The title for this blog post is a quote which comes from an article published by Shape Arts called How to Get an Exhibition. It’s an article “adapted to suit disabled artists and sit alongside Shape’s own resources…”

I’ll quote a fuller excerpt,

“The art world is Social and I’m capitalising that because frankly you’re not getting anywhere making art in isolation. No-one is going to come knocking if no-one knows who you are. You have got to introduce yourself (and that won’t be welcome if you’re not a decent person), which brings me to…”

This is prefaced with advice about working cooperatively. Don’t be adversarial or a ‘user’, my term. It’s a wholesome tip, what can be so wrong? Well, consider the socially disabled. Yes – we do exist – though clearly we’re invisible to even wonderful disability arts organisations which are much beloved, like Shape.

So saddened and frustrated am I to see such output from a disability arts organisation that I’m moved to blog about it.

Autistic artists are unlikely to be ‘users’ or even adversarial – though our social behaviour might make us seem so because we are so easily misread. We are more likely to be trampled on by others using our ideas and making capital out of our social vulnerabilities than vice-versa.

The art world is Social – with a capital S – is a statement which tells you everything you need to know about about an environment which is excluding, at times toxic and frankly (to borrow the author’s tone) disabling for autistic artists.

There will of course be autistic artists out there making their work in isolation – that’s the point!  It’s not necessarily a choice for us – though it is complicated.

It may be that some of us are without a network because this is what happens when you have a social disability. Another factor is that ‘isolation’ can be enabling on a creative level. Some of us don’t find collaborative working accessible and need ‘isolation’ of a certain kind to make our work. This can be usefully reframed as solitude – though our need for it can be unusual and profound.

It’s inappropriate to advise against isolation to a group who can’t help it – for whom it can be both a feature of creative life and/or a consequence of their disablement.

And not even the no-one will come knocking is the worst of this grisley finger wagging advice. Yes, we know. We’ve known this forever, thank you!

You have got to introduce yourself – gets right to the nub of things though. I’ve heard this before somewhere. The ‘get stuck in’ school of advice, which is about as useful as a kick in the teeth for those who live with levels of social anxiety often associated with social disability.

However, the worst is reserved for last.

I suspect there will be something truly sinister, about the quote marks around ‘decent person’ and the admonition about a lack of welcome, for the autistic reader. You have to unpack what this means and the assumptions buried within such a statement. ‘Decent person’ is here (I assume) someone who can perform neurological typicality (for want of a better phrase). A person who can show collaborative spirit and can demonstrate they are a team player. It means someone who can pass a neurotypical popularity test, which is essentially what most networking is about.

What if neurological challenge means you can’t remember names or faces, and can’t keep up with the alphas of this Social world. What if you can’t process interactions in the moment. The alphas shuffle according to criteria those with social disabilities often can’t fathom because they are whimsical and illogical, based on something we can’t see or touch. It is also the case that we often see too much. Where’s the advice about social ‘lying’?

Some of us can’t prove we’re ‘decent’ because the Social world disables us. So although it wasn’t intended that way, this is ableist and a worrying sign that autistic artists are still not visible in disability arts.

Post Script:

I have been approached on Twitter by White Pube with a demand to edit my post – due to misrepresentation – because they say I have misread the article. The politics of asking me to edit myself aside, the concept of ‘misreading’ is highly problematic when it comes to autistic perspectives. Layers of social bias can be missed by non-autistics as I feel is the case here. In this respect my article is fair and true to my experience. The advice given is out of reach to autistics, notwithstanding it’s usefulness as an exposé of an elitist system.

I’m delighted by the welcome to critical comment from Shape Arts, and include a disclaimer which can be found at the bottom of their article, below.

I am available for comment and advice to Shape Arts on how to improve the presentation of this article for autistic people.

We recognise and appreciate that many artists we support face barriers to communication and networking, whether in person or online, and welcome suggestions from people with lived experience of these barriers towards the creation of resources which address such issues. We are interested in exploring ways in which networking events can be made more welcoming and inclusive, and also the strategies artists use to connect with and influence others, whether or not they use traditional networking techniques or pathways.

To get in touch, please contact us via [email protected] or call us on 0207 424 7330. We also run accessible artist development events where people can meet with us and others in an art context.

If for whatever reason going to physical events isn’t always an option for you, we also run a Facebook group for disabled people who work in contemporary art (as artists, curators, programmers, teachers, media and beyond), based in any country, which is aimed at facilitating discussion, support, sharing and networking – you can find it here.”

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