In our last editor's note, we said that we "haven't and won't publish inspiration porn." As tends to happen when a chaotic creature like us states an absolute, the universe has forced us to eat our words. The majority of the works we accepted this issue are directly engaged with probing around the outlines of "inspiration" and questioning its potential and integrity. Every piece we accepted challenged our ideas of what must emerge when disability poetics meets the demands of the modern socio-aesthetic trends.
When planning this issue, we thought to discuss the appropriation of outsider art (as it relates to disability) by mainstream artists and the continued marginalization of outsiders themselves. But as the issue evolved, different subjects took on an immediate relevancy to our editorial practices themselves. In the end, a discussion of Judith Scott and art brut will have to wait for another time, because we have a story to tell you.
We aim to feature a student artist in each issue. In this issue we have a young (early teens) abstract painter, Candy Waters, whose work would be a strong foray regardless of age.
When a preview of the upcoming issue of Deaf Poets Society went online, our editors started receiving emails (and Facebook messages on their personal accounts) warning us of the "controversy" surrounding our forthcoming student artist, Candy Waters. These messages encouraged us to "Google it" to avoid having Candy's inclusion "reflect poorly" on our journal. That's when we discovered an entire website dedicated to proving that Candy's work is a "SCAM!!!!" because (among other claims) sufficient evidence that Candy was doing her own paintings had not been released to the public. "Why did it take over a year and a half for video footage to be released of Candy painting?" the website asks. The amount of time and effort that has been put into denying that a child artist made her own paintings -- on this website, on Facebook, on copy-and-pasted Amazon reviews -- was shocking to us.
After an initial period of confusion, we took stock of the actual issues at work in a campaign such as this. Would strangers be so invested in proving that any adult, able-bodied artist's paintings weren't their own work? What was this assumption of incompetence that would require a young autistic artist to provide video proof of their working process, when adult neurotypicals are never asked to do the same? Quite to the contrary, there is an understanding in the fine art world that artists are permitted to create work by proxy. It is well known that Damien Hirst's paintings are completed entirely by highly skilled studio assistants, and that even many of the "old masters" had assistants who completed large segments of the work. So what would drive a person (...other than perhaps an art historian seeking tenure!) to stage a campaign calling any artist a "scam" for not carefully documenting their working process? It seems to us that the issue is a power differential. A (white, adult, cis, able-bodied, male) neurotypical artist is given assumed competence such that they can openly have others do their production, while an artist like Candy is assumed incompetent. As an art historian and studio art instructor who has experience with young neurodiverse painters, I see in this work familiar qualities -- it shares the exuberance of my own child's early paintings, a similar self-referential denial of the canvas as framework, and a strong instinctive use of color. As an editor, I'm willing to stand behind it and argue for the artist's right to refrain from defending their working practice.
And then there's the rest of the story.
We queried Candy's work in the context of a disability arts forum where it had been shared by her mother/caretaker. Candy is nonlinguistic (she neither speaks nor communicates with words); for this reason we had already made the decision not to publish a written artist statement. However, her work is frequently shared with text written by her caregivers, and much of this text is problematic. Candy's work is often labelled as "Candy Waters Autism Artist." Written descriptions speak of her abilities with clarifying phrases expressing the idea that her work is inspirational either because of her disability or "even though" she is disabled. Much of the promotion uses the language of exploitative "inspiration porn" that decenters individual achievement in favor of centering disability and the feelings of the abled viewer. This is in sharp contrast to the way "serious" artists are treated and not in keeping with the ideal of a disability aesthetics. No one speaks of how inspirational it is that Kandinsky was able to paint so beautifully despite his synesthesia. Nor is Monet's impressionism always labelled as "Claude Monet Short-Sighted Artist." There are questionable power dynamics at work here, too, when an artist is pigeon-holed by their disability or when a caregiver literally puts words to a work that was created by a non-linguistic individual. The art editors had a long discussion about the ethics of publishing and promoting work when we were not 100% certain that the artist would have given her blessing to the way in which it was being released. However, the work itself is clearly the result of an artist who finds joy in their materials and who creates as a way to communicate with the world -- and in that, it was something we wished to see shared.
Is this work inspiration porn? I feel certain that in an imaginary room apart, with just us "outsiders" as the creators and the audience, it is not. There is nothing in the aesthetics of these paintings that congratulates the viewer for their open-mindedness while de-centering the actual subject, nothing that dehumanizes, nothing that marginalizes. There is real beauty, and real talent, and a legitimate (if perhaps naive) contribution to contemporary aesthetic dialogue. But outside this imaginary room, in the context of its promotion and distribution -- and even its controversy? -- therein lies the rub. And yet, as a neurodiverse editor, I cannot allow the use to which society has put the work of my spectrum peers to be an excuse to silence that work. Art becomes meaningless without context, and yet a minority population cannot allow a majority population to define its meaning by defining its context.
This issue of content and context is also relevant the video work of our featured artist Erin Clark. She's a photographer, writer, and videographer whose online magazine Sex Icon positions itself as a crip's replacement for Vogue and focuses on documenting her traveling adventures and "babe life." Erin first came to our attention with a video whose description included the phrase "The #path into town is also accessible - if you have #wheelchair ninja #skills. Stairs, jutting rocks, gravel, steepths, all the #rugged #terrain. You #conquer all with your #sexicon #magnificence!" At first, a video like this seems related to the exploitative inspiration porn genre -- minimizing the need for accessibility while leaving the able-bodied viewer feeling good about their own lives. However, after spending some time with her work and looking more closely at both her magazine and her photography, a more complex conceptual and aesthetic element became clear to us... By re-appropriating the aesthetics and language of inspiration porn (and "sexy porn"), Erin works to infiltrate and destabilize the socio-aesthetic systems which are often otherwise oppressive for disabled individuals and for women. Under her intervention, memes which have been used to dehumanize disabled individuals are re-appropriated as a testimony to autonomy, and aesthetics which have been used to objectify women are re-imagined as a way to reclaim the physicality of her own body. Her photographs in this issue speak of the power of a woman asserting her autonomous disabled sexuality in a visual space that has long been dominated by normative bodies.
In the end, the video we accepted from Erin is somewhat unique in her oevre (a choice perhaps representing more of our editorial aesthetics than any inherent value). It deals less in either the coinage of popular travel videos or inspiration porn, and takes a cue from more intense, interior explorations of the body's relationship to its own limits and to the natural world. In this respect, it calls to mind Karrie Higgins' disability re-imagining of Parallel Stress.
We'd originally planned to discuss Michaela Oteri's Neo-Art-Nouveau (how's that for a mouthful!) portraits in the context of how its power dynamics, class, and insider status have traditionally defined the lines between the art canon's embrace of "pop art" and its rejection of comic art, illustration, and self-taught artists. Michaela's work can be usefully thought of as contemporary outsider art because of its medium and form -- it is designed for individual consumption rather than public display, it is based in illustration and relatively self-taught methods, and it references a design-based tradition. Yet in a sense it can also be understood as participating in a form of social critique similar to that which manifests in fan fiction -- she is taking a specific pre-existing art practice (the pseudo-art-nouveau portraiture style has become common in online and youth culture aesthetic culture) and adapting it to be inclusive of people who are usually excluded by its makers. Art Nouveau, in its original form and its modern adaptations, is usually a movement which elides all flaws: it creates stylized and idealized figures. Michaela works in this tradition, but forces it to make room for bodies that are disabled, or queer, or people of color (or all of these!). She's working in a genre that could easily be used to erase the need for assistive devices (many portraits subtly remove any evidence of disability -- how many portraits of Roosevelt show a wheelchair?), and rather than erase those devices she faithfully includes them as part of the acceptable body. This also is a work of reclamation that attempts to integrate the disabled body into the aesthetics of established society. Her work is palatable rather than challenging, and in that it creates a space for bodies like these to exist.
Yet Michaela's integration stands in stark contrast to our final artist, Hilary Krzywkowski, whose work is a rejection of, rather than accommodation to, the demands of able society. In this respect, Hilary is ironically coming from a more traditional "outsider art" perspective. Her work includes elaborate intellectual positioning, protest of medical and social "treatment," and the engagement of pre-internet style text and visuals. (Engaged text has been a running theme among our recent artists.) Where other artists may seek inclusion within the established aesthetic dialogs, Hilary's response is raw and challenging... and yet it is also part of a continued "outsider art" aesthetic which has been actively co-opted for the last hundred years by the self-proclaimed avant-garde that has elevated insider-recreations over outsider-lived experiences. It participates now in a genre of "edgy" art that had its roots in 20th century asylums and the post-war mining of mental illness (and non-Western identity) for their artistic gold. But that's an essay for another day.
For today, we celebrate each of these responses. As neurodiverse or disabled or D/deaf or chronically ill or otherwise outsider artists ... How do we we create and thrive? What does it mean to be an artist whose work and value will inherently be questioned in a way that insider art will not? Do we let reception dictate our creation? Do we embrace the challenge and force our way into established aesthetics? Do we celebrate our victories even knowing that these celebrations may be co-opted by those who will use them against us? Do we try to forge our own way, risking failure in uncharted territory (and even if we could -- can any artist really escape the socio-aesthetic landscape in which they percolate?).
Good night, readers and listeners.