Following a flurry of controversy surrounding the publication of Shape and White Pube’s recent artist resource about accessing the mainstream visual arts world, artist Anna Berry reflects on the effect of neurodiverse discrimination on an art career.
Many of you may already be aware of Shape’s new resource to help disabled artists thrive in the world of visual arts: How To Get An Exhibition, adapted in partnership with The White Pube, from their own recently published document.
There is much to be celebrated about this. I welcome the effort within disability arts to move towards giving visual arts equal billing, so to speak, with performance. Organisations like Shape and Unlimited are, to their credit, making real strides in this area, although there is some way to go.
The document comprises 11 tips, and didn’t tell me much I didn’t know already: success in the art world, as in most industries, is primarily predicated on being able to network effectively.
At roughly the same time, I happened across Sonia Boué’s excruciating account of being told, as an autistic artist, at an Arts Council England conference to just ‘get networked in’, which moved me to tears.
In the Shape/White Pube advice, tip 2 (right after ‘Be Good At What You Do’), is dubiously framed ‘Be A Decent Person’. It proceeds to state the following:
‘The art world is Social and I’m capitalising that because frankly you’re not getting anywhere making art in isolation. No-one is going to come knocking if no-one knows who you are.’
(The conflation of ‘being a decent person’ with being socially adept is a particularly galling neurotypical mistake. And as Boué rightly unpicks in her take-down of the Shape/White Pube resource: ‘It means someone who can pass a neurotypical popularity test’.)
I think most autistic and introverted artists are painfully aware that nobody is coming knocking precisely because no-one knows who you are!
White Pube describe a process by which one shows up for stuff – openings, screenings – and gets talking to people, swaps business cards, and somehow this leads to being asked to participate in exhibitions. They describe a sort of critical momentum being reached when you find yourself ‘popping up all over the place’ in shows, and you become someone who ‘come(s) to mind’ when curators are planning subsequent events.
I have to say, I think this is an absolutely honest and accurate account of how to succeed in the art world. I totally get that you’ve got to know the rules of the game in order to win. In fact, you have to know the rules even if you mean to subvert them.
So, kudos to both White Pube and Shape for putting this stuff out there. But at the same time, if ‘getting networked in’ is something that is just not within your ability, reading this brings a certain amount of despair. There seems to be no alternative strategy for the likes of us.
There is just a glaring asymmetry in accessibility between those who are able to just ‘get talking to people’ versus those who struggle to do that. And that is even assuming you are in a position to attend openings in the first place, which many autistic, non-autistic, and disabled artists are not.
I’m not naive – very early on I de-coupled the concept of success from producing work with merit. It’s not so much that correlation is not causation, as there being no correlation at all. It is obvious to anyone that much wonderful work never truly finds art world success (by which I suppose I mean representation, shows, recognition, and some financial remuneration).
Perhaps slightly more distressing is that the converse is also often true – much ‘successful’ art is, if we’re honest, a bit shit. And I don’t say that as one of those philistine anti-modern-art anti-conceptual-art types. (I’m the person who makes the sort of art those kinds of people complain about!)
But so far, I’ve worked determinedly on the basis that I will be able to somehow forge my own path – take a different route – just keep on keeping on, and make work I’m proud of. And in quite a bloody-minded way, that’s what I’ve done. For years.
I’ve done the things one is supposed to do – I’ve been on international residencies, shown work abroad, appeared in the odd low-profile open, got an Arts Council grant to do big projects, and even got to show (albeit very briefly) at Tate Modern as part of Tate Exchange.
Many people might say, ‘What more do you want? What is this if not succeeding?’ But in spite of all of it, I know that there is not a single curator or gallerist in this land – not a single art world insider – who will ever have come across my work, or even have heard of me. I’m doing art, but in a parallel space from which access to the art world is denied.
Mine is a good CV – but it’s not the right CV. The shows I’ve been in are not the right shows, and the residencies I’ve been on are not the right residencies, and – the big clincher – ‘Wot, No Art School?’ Because art school is where you acquire that crucial initial network, which then extends and extends. And it’s where you absorb the baroque cognitive script that allows you to navigate the murky waters of the art world. So this thing that you need to excel – this ‘popping up’ in shows around town, getting your name around the place – despite everything, at this essential thing, I continue to fail utterly and completely.
I’m not even any good at social media (which are tips 3 and 4). I’m pretty sure I tweet and Instagram good content, but I may as well be dump-trucking it into the void. I am an invisible entity both online and off.
All credit to White Pube – they open with the disclaimer ‘I think the current steps to get to be an exhibiting artist are weird and I in no way want to insinuate I approve of them by writing this.’ They didn’t make the rules and they acknowledge how dissatisfactory the situation is.
I believe this relates to a much wider issue in Western society, probably starting in, and spreading from, the US, where introversion is increasingly viewed as a negative trait and extroversion a desirable one. (If you haven’t watched Susan Cain’s wonderful The Power Of Introverts Ted talk, please do!).
Whilst many of the tone-deaf ‘theories’ about autism emanating from some sectors of the scientific community are quite obviously rubbish, the idea that autism is connected to introversion is, I think, very compelling. Introversion and extroversion are linked to how sensitive versus blunt your physiology is from birth.
To make it super-concise for the purposes of this article: extroverts need more stimulation, whilst introverts get more easily overwhelmed by stimulation. As so many people on the spectrum have issues with sensory overwhelm I’m sure this is pertinent.
So, within the wider context of discrimination against introverts and, more particularly art world discrimination against introverts, it is most specifically those who are at the extreme end of introversion, like many in the autistic community, who end up being most discriminated against.
Over the years, I’ve really thrown myself into playing the game, despite knowing that I was bad at it. It’s not overstating the case that, by repeatedly hurling myself into situations that are punishing for me, I was essentially self-harming.
Last year I did a residency in the US, with the hope of forging connections with artists and art world people. This culminated, unfortunately, in my becoming suicidal. The suicidal episode lasted for two and half months, and it took me the better part of a year to (mostly) recover.
Discrimination is a subtle and insidious beast. All the artists there were very lovely people – I adore each and every one of them, and none would have knowingly participated in discrimination. It’s a subconscious thing – a slight distrust of the different. From their point of view, somehow I just didn’t quite fit in.
In a group situation, I find I am something neurotypical people can’t quite quantify and, most painfully, can’t (or won’t) fully see. Yet I hide nothing. I become a sort of ghost, only half real, clinging onto the edges; and something that, whilst they can’t put their finger on it, they don’t quite trust. It happens over and over to me.
I wish I could accept it with the weary zen familiarity of the inevitable. But each time it happens, the sheer dissonance with the robust and intimate friendships I’m accustomed to in the life I have built, engenders a mental health crisis more severe than the last. And each time it takes me longer to reclaim the belief that there is nothing wrong with me.
In the subsequent year that has passed, whilst I have mostly recovered, learned to function again, and refound my faith in self and art; I have also watched them meet up with each other, and network each other into shows. I am happy for them.
Yet, she who began on the outside firmly remains there, even when hand-fed the perfect opportunity to ‘get networked in’. All I feel is a crushing sense of failure both as an artist and as a human being. I really am dying for my art, and the irony is nobody actually notices.
Now, finally, I do feel discouraged. The sense of futility that accompanies making my work in the knowledge that it will remain perpetually invisible, perpetually trapped in a hinterland parallel reality to the one the art world inhabits is taking a toll.
For the first time since I started, I am seriously considering giving up art. I am exhausted with knocking on that door. I spend months at a time creating enormous pieces, offering up great chunks of myself in sacrifice to my work.
But, despite being exhilarated and proud upon their completion, I know that in terms of furthering my career, it was just another pointless effort that nearly killed me. I’m starting to resent what it takes from me. I feel the weight of years of Sisyphean futility.
As things stand, this is still the standard advice given to those embarking on an art career: be seen, go to openings, Network, Network, Network!!! But I think a change will come. Boué has developed the promising WEBworks, which mentors autistic artists (only in 3 places so far).
And as an Unlimited-funded artist, they have helped me, to a certain extent, by networking on my behalf – communicating with potentially interested parties and setting up meetings. And the old art world hegemonies are surely crumbling; the white cube galleries of Mayfair one-by-one reduced to doing art fairs only, the gallery system going the way of so many institutional empires since the age of the internet.
I’m not sure if this change will be soon enough for me to recover a sense of purpose in my work. For the time being, the advice in ‘How To Get An Exhibition’ remains sound: the art world is a largely white, male, able-bodied, neurotypical, and absolutely network-abelist domain. So: extroverts, welcome! Do come in; introverts: abandon hope, all ye who enter here.