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Blog - Colin Hambrook

Interrogating the Art World – a personal look at DAO’s panel conversation held at the Midlands Arts Centre

a woman in a wheelchair flies underwater in a wheelchair

Still of Sue Austin’s ‘Creating the Spectacle’, on show at Midlands Arts Centre (mac)

I think I have probably been to about a dozen exhibitions this year. On reflection I think that somewhere between 8-10 exhibitions a year is probably about my average. I’d get to more if I could… if I had the energy and the capacity for getting out to galleries. But in all the decades I’ve spent involved in the Art World – going to exhibitions and procuring exhibitions of my own artwork, I have rarely had a meaningful conversation with a curator or a producer. I don’t recall ever seen a curator talking about what they do and how their job ‘works’. So it was a real privilege to see two curators at DAO’s panel event at the Midlands Arts Centre: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists – George Vasey and Jessica Litherland.

Firstly, I have to say it was refreshing to hear the panel talking openly and earnestly about ways of understanding what ‘privilege’ means. This was five people open to discussing ways in which they are and not privileged and what that means to them as artists and as curators.

The ‘Art World’ as it’s known – this hermetically sealed universe that confers status and value on individuals and on organisations and institutions – is steeped in self-referential, hierarchical value-based systems that parade notions of what it is to be human that are deeply influential yet incredibly exclusive.

So, for instance, in opening the conversation Aidan Moesby presented a small bit of internet-based research. He found that out of 18,000 artists and 4,400 curators referenced on the Tate website only 0.3 per cent of the artists were identified with disability. He found 44 results in searching for disabled artists and 19 results for disabled curators. In comparison there are 644 references to dogs and 197 references to cats.

It seems that in conferring value onto the status of object-based visual artists that the Tate – as a reflection of our societies values, understands the existence of cats and dogs as nearly 14 times more important than disabled people.

You could easily talk about this fact in terms of the fear that impairment strikes into the hearts and minds of the populace. But I think when it comes to the Art World there is something much more deeply ingrained about our persistent return to what Umberto Eco meant when he said in his seminal Travels in Hyperreality: “we are dreaming the Middle Ages”. I was reminded of this at the last exhibition I went to – the current retrospective of the work of the Victorian painter, Edward Burne-Jones at the Tate, funnily enough.

The exhibition is awash with gorgeously imagined narratives drawing from medieval art, religion, myths and legends. The technique is exquisite, yet designed to display deeply misogynistic values, upholding a patriarchal vision of the world imbued with ideals of class and patronage. And of course if you’re critiquing the Pre-Raphaelites and look at the work of Millais for example – you’ll readily see disability represented with a sickly sweet layer of sentimentality.

And of course – not to forget that the Pre-Raphaelites were the radicals of their time. They set themselves up in opposition to the established fount of knowledge Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy of Arts who set History Painting on a pedestal as the Highest form of Art. The Pre-Raphaelites – who as their name implies looked back at an idealised version of a world before Raphael and the dawn of the Renaissance in the late 15th century. For them, imitating nature was the important objective, because they conceived that that was where reality and truth lay – as components of an art that was elevated by the idea of being invested with ‘spirituality’ – that old shit notion that confers value as readily as your buttered bread will always fall butter side down (If you want to see the most powerful evocation ever denouncing the concept of spirituality then take a look at Antonin Artaud’s ‘Shit to the Spirit).

Umberto Eco talks about our persistent return to the Middle Ages (as one small example of this you only have to look at what’s on at your local cinema to realise what a huge output of the industry is invested in replicating the mediavel ideal) as “a quest for our roots” – the time when all the problems of the Western World emerged with Modern languages, merchant cities and capitalistic economies.

painting of several figures with a blue tinge

‘A Jealous Psychiatrist, his animus and one of his wicker dolly’s on the dialectical conveyor belt of reason and unreason’. Oil on canvas. Image © Colin Hambrook

The history of the John Paul Getty empire – arguably one of the most influential dynasties in setting the tone and influence of the Art World now – was established through some kind of vision that the man had of himself as a medieval overlord. Attributed with saying that “The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights” he proved himself adept at manipulating capital – notably transferring his oil interests into an investment in Art – to the point where for a period in the early 1970s he notoriously spent several million pounds a week on Art. He upped the stakes in the worth of a piece of canvas to a stage where the gross national product of whole countries became nothing in comparison to the value of an artwork – preferably by a deceased artist of European origin.

For me personally, understanding this urge to look back to a time prior to the 16th century is critical in understanding how the power balances that determine what is of cultural value are kept in play.

I grew up privy to a world in which it was perfectly normal to brutalise individuals deemed as ‘mad’. (I would hasten to add that it still is, but that there is currently more subtlety in how we deal with ‘madness’). Removing vital organs, teeth, testicles and ovaries and injecting people with powerful brain-destroying drugs, electrical current and surgery was considered a testament to a caring civilised society. And as a teenager I wondered how that could be? Why did nobody – especially individuals of any considerable intelligence – question the status quo? Why were questions of outrage at the criminal ways people were treated so readily put to one side with pathetic answers that medical science was doing the best it could? The Witch Finder Generals of the 17th century were doing the best they could at ‘civilising society’. Why was it that then and now, I seem to fairly alone in understanding that conundrum; the relationship of past, seemingly distant mores to what is accepted now.

I came to the conclusion that these deeply brutal manifestations and justifications of power did, and do, have a lot to do with Art – with what is considered Art? Or what is considered Art that has any worth or value? It is Art that doesn’t rock the boat; Art that recognises the value of the History of Art and the centuries of patronage that define what makes Art – good Art. And it’s about public perception and how we analyse the value attributed to Art. It doesn’t matter how much murder an empire commits, as long as it has good Art on its walls that determine it was all done in the best possible taste, for the sake of a civilised society.

John Berger had some interesting things to say about Art and market forces and the relationship between Art and Capitalism:

Publicity images often use sculptures or paintings to lend allure or authority to their own message. Framed oil paintings often hang in shop windows as part of their display.

Any work of art ‘quoted’ by publicity serves two purposes. Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life; it is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and the beautiful.

But a work of art also suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even of wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest; an oil painting belongs to the cultural heritage; it is a reminder of what it means to be a cultivated European.

And so the quoted work of art (and this is why it is so useful to publicity) says two almost contradictory things at the same time: it denotes wealth and spirituality: it implies that the purchase being proposed is both a luxury and a cultural value.

Publicity has in fact understood the tradition of the oil painting more thoroughly than most art historians. It has grasped the implications of the relationship between the work of art and its spectator-owner and with these it tries to persuade and flatter the spectator-buyer.

The continuity, however, between oil painting and publicity goes far deeper than the ‘quoting’ of specific paintings. Publicity relies to a very large extent on the language of oil painting. It speaks in the same voice about the same things.

So going back to the discussion DAO had at the mac I’d say that the question about critique of Disability Arts is in some ways putting the cart before the horse. Before we can talk about critique we have to understand where the critical value is coming from – what is being made public knowledge and why – and how value is attributed to what is being presented as ‘of value’? The Abstract Expressionists, for example were very much allied with the idea of social justice – but it didn’t take much for Rockefeller to add meaning to the work through his patronage. The artists’ impulse to say something poetic about the human condition was easily manipulated to the meaning of the work being about saying something political justifying capitalism and the ‘American way’.

Since I was a child I always wanted to be an artist, but early on realised that the Art World is a dark and dangerous place where cultural norms operate according to a value, which more often than not places monetary worth above the value of human life.

Apart from one excursion where I got a solo exhibition in a gallery in Notting Hill in the early 1990s, (which came about when I showed my artwork to someone I was gardening for, who liked it. She was owed a favour by a gallery owner who agreed to giving me space to exhibit for a few weeks) I have only ever shown work in cafes and shop windows and that dark, dingy ‘education’ space that leads to the toilet in a mainstream gallery – that Aidan mentions at the beginning of his talk.

Both George Vasey and Jessica Litherland come across as extremely thoughtful and well-intentioned through the conversation that happened last Friday at the mac. George asked: “How do you subvert the machine?” Jessica talked about getting away from artspeak and using language that would be readily understood by learning disabled artists. In their own ways they both advocated for a less competitive Art World, imbued with more care and consideration.

I would love to see more discussions of this kind where curators talk about where their experience has come from, what their values are, what they do, how they operate. (It is interesting that Jessica is named as a producer rather than a curator on the Arts Team page of the Midlands Arts Centre website. I would love to know if there is a difference between a curator and a producer in real terms?).

Curators are in and of themselves fairly invisible – but they do represent the values of the organisations they work for. Jessica advocated looking at an institutions programming to see whether what they put on exhibitions that resonate and are attuned to your own set of values. The problem is of course that we have these huge dinosaurs in place – like the Tate – that continue within the parameters of capital currency as a way to determine cultural value.

I think understanding the structures that determine value has to be the foundation of critique. An intersectional approach to disability arts curation has to be the way forward; to get beneath the skin of the values and the structures that our Art World has been an exponent of since the year dot.

I for one will be very interested to get to see (hopefully) the results of the show George Vasey talked about in presenting the work from the estate of Jo Spence. She was a bit of an icon at Dartington College of Arts, where I studied in the late 1980s. At that time she was documenting her own death from cancer in a way that challenged societies prejudices about women and about death and dying. She – and her work – were an incredibly powerful antidote to the deeply cynical feeling I had about my relationship to the Art World… and was a key figure in my own evolution towards investing so much of myself in Disability Arts.

Despite technical issues at the beginning of this video, it is worth persevering to listen to the Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists, which took place a the mac Birmingham on Friday 23 November 2018

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Anna Berry

Amazing article! I love how you give a historical context. Also incredible painting!!!