The wounds that arts and culture can cause – stealing our stories and selling our pain
Can arts and research spaces create barriers for marginalised identities instead of supporting them? Psychotherapeutic counsellor and writer Grace Quantock explains how and poses the questions we should be asking.
On a rainy morning I was looking for something to fuel me to trek the mile of broken pavements to the nearest bus stop and argue my way onto a bus (buses often don’t stop for wheelchair users, as only one wheelchair user is allowed). I prescribed myself therapeutic doses of poetry to ignite my bleak heart. On the bus on my way to work at the local arts centre, I sat and read, swallowing the stanzas, and inscribing the words in strands on my forearms with a sage eyeliner pencil.
For me, art is portable, immersive and transformative. Art has helped me survive in places that aren’t designed for me, and it has helped me through anxiety, pain and prisons. Art helped me access resources, find community, reflection, validation and guard against intrusion, invasion and assault. Books, for example, are portals that create connection; through their pages we can transcend space and time, impairments and limitations, grief and exhaustion. We emerge revivified, restored and expanded.
In the Reflecting Value podcast, I question how art and the spaces in which we experience art, impact those of us who historically have not been welcome in public space and spent years segregated behind closed doors or on the margins.
Because despite art’s ability to heal and transform, these are the same spaces that can perpetuate narratives that wound. We are seeing an increasing awareness of the need to give a voice to people of colour, disabled people, the LGBTIAQ+ community and many others who have been excluded.
The invitations for marginalised folks to speak, write and share can put us at risk as they do not always take into account the micro-aggressions and structural inequities which excluded us for generations. Quite simply, adding more diversity to the status quo isn’t the solution.
Art spaces create solace but can also provide structures for gas-lighting, manipulation and the risk of marginalised stories being mined or stolen. We are asked to prove our pain, or to paraphrase Sylvia Plath, ‘we pay the charge for their eyeing of our scars’*. I ask myself, when the only market is for our pain, what’s the value of our joy? The appetite of the audience shapes more than the story, it can narrow our internal sense of what is valuable. It minimises our nuanced, rounded lives and of course, when we do share our pain, we are often defined, stereotyped or dismissed by it.
*Words from Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath, 1960
Seeing the frames exercise
If you are a marginalised, creative culture maker in an arts or research space, I have some questions you may find useful to ask.
Let’s think about how we can practice approaching anyone who tries to define us with self-stability and questioning. Can we make a habit of considering what’s presented before us? To chew it, spit out what doesn’t work for us and only assimilate what does. We need to notice not just the content but the frames. Ask yourself:
- Who is the source?
- What might be their bias, their world-view?
- What benefit do they get from saying what they are saying?
This practice can be life-saving, especially as so many concepts are shaped to slip past our defences, through the wounds left by our trauma.
Assessing our appetite exercise
If you have privilege or power in an arts, culture or research space, here are my three questions for you to reflect on when working:
- What’s your appetite in beginning this work and what’s informed those appetites to date?
- What values have you brought with you to this project?
- Who is the audience and what are they socialised to crave? Is this an appetite you want to feed?
Let’s get clear on what we are bringing with us when we approach a project. Being excited about an idea for a piece of work isn’t enough when that excitement (or entitlement?) encourages us to centre our narratives and mine the experiences of marginalised folks in ‘support’ of them.
Can we build a practice of assessing what’s underpinning our appetite for creating whatever is on our sketch pad right now? When we know the shadows that inform our appetites, we are less likely to get lost in them and harm people.
If you are making art in the world right now, I believe in you and I care deeply. But I’m really fascinated in what could happen when we slow it down and take time to reflect. Slow inclusion, what can happen then?
Grace Quantock is a psychotherapeutic counsellor, writer and researcher working across health, social care and human rights. The author of the e-book Beyond the Boundaries, Grace has been published in The Guardian, The Metro and the Fabian Review as well as appearing in The New Yorker Online, The Observer and the Times.
Listen to Grace’s interview on the Reflecting Value podcast Episode 3: Who safe spaces?
Image: Courtesy of Grace Quantock
Description: Image of desk with pens and stationery in the background and stacked books in the foreground