Last week DAOs FaceBook group was the site of a raging debate about disability, art and identity. Between 19-27 November members of the group posted something in the region of 15,000 words in 122 posts. Responses were passionate. It was a valuable debate testing the validity, or otherwise of Disability Art, a Disability Arts Movement and of definitions of being a 'disabled artist'.
Many of the contributions question the social model ethic of 'self-definition' and the validity of art that is informed by identity. The debate was prompted by Katherine Araniello questioning "a trend in disability culture of becoming a 'broad church' to include a wide range of illnesses, and character traits which have been problematised through both self-definition and current political thinking that we are all suffering from trauma and mental illness."
I guess it depends on your perspective. From my own experience of mental health issues I have no doubt that mental health is 'disability' issue. The most disabling aspect being the lack of an arena to talk about the issues outside of a 'medicalised' approach.
There has been the biggest backlash in the Press in recent years against disabled people, and in particular disabled people with mental health issues, for receiving disability benefits. According to the report published by Inclusion London a year ago, the press have been putting out the message that the majority of disabled people are only pretending to be disabled people. We are not who we say we are, but simply fraudsters. The mainstream view ignores the understanding of the disability movement of disability as oppression - as standing for the barriers that society places in front of people.
So what has this all got to do with art? Many feel that the politics around identity get in the way of art; that identifying as a disabled artist takes away from the value of the work produced.
I've been asked by several people who took part in the debate to post the comments from the DAO FaceBook group so you can read the arguments for yourself and continue the debate!
Last night was the 21st Anniversary of Survivors’ Poetry. It’s not difficult to fill the Poetry Café in Betterton Street, London, but it was a suitable venue for what was for me, an emotional occasion. Being involved with Survivors’ Poetry through the 1990s was instrumental in my getting involved with the Disability Arts Movement.
Joe Bidder was then and remains to this day, an engaging mentor and advocate. Without him I would never have been able to move forward with the work I’ve done within the Disability Arts Movement over the last twenty years. At the event he reminded us how instrumental Arts Council were, then, through the vision of Bushey Kelly, in establishing Survivors’ Poetry. Joe reminded us how radical and effective the group was in establishing the first ever Arts Charity staffed and run exclusively by survivors of the mental health system.
Another founding member Frank Bangay recalled how much of the organisation of gigs and workshops, back in the day, happened from his ‘office’ in the local telephone box! Frank’s poetry always stirs with a spirit for understanding and compassion, arresting the listener with images of the healing power of nature. Accompanied on guitar by Alastair Murray and with a mean harmonica in hand he gave us his song of hope for England.
Frank has been a cornerstone of the Survivor Arts movement since the 1980s and continues to be a prolific writer and producer though his work with Core Arts. I’d recommend reading an interview with him by Xochitl Tuck published in the Spring/ Summer 2005 edition of Survivors’ Poetry Express.
Another founding member Hilary Porter, talked about her initial reticence, followed by her gratitude for everything that Survivors’ Poetry has meant to her. I remember her dedication to making the events and workshops all those years ago so welcoming. Her self-effacing, warm nature were an inspiration that kept the Survivors’ spirit alive through many years.
Razz has also been there since the beginning. He continues to bring an ineffable charm and enthusiasm to the performances and workshops he organises with Xochitl and takes part in at the Poetry Cafe and Tottenham ‘Chances’.
The event made me realize how much I miss the spirit of survivors performing and the gentle supportive vibe that is such a hallmark of what is so valuable and necessary to giving survivors of the mental health system a space to express ourselves and to cope in a world that can be so cruel and insensitive towards those of us who struggle in our daily lives.
Simon Jenner continues to keep Survivors’ Poetry going. The website contains some great live films of performances by various members of the group, including some of the wit and wisdom of the fourth founding member of the group, Peter Campbell, who unfortunately was unable to make the anniversary night. When Peter talks about the presence of God on Cricklewood station you just know he speaks truth. Go to http://www.survivorspoetry.org/the-poetry/performances/ for some real gems.