(This photograph was taken during my commission by Aidan Moesby for the Thresholds Online Exhibition at MIMA, but doesn’t form part of the final selection for my photographic series Safe as Houses.)
How does it feel to be an artist who’s output is misunderstood and therefore mis-framed and often overlooked in mainstream arts?
I’m certain autistic artists are not alone in feeling this. The so-called mainstream is a highly competitive, not to say fickle, world. There are trends and any artist can feel marginalised by falling outside current directions. Relevance can be a hugely problematic criteria for selection, for instance, but my blog post isn’t about this.
My post has nothing to do with sour grapes either, though the above image was recently ‘not selected’ for an open call. I never thought it would be. I’m more than aware that the autistic rapture contained within it quite possibly doesn’t translate. The vastness of space I discern in such a close shot may well not register in minds that don’t share my sensory world. So be it.
Yesterday someone told me that statistics are increasingly showing the prevalence of autistic people is nothing like what was thought, and that a recent presentation from the University of Birmingham quoted 1 in 54 in 2020.
I expect at some future point in time generations will look back at our ignorance in wonder, yet autistic people must and do live now.
This takes me back to my initial question about swimming against a perceptual tide. A phenomenon which places a significant number of us at great disadvantage not only because we face so many socially embedded barriers, but because our art (and what it signifies to us) is invisible. This may be simply expressed as ‘not cool’ or ‘edgy’ as understood in neurotypical culture.
This is frustrating and soul destroying. Often we’re expected to be savants, outsider artists or in need of art therapy. Sometimes we’re consumed for our exoticism; our AMAZING perceptual words glamorised for neurotypical tastes. To be seen we must bare our psyches or be exceptional and inspiring. We can be forgiven for suspecting that if we don’t tick any of the above boxes we better just disappear. If we can’t thrill you we’re not worth the attention span, sort of thing.
In my sector support work I meet a lot of autistics and other neurodivergent creatives. I’m hearing from arts organisations that neurodivergent artists are forming 50-80% of those seeking professional support offered through programmes and mentoring schemes.
Progress in our understanding of autism and neurodivergence at the level of lived experience is allowing us to identify ourselves in ever greater number. At grass roots level this is a literal tidal wave. My inbox is stuffed with enquires, and daily I encounter more creatives who’s profiles are multifariously atypical.
Progress in the sector feels slow when you’re at the coal face. It feels especially slow for the late diagnosed creatives who’ve been held back for a lifetime, and are only just finding their way. We may seem old (and thus irrelevant to some ) but we are young diagnostically speaking.
We’re also tired of not seeing ourselves reflected and of being overlooked because we can’t be seen.
I’ve long sat on the fence about whether our cultural output is distinct, because we are yet to be adequately surveyed or critiqued by those who know what they’re looking at. But this is much needed and our work is currently not being framed as usefully to us as it could be, in my view. We are not freaks, amateurs, or outsiders to ourselves. Conversely neurotypical culture quite often feels irrelevant, and not interesting to US. I feel such insights should be the starting point for vital conversations across neuro-types.
My considered feeling is that the sector needs to catch up before we face another major crisis of conscience about the damage done to a minority group. We’re an emergent culture facing huge challenges in organising concertedly, but the evidence about our lived experience and our growing numbers is compelling. There’s simply no excuse for sector thinking not to be ahead of the curve.
Yes, we have reached sector consciousness to an extent, but a sector which focuses on helping us fit the current professional mould is of limited value to us. What we need is opportunity shaped in our own image, and for that we need radical perceptual change.