Identity-Quality, Oct 30 2016 GDLP x ZM
In August, we were commissioned by disability led arts organisation and charity Shape to write about their Unlimited commission - to review the artworks that were produced through that and shown in Unlimited Festival. The work was great, and we enjoyed good rainy adventures in London and Glasgow. We had long conversations about art and disability on the bus and the train, wherever,,,speculative, tentative, articulating reaction. And this is what we do whenever we confront art together - talk until our words settle. We were starting to do this in the gallery in Tramway when a guy came over to speak to us. He was working for Shape, and it was his job to measure the demographics of the visitors, check how they’d heard about Unlimited ~ and discuss whether their expectations of disabled artists had changed through their visit to the festival. We told him we were also working for Shape and he asked what we were doing. When we said we were writers, he said,
*’Oh, are you writing about the quality of the art?’*
- we looked at each other. Note it wasn’t, ‘Oh do you like the art in this space? What did you think about last night’s performances?’
The thoughts and ideas we’d been swimming in, that water fell down onto the floor around us. This guy’s framing was stable, and also obvious and essential - because of course Shape would be (self) conscious of the quality of the art they help to produce. Art People avoid exhibitions of work by disabled artists because they do not think they will be as good as those by (no qualifier here) artists. They also might think art by disabled artists is made only for others who share that identity - and while sometimes speaking exclusively to youse and yours is empowering, the ability to speak universally shouldn’t be the privilege of those with ~neutral~ ~no qualifier~ ~identities~.
To be clear, any accusation that art by disabled artists is of a lesser quality is just wrong. Some art by disabled artists is not good, as with any group; but where art is qualified by the identity of its artist, the quality of the work itself becomes abject. White cishet able-bodied middle class e t c men enjoy a neutrality for their artwork that assumes a pure and confident quality. For everyone else, the quality of their work is tied to whatever their announced, admitted, or framed identity is - and as Other identities face respective degrees of prejudice and pushback, so does their art and its literal and critical reception. By abject, I mean the art is grabbed, scrutinised, with cameras pushed in its face. It is sad but: is this art in the exhibition because of its quality, or because of the token identity of its maker? Idk but I know that with this question the art is flung onto a cold metal table with a slapping sound. It is handled in a way the White Cishet Able-Bodied Middle Class Man Art never has to fear.
And I wonder: is the myth that art by disabled artists is of a lesser quality due in part to its lack of critical attention? Shape were in touch with us because they recognise that writing about art has value. I gotta lot of issue with the type of broadsheet criticism that pretends its super objective power develops, historicises, and legitimises the art it writes about. I spoke to an artist recently who praised the content value of The White Pube specifically because she said we write about how it actually feels to be with art, to be in its presence, and to walk around and spend time with it. She said the artist never gets a real record of that. I guess the quality of a critical text, then, also counts on the context of the writer, and artists should be careful to remember that (and be sure to reject the voices that do not deserve a hand in their practice). I wondered if any of the artists we wrote about under our Unlimited commission would reject our texts for this reason, for our being able-bodied and thus unlike them. It would have been okay.
We have a lot more questions and sentences but they are echoing, going on and on without resolve, like: critics should demand quality of all artists, that should be a flat standard. / Is it okay to ever neg art when you don’t understand its specific context? Do critics avoid some exhibitions because of this; and scary - do curators ever include an Other identity to critic-proof their exhibition? V E R Y sensitive. When art has a sense of self, the critic can truly be violent. Identity Artists are clustered and expanded with a shared sense of self - in spite of themselves. Each intersection is burdened with representative responsibility. And how can you honour an imposed responsibility like this when below you, like a rough, pothole ground, identity and quality are hyphenated. How can you walk straight? How can you move confidently? How can you feel safe?