1 November 2004
Mat Fraser talks about the support he's had from the Disability Arts world and the need for more constructive criticism.
Criticism not Judgement
We have to hang on to the idea of Disability Arts as a safe environment where disabled people who decide they want to perform, can explore who they are and find their voice as an artist. We can all benefit from the scene whether we are interested in producing work that is about impairment issues, or not. It's important that someone like Susan Hedges, for example - doesn't feel they have to write more than one song about their impairment, to be a part of the Disability Arts scene. In a world that tells us we're shit because we're disabled, it's especially important that we have a unique place that provides peer group pressure and support.
Whether what we create is 'good' or 'bad' - is the line where argument, concept, discussion and progression all meet. We need criticism. More than ever there is need for harder criticism. At the same time we need to stay free from the sort of judgement values that come from the mainstream, that deny our expression. There were problems with the recent Graeae production On Blindness, for example. Being told by critics that we were bad actors and that the play could have been better produced, was necessary. Being told by Charles Spencer - the Daily Telegraph critic - that the notion that a short-armed man could be a painter, was not credible. Well that is just ridiculous disablist crap.
It is important that we look at the levels of professionalism within Disability Arts. We need to move the line and decide which side of it we're on. If what a company does is to use Disability Arts to explore who and what they are as performers and as disabled people, that is fine. But we need to be clear that the work is about the process. When it starts to become about the product, we have to take on board that it will be subject to the levels of criticism that all art is subject to. That's a good thing.
It's about deciding who you want your audience to be. I've total respect for disabled artists like Johnny Crescendo who have stuck by their guns through their whole career. But it's one thing if you want to play to a disability audience and another if you want to be on ITV at 6pm. You're going to have to be able to deal with a lot of flack if you want to attack the mainstream - which has been my ambition. I need to be good at what I do and take great pains to be as professionally competent as possible - and still be in a position to take the political agenda forward.
Weathering the Storm
I've acquired skills by getting what training I could. I did my apprenticeship with Graeae Theatre Company - mostly learning on the job - getting as much experience within Disability Arts as I possibly could. I was able to try out my material as an MC and disability cabaret artist - knowing that people wouldn't criticise the subject matter.
I think that disabled visual artists have more of a battle when it comes to confronting the mainstream. They are at the front line of the contradiction in the arguments around what is good and what is bad. When it comes to Alison Lapper - whose assistant takes the actual photographs - there is a complete misunderstanding of her methodology and the disability aesthetic, which is the basis for her work. The criticism she gets that she is not a proper artist is totally unfounded. Disability Arts needs to weather the storm. People used to say similar things about African art because it wasn't like European Renaissance painting. Now we're versed in the contribution African Art has made to culture. I hope Alison Lapper will help Disablity Arts move on. I guess that's what we're all trying to achieve - to make the concept of Disablity Arts as valuable as other minority culture artforms.
We won't be taken seriously if the outside world doesn't see us acknowledging the need to be more critical of ourselves. And we will be found out. We need to make the choice of whether we want to be professional artists or beneficiaries of art therapy. Part of this process is acknowledging the importance of therapy. It can have huge significance for the lives of participants. And some people will go on to produce work worth absorbing. Of course it's not always ideal. There is still room for more user-led activity - especially for learning disabled people. But the scene where non-disabled people direct disabled people as if they are children, is dying out.
When it comes to serious work, we'll know Disability Arts is on its way when Alison Lapper has an interview on the South Bank Show. There have been many changes for the better over the past 10 years. There is much more of an understanding of who we are as disability artists. The difference now is that when I started back then, everyone had a political awareness and was involved in DAN. Now there is not so much of a political edge. I think I can see Paul Darke's argument - that turning our backs on being Disability Artists and attacking the mainstream, can mean pandering to mainstream values and losing sight of what we're trying to say. But I think that as long as I'm aware of what I'm doing and what I want to do, that this shouldn't happen.
I got an early warning when I made the mistake of getting involved in the See the Person poster campaign. I shot myself in the foot and did publicly acknowledge I'd made a mistake. But there has to be room for making and learning from mistakes. We need to stay strong in face of the discrimination that exists within the mainstream. And we need to be strong when it comes to criticising ourselves and our peers. If we continually respond to criticism by saying they just don't understand disability - when they mean we need to be more professional, we'll not progress.
We also need to learn by making more international connections. This is beginning to happen and is bringing some interesting dilemmas in its wake, because Disability Arts culture is so different in every country. I want to make a film of a year of Disablity Arts Festivals. I'm on my way to the Canadian Disability Arts Festival Balancing Acts in Calgary and the Giant Leap in New Zealand - and will take it from there.
To find out more about Mat's work visit: www.matfraser.co.uk