Conditional artists

The art world divides artists into two kinds. There are artists, by which it means the acceptable figures who conform easily to its current idea of a legitimate actor in that role. And there are conditional artists, those who, because they don’t fit the norm, must be assigned an identifying adjective in front of the word ‘artist’: black, outsider, working class, disabled, folk, migrant, woman, gay, amateur etc.

SeikoThe adjectives change with the relative power and social acceptability of different groups. Women have gained artistic legitimacy during the 20th century, gradually breaking free of the qualifying label (although as one recent study of women writers shows, nothing like equality).. In other cases, such as disability arts, the emergence of the adjective is a sign that a new claim for recognition is being made. The qualifier is both a grudging acknowledgement of an artistic practice or sensibility and a block to any assertion of equal recognition implied.

It’s the kind of condescension evident in Dr Johnson’s famous dismissal of women in religious office, as reported by James Boswell in 1763:

Next day, Sunday, July 31, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.’

It is a protective strategy used by elites to convince others that how things are is natural, rather than the result of an unequal, even illegitimate, use of power. If it’s ‘normal’ that an artist should resemble Michelangelo’s ‘David’, then those who don’t must justify themselves as artists. Subordinate social groups are thus forced to validate a claim to equal treatment when it is actually the dominant group who should have to justify the status quo.

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