriously?
Is it that I’m not as you expect me to be?
Is this where we all really want to be?