‘Quality’ and the marginalised artist part 4: reframing the conversation

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In a series of four pieces, writer and critic Sandra Alland examines the state of disabled and D/deaf arts criticism, with input from artists and experts. The series has included statistics of reviews of marginalised artists, a case-study of reactions to an ‘identity-based’ publication, and suggestions for reviewing D/deaf artworks (with BSL commentary from Bea Webster). Today, Alland wraps things up with interviews of disabled and D/deaf artists working in various media.

Book cover featuring a finely detailed illustration

Cover of ‘Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice’ by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Arsenal Pulp, 2018), Seattle-based writer and performer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

‘According to the ableist imagination, we are not supposed to be performers, except in a “clap for the brave cripples but don’t expect them to be a) good b) have some shocking shit to say that you didn’t expect” kind of way.’ They continue, ‘The charity model infects even how crip art can be thought of, or if it can be thought of at all.’

Throughout this series, I’ve described how marginalised artists are often un-, under-, or poorly-reviewed (or not published/produced in the first place). Historically, arguments about ‘quality’ have worked hand-in-hand with eugenics to threaten the survival of disabled and D/deaf people – as well as those who are (also) Black, Indigenous, people of colour, LGBTQI+, women, sex workers and/or working-class.

There are still discussions by governments, doctors, charities and the non-disabled public over our basic humanity: whether we should be born; how we should be ‘cured’ or institutionalised; and when we should be euthanised (framed as the ‘right’ to die, without the option of the right to live well).

Faced with non-disabled narratives that fluctuate between contempt, pity, and inspirational ‘overcoming’, how do we argue the worth of our art? One answer that resonates for me is that we shouldn’t have to, especially considering the monumental contributions disabled and D/deaf people have made to the arts. So, I chose to ask a different question, one that redirects the responsibility of (im)proving onto non-disabled publishers and critics: ‘How can we attain better/useful criticism of disabled and D/deaf work?’

When I chat with London-based performer and video artist, Katherine Araniello, she describes some of the problems she’s encountered with criticism.

‘I think inappropriate language is used when work by disabled artists is reviewed,’ she says. ‘I recently did a performance in Munich and I was described as “severely disabled”, which has nothing to do with the context of my work.’

Araniello continues, ‘I make work that challenges clichéd medical model representations of disability. With this in mind, the reviewer is challenged, because labelling has been removed and the familiar context of disability has been displaced.’

A dishevelled figure, face covered with flour and crumbs sits at a table. A female figure dressed in bondage gear stands to her right.

Katherine Araniello with artist Lady Helena Vortex. Image © Manuel Vason .

Medical notions about disability tend to limit artists to the specifics of what’s ‘wrong’, or ‘different’, about them. And reviewers often focus on narratives of tragedy or beating the odds – no matter what a piece of art is about. Many disabled and D/deaf people long for a time when our characters can randomly feature in a romance, or survive the zombie apocalypse, or do anything that doesn’t reduce us to symbols for how non-disabled people learn the value of life.

Araniello suggests, ‘See the work, don’t home in on the person’s individual impairment unless the work is specifically addressing this.’

Commentary rooted in medical and charity models frames disabled people as ‘inspirational’, ‘special’, or worthy of pity. Such trivialisation not only negates a performer’s artistic creations – but also tends to erase sexuality and other aspects of identity.

‘I think predominantly reviewers see my work as addressing disability issues, and don’t bring gender into the work’, Araniello notes. ‘Perhaps because there is a blockage between the reviewer and their own preconceptions fed by mainstream representation of disability.’

Contrast this with the constant, though often irrelevant or negative, mentioning of gender in reviews of non-disabled women.

In the film world, disabled and D/deaf criticisms of poor representation routinely meet negative attitudes from non-disabled filmmakers and actors. Each time another abled or hearing person is cast to play one of us, the industry argues we’re not talented enough, would take too much time/money to employ, or are easy to imitate anyway. And plots continue to suggest it’s better to be dead than disabled. All of this affects how disabled stories are reviewed.

Graphic with a bright yellow background featuring an illustration of a featuring an Asian American woman

Graphic for Alice Wong’s ‘Disability Visibility Podcast’, artist Mike Mort

During a Disability Visibility Project podcast with Alice Wong and Kristen Lopez, Toronto-based film critic Angelo Muredda says,

‘There’s still a kind of nervousness among critics to think about disability. For some reason, they don’t have the language, or feel they don’t. And it’s something they still kind-of treat with a hands-off “put that over there” attitude that doesn’t lend itself to actual conversation. And this relates to both how they actually see movies with disabled characters and think about them, and might explain why you still see terms like “wheelchair bound” or “crazy” creeping into people’s language.’

Muredda adds, ‘I think it also plays into [non-disabled critics] thinking about the viability of disabled critics to talk about films about disability – instead of just assuming they have the expertise to talk about virtually anything.’

[Incidentally, Disabled Writers hosts an excellent online listing of disabled writers and sources.]

During a conversation with London-based filmmaker, Ted Evans, he echoes Muredda’s sentiment.

‘Whilst anyone can analyse and give an opinion on work,’ he says, ‘sometimes having specific knowledge on context or having a cultural background and understanding can unearth a whole new layer of analysis and criticism, particularly when it comes to history, social commentary or language.’

Yet we can’t always be from the same backgrounds as those whose art we’re critiquing. For example, even if I’m on an LGBTQI+ or disabled beat, I can’t represent all the people under those umbrella terms. I don’t have the experience of a trans lesbian, or of a learning-disabled person who lives in a group home – even before we talk about race or class. We need to increase not only training and jobs for #ownvoices creators and critics, but also anti-bias education for non- or differently-marginalised people.

Black and white still of a group of deaf people signing

Production photo from the film ‘To Know Him’. (L-R) Richard Hand, Siri Ellis, Ted Evans, Jemma Joyce, Hermi Berhane. Photo © Becky Bailey

Evans offers other reasons criticism can’t always come directly from D/deaf filmmakers in the UK.

‘I’ve found criticism in the deaf community practically non-existent,’ he says. ‘On one hand, the community is incredibly small, and thus analysing or critiquing someone’s work publicly can feel uncomfortable, especially for those inside or involved in the community. I even know of people who’ve created fake email accounts to comment on films online and I find this really sad.’

‘On the other hand,’ he continues, ‘there isn’t a great deal of work being produced and it usually comes from the same batch of deaf filmmakers funded by the same commissioner (BSL Zone). The degree of separation is significantly thin and because opportunities are few and far between, people will naturally tread carefully when approaching criticism.’

Evans also notes the importance of language, and that some D/deaf people can’t, or don’t want to, use written English.

‘When signing on video, the criticism is a lot more personal. It’s in the flesh and the author of said criticism cannot hide behind words on a screen.’

‘There certainly aren’t any jobs available for (deaf) writers,’ Evans continues. ‘And the people qualified to analyse deaf films, from a cultural perspective at least, are often the filmmakers themselves. So from within the community there aren’t many people in a position to offer criticism impartially.

And then there’s the getting reviewed at all. Despite directing stunning films like The End and To Know Him (which was nominated for a BIFA for Best British Short), Evans has barely been professionally reviewed.

A performer of colour stands wearing a dress, holding two visual impairment sticks

Ebony Rose Dark © Henri T.

London-based photographer and cabaret performance artist, Mickel Smithen (aka Ebony Rose Dark), talks to me more about what critics cover.

‘Doing cabaret,’ he says, ‘I’ll get reviewed if my performance is part of a festival or a well-established venue, but if it’s at a bar/pub my act gets little or no reviews.’

In addition to outlining how reviews of disabled artists depend on where performances are presented, Smithen describes snobbery in terms of who’s doing the presenting.

‘I’ve found Ebony gets reviews when in a big show involving a large cast. Otherwise she doesn’t really get reviewed… As a disabled performer, it seems you have to be well-established to be reviewed regularly. The artist might have arts council funding or the backing of an arts company.’

Much funding has a requirement for glowing reviews, so lesser-known disabled artists find themselves in the impossible position of not having funding to get reviews, nor the reviews to get funding. Critics could help a great deal by focusing less on superstars, researching work that doesn’t reinforce ableist stereotypes, and finding out what communities want onstage.

Despite some patronising statements about inclusive dance (e.g. ‘Aw, isn’t it lovely’), Smithen values audience feedback as much as that from official reviews. He suggests critics can get in touch with disabled and LGBTQI+ art by getting to know the people who follow it:

‘I strongly feel reviewers need to mingle/network with the audience and do more on-the-spot interviews with audience members.’

A brown, round boi sits, arms stretched out at a conference

Kay Ulanday Barrett © Westminster College, Salt Lake City, October 2018.

Lack of coverage and in-depth knowledge is also a concern for Kay Ulanday Barrett, a pilipinx amerikan transgender queer poet, performer and educator.

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‘Give reviews in the first place,’ they advise. ‘Don’t just review one person of a singular demographic and think that you’ve somehow become an expert in Disabled Art and Writing. There’s incredible art being engaged by disabled, sick, D/deaf, blind and Mad people that centres crucial voices in multiplicity.’

Over email, New York-based Barrett brings us back to some earlier concerns of this series.

‘For reviews, I generally notice that Asian and POC literary journals are trying to engage my work in a thorough and tangible way. Intersectionality seems to be an easier grasp, whereas I think most literary spaces demand further simplification. I’m one too many oppressions… I notice in all-disability spaces, specifically within the literary world, there’s a heinous minimisation of queer and POC [work].’

Thinking back to Part 1‘s grim statistics regarding reviews of marginalised artists, I’m unsurprised to find Barrett interrogating the exclusion that occurs even when disabled people are part of the mix.

‘What ways do messages of white supremacy inform artistic value, accomplishment and creation? How do these work as a difficult driving force to make disabled artists of colour not receive the support, resources and promotion they deserve?’ they ask.

‘We need to question the productivity and labour value of artists, and how those unrealistic expectations push out dynamic bountiful disabled poets who are BIPOC, non-binary, transgender, migrant, poor.’

Coming to the end of this series, there’s obviously no easy fix for the erasure of marginalised artists. Unless, of course, we achieve full revolution tomorrow! In the meantime, hopefully the brilliant work and ideas of the artists and experts you’ve encountered here will be a good starting point. As Barrett puts it,

‘I’m not interested in working in dire circumstances any longer.’


For the rest of this series, visit Sandra Alland’s project page.