Letting Artists Take the Lead

A group of people sitting in a circle, they rae engaged in lively discussion.
Image for Unlimited by Rachel Cherry. Artist's development day, April 2016.

Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent ponders creative agency…

At the moment I’m finding lots of people want to tell artists what to make – especially disabled artists. Should the market dictate the work? Should the media? Should funders? Critics? Anyone?

I’ve spoken with disabled artists angry at being labeled ‘too political’ and an equal number labeled ‘not political enough’; artists told that their work is impairment-porn, inspiration-porn, experience-masquerading-as-therapy. Perhaps worst – both artists whose work has been criticized as focusing too much on ‘aping mainstream art’ and hasn’t got enough “crip” in it, and artists whose work is apparently too disability-focused; told that somewhere the art has got lost.

In the ensuing discussions around Disability Arts Online’s coverage of a debate on disability and creativity in Wolverhampton, artist Simon Raven coined the term ‘Disability Art Lite’ to describe work which, in his own words, “might offer an appearance of inclusivity whilst offering no formal or conceptual challenge to divisive mainstream art/politics”. An interesting perspective, but it left me wondering: does all art created by disabled artists have to challenge the mainstream in order to validate its existence? Or should artists be allowed to have a multiplicity of responses and takes on the world, and on the works they create?


Selling out

I get particularly wound up when I see someone accusing artists as having sold out. What’s does ‘selling out’ mean?

Selling out is defined by Wikipedia as “a common idiomatic pejorative expression for the compromising of a person’s integrity, morality, authenticity, or principles in exchange for personal gain, such as money“ so if you sell out, you compromise your integrity for personal gain. For me, that’s if artists make work that isn’t the kind of work they really want to make; it means making work that appeases people – audience, funder or even peers – never the best starting points for new work.


Artistic excellence

 It vexes me when I hear artistic excellence used as a negative. Any concept of excellence is subjective and context-specific; the artistic excellence of a piece of agitprop is therefore judged on its ability to convince others of the validity of the ideas expressed: the artistic excellence of a classical ballet, for example, might be in relation to its interpretation of the original form and so on. Gone are the days when artistic excellence was simply a by word for ‘production values’.

Art of all forms, genres and varieties can be excellent – excellent simply means ‘extremely good’. I absolutely accept that for years there has been an underestimation in relation to the quality of the work disabled artists can produce due to lack of access into training and development opportunities and also a lack of being able to see and judge different aesthetics appropriately so, for me, artistic excellence is the way we challenge this still-pervasive underestimation.


Let’s get personal…

We’ve all got our own personal opinions, of course, and increasingly we have to out them, own them and equally stop them getting in the way of objectivity when it’s required. This is something Sophie Partridge did brilliantly in her recent review of Purposeless Movements, also in DAO, which begins “As someone who tends to be ‘challenged’ by impairment-based work…” and goes on to give the piece a considered, fair and impartial critique.

Just because we believe something that doesn’t mean that it’s right. I know this is a particular bugbear of mine (you can watch me mouthing off about it – amongst other things – at the 2015 No Boundaries conference in the ‘Can we do things differently’ session) but context is vital to understanding critique. It is for this reason, for example, that all Arts Council England arts assessors have to begin every review by completing a context section.


What does this all mean for Unlimited?

Across the summer, we’ll be announcing the call outs for our new commissions that open in the autumn – full commissions for work across all art forms that will be ready for 2018, as well as ideas for Research and Development. I suppose I want artists to think about what they really want to create, rather than trying to second guess what we might want to fund. Unlimited funds disabled artists and companies creating disability-led work across all art forms.

We’ll also be calling out for new panel members too – it’s important that those assessing the applications and making decisions about what Unlimited funds are a wide and diverse group with a variety of opinions and perspectives. Narrow panels make narrow choices – and well, we want to be Unlimited!






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