Critical Thinking – critiquing disabled artists

Unlimited is on the verge of announcing the next set of artists that we are commissioning, and we’ve just received the independent assessment of the artistic quality of those in the last round, produced by 509 Arts. Within the report, they commented on the issue of reviews and critique: “Whether external reviewers tend to be more generous with the work of disabled artists is a question worth asking. It may be that conventional approaches to criticism are inadequate for some reviewers and they opt for the safer option of offering a critique that examines but does not judge”.

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer, Unlimited took up the conversation with Dr Matt Hargrave a Senior Lecturer in Drama & Applied Theatre at the University of Northumbria and author of Theatres of Learning Disability:  Good, Bad Or Plain Ugly?  (Palgrave), soon to be published.

JV: Matt, we’ve talked often about quality, critique, judgement and review in relation to the work of disabled artists. What for you is the problem?

MH: First of all, there’s a theoretical problem. My sense is that the critique of Disability Arts, if not the practice, is currently still heavily weighted (at least in the UK) toward the social model of disability. The social model is great at doing the things it was designed for: advocate for increased human rights and lobby for legislative change; but from my perspective, it’s pretty useless at dealing with the nuances and complexities of aesthetic experience. That’s because artistic enquiry, at its best, is removed from a means/end relationship. I’d argue that is often harmful to artistic processes to ask them to deliver things like equality or fairness, or to suggest that you can define a neat correlation between democracy in art and social democracy. I think the two spheres  – aesthetic and social emancipatory – need to be separated out in order to inform and influence each other; and that is where the social model falls down in relation to art. Many viewed Disability Arts in its formative years (late eighties/early nineties) as the vanguard  – or cultural wing  – of the social model: it’s clear that art’s role was always subordinate to the goal of creating a distinct disability culture.

JV: But now the work has opened up and shifted? Different artists make very different work and not always from that social model perspective. And why should they? Artists have always resisted labels and fitting in boxes and disabled artists have the right to make the work they want to make rather than having to create work to fit into a purely political frame. We saw this evident in many of the recent applications we’ve been considering – a whole variety of perspectives.

MH: And this leads to a second – and in some ways very practical – problem:  how do you decide if the work is any good? Much of the work being shown through Unlimited and elsewhere is pushing at the boundaries of art forms but the resulting critique is not moving with it. Or at least the work being done by academics is not reaching and getting into dialogue with the practice. The ‘critical dialogue’ panels at the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival 2014 were simply not as searching as many of the performances; and I think this creates a big gap. The danger is that the gap is filled by rather simplistic positions that don’t keep dialogue open. For example:  ‘Its too celebratory!’; ‘So we can have wheelchairs floating under water but what about the austerity measures?’ or ‘Its elitist to ask whether or not this work is good!’ I think this last position is actually a kind of reverse elitism and an intellectual cul de sac; it doesn’t support artists to grow and develop their work.

JV: Provocative! And fascinating stuff. But the question is what can we – both Unlimited and the academic sector – do to move things forwards? From our perspective – selecting the best work we can has to be part of the picture… and you?

MH: Well, there is stuff I’ve already done, and stuff that I want to be part of in the future. I have a book coming out this year, Theatres of Learning Disability: Good, Bad Or Plain Ugly? (Palgrave) which as you can probably tell from the title, asks some direct questions about the making of aesthetic judgements. It was really hard work because I was continually plagued by the thought that: (a) most of the artists quoted in this book won’t be able to read it; and (b) I’m not disabled (yet) – and how much of a problem is that?  In answer to the first question: I collaborated with others to create an Easy Read version, which appears as an appendix to the book. And the second:  this pushed me into some important reading.

I think Margrit Shildrick’s work is incredibly important and in many ways helped me to formulate a position in the book: that disability can no longer be reduced to a binary difference; rather its appearance highlights the profound interconnectedness of all identity; all persons should be validated as desiring subjects; non-disabled persons have as much right – and responsibility – to speak about these issues as disabled persons; and that all these issues are more complex than material exclusion (and thus cannot be ‘solved’ purely through redistribution of resources).

JV: And you’ve currently have gained funding for a PhD applicant to engage in a critical examination of the work of both established and emergent artists who define work in relation to their disability, including the newly selected Unlimited artists to be announced on the 26th March.

MH: Yes and there have been some very interesting enquiries so far! I hope it is clear from the call out that we are looking for someone who wants to explore some of the questions posed.  I think it is absolutely possible to do this through practice; but there needs to be a strong theoretical grounding and a willingness to look outside their own immediate sphere of interest. The initial quote from your quality assessor really resonated with some of Stuart Hall’s work I was looking into. In the ‘Handsworth Letters’ Hall engages with in a debate with Salman Rushdie about the quality work by young black filmmakers. These questions of aesthetic judgement are precisely those Hall engaged in from ‘inside a continuous struggle and politics around black representation’; and which he was at pains to admit were ‘extremely tricky’ because the ‘mode’ of address was as important as the particularity of the judgement itself (1988: 10).  As Hall concluded the job of criticism is to ‘get both things right’, a challenge that is evoked again by the Unlimited commissions. I thought that Hall’s articulation of the ‘politics of representation’ (critical, shifting, perpetually re-positioning) as distinct from the ‘burden of representation’ (essential and fixed black/white subjects) was timely once again. I would hope the person doing the PhD would have an open mind about what the ‘politics of disability representation’ are and not be afraid to challenge existing orthodoxies.

JV: And the PhD isn’t the end of the story?

MH: Oh no. In the future, I want this funded PhD to be part of continued process of critical development. You and I have already talked about putting together an AHRC research network that brings disabled artists, producers and academics together. So I’m working on that now. Northumbria Performing Arts and Unlimited will be holding a small R&D event at Northumbria in July to get the ball rolling. I think this kind of critical engagement with Unlimited will really help to create a strong legacy and encourage further documentation of the work. I also want to be able to continue to reflect critically on work that I think is unique and beautiful. So at the moment I’m writing a chapter called ‘The Kindness of Strangers: Torque Show’s Intimacy (2014) and the experience of vulnerability in performance and spectatorship’.  It’s a critical enquiry into a show by Australian company Torque Show in collaboration with Michelle Ryan. I saw it at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival 2014. It’s fantastic.

JV: So how can people get involved? What can people interested in this do?

MH: Whatever they need to. Some people might have a vehemently different opinion from mine – and that’s fine, I think the main thing is we get the conversation flowing, and at a more critical level than before.

If someone is interested in applying for the funded PhD, the best thing is to get in touch with me directly and send a draft proposal so we can discuss it prior to submission (

If people want to know more about the R&D gathering, they can email too – but as I said, we’ll be keeping that small at this R&D stage as we’ve only got enough funds for a small plate of sandwiches!

JV: Thank you for your time. Looking forward to your book launching late June/early July and the ways we can collaborate further especially after the news of our commissions next week.

matthargreave Front cover photo by Tim Smith.


 Top image from Ian Johnstson, Dancer. Photo by Niall Walker.