Hard words can be helpful – an argument in favour of informed critique


Richard Butchins expounds on the merits of arts criticism, stating the case for more rigourous critique and asking questions of disability arts in how we engage with discussion about merit based on a disability perspective.

Richard Butchins' The Voice of the Unicorn

Promotional image for Richard Butchins’s The Voice of the Unicorn

Art: Noun: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power

Artist: Noun: a person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby. • a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet, or filmmaker. • a person skilled at a particular task or occupation: a surgeon who is an artist with the scalpel. • a performer, such as a singer, actor, or dancer. •  a habitual practitioner of a specified reprehensible activity: a con artist | rip-off artist.

All artists face barriers to showing and funding work. It’s hard, and no one is saying otherwise. Disabled artists have the extra barriers of both being patronised and ignored by society and also by the art establishment. Critiquing any kind of art is now increasingly difficult as there are fewer and fewer objective yardsticks to measure by and yet it is a valuable and needful activity.

These days it’s difficult to decide if art is “bad” or “good” because we are constricted by a series of newly invented intellectual codes designed to inhibit us from identifying such things. We’re worried about transgressing social boundaries, causing offence and so on. Nevertheless, we are in need of a serious critique of our work. Critical thinking is so rare and difficult: people have to be taught how to do it. Making good art is hard. Making great art is almost impossible. Making bad art, on the other hand, is easy.

21st Century Art, in order to derive some substance and meaning in an increasingly vacuous and noisy world has adopted the language of both the soft and hard sciences in order to justify a lot of flimsy creation. The art-school-complex of curators, gallerists, artists and teachers now present “interventions” instead of exhibitions. Anyone can call themselves an “artist” without fear of refutation.

Sepia print of a sleeping figure surrounded by owls

Francisco Goya. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, c. 1797,. Image

Skill, craft and technique have become underrated and devalued, possibly because they take a long time to, and are exceptionally difficult to master. This is a problem because it leads to a vast profusion of worthless nonsense – some of which is highly regarded by a confused and deluded art establishment.

The Art World has always been the province of a small, privileged and secure socio-economic group of people and although the definition of art has widened it is still controlled by a version of this same group and this poses additional problems for disabled artists.

But we have a further, deeper, problem: it seems to be “not allowed” to criticise a disabled artist as it’s perceived as tantamount to criticising their actual existence as a human being (rather than just the work they make). It is hard to find fault, or castigate a disabled artist’s work, but to be honest, some of it is terrible and do we make allowances for this just because they are autistic or in a wheelchair, deaf or have no arms?

This question is important and should be reflected upon. I would say, we should not make allowances, but we should take into consideration what an impairment may have contributed to the work. This is a factor almost entirely ignored by the traditional art history establishment when discussing the work of say, Cezanne or Mondrian – more on this in another article.

I suspect a deeper issue is at play here. It is society’s disdain and fear of the “disabled”. It accounts for the blatant disregard of the contribution to an artist’s oeuvre which comes about as a result of disability – look at the transformation in the work of Goya; it was only after becoming disabled he created some of Europe’s greatest art. Disabled people are only present in media or the arts when they are inspiring, poignant and impressive, usually as subjects. The rest of the time they should be neither “seen nor heard.”

But we do not help ourselves if we heap praise on work which is at best average and at worst – shit. Nor do we assist our cause by making thin, flaccid, intellectually vapid work or by pandering to ableist notions of disability. We must be our own sternest critics.