Having entered a decade akin to the Victorian age with an increasing rise in importance placed on benevolence and charity we have to ask ourselves is there a place, now, for Art Movements that seek to address social justice and inequity within society?
Or do we rather want to throw in the towel; see it all as worthy nonsense and let the White Men in their ivory towers carry on business as usual putting the mundane and populist at the top of the charts. Has Disability Arts or Black Arts or Women’s Arts or Gay Arts, for that matter, ever made a difference?
I came away from DASH’s Awkward Bastards conference with an overriding sense that the communities that fit within the ‘creative case for diversity’ conversation, set up by Arts Council England, have more in common than you might have realised.
For some time we’ve had this sense of all of what have been deemed by the Equality Act 2010 as ‘protected characteristics’ ie communities of Disabled, Black, Gay and Women as having been lumped together in some politically correct paradise where none may venture except with a sense of worthiness.
After all as Tony Heaton, CEO of Shape and one of the Awkward Bastard panelists, is fond of saying: “no-one looks at me wheeling down the street and thinks ‘there goes a ‘diverse’ person’.” I would hasten to add, though, that I can’t imagine anyone of any characteristic, boxing themselves in with a ‘diverse’ tagline, in the same way that no-one would describe themselves definitively as an ‘equal’ person. Diversity is a process surely, a way of understanding the differences that exist within society. And equity is, hopefully, what we strive towards.
So how do we unravel ‘diversity’ as a platform for issue-based artwork? Awkward Bastards named after a piece of poetry from Firing the Can(n)on of disability arts - a film and digital artwork by Sean Burn was all about unpicking several conversations about Art and the Art-maker and the relationship of both to what’s happening in the world.
It was also about the fact that the history of artists who have had the audacity to presume that Art can change anything for the better have continued to be consigned to a wall of silence. The will for universal Human Rights moves in cycles and we’ve been arcing back towards greater and greater inequity over the past 15 years. Who knows how far the tide will turn?
If you compare Human Rights under Queen Victoria’s reign between 1819-1901 to the previous eighty years, you could argue our society then existed at a time of enlightenment. You’d have to discount the ravages of the British Empire and atrocities such as those perpetrated by the East India Company for example.
On the face of it you could argue that the 19th century marked the beginning of 200 years of moving forwards. The Slave Trade Act came into force in 1807, abolishing the slave trade in the empire, followed by the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834. Women first got a vote in 1918; Homosexuality was decriminalized within The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 and finally the first Disability Discrimination Act became legislation in 1995. But then how much did legislation actually stop corruption, abuse and the misappropriation of power?
However much you try to make a meal of race and disability, what it really comes down to is issues of class and the lack of opportunity, which comes with being marginalized in one shape or another. Of course, the communities that mostly tend to get left out of any conversation about equality is reference to the rights of Children and Old People.
Emily Dugan in The Independent recently reported that every year, an estimated 5,000 children die in the UK, with disadvantage being a major factor in preventable deaths.
The Office for National Statistics reports that the current death rate in England and Wales is running about one-third higher than its normal rate for this time of year, official statistics show: with 28,000 deaths in the two weeks ending on 23 January 2015, compared with the average of 21,000 deaths, which has been consistent over the past five years.
However you wan to package and box the Arts, or not, there is a responsibility for artists to reflect back on what is happening within society. Without the structures that allow for reflection and pause; that give rise to an understanding of how we see ourselves and how we are seen, then we will inevitably veer towards a fascistic state that only allows expression that supports a singular view of itself.
Access to Arts, Health and Education is being snapped away by the bucket-load. Libraries are being closed down, the Arts are generally being devalued more and more as we increasingly become a cruel society; one that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
While the brunt of austerity is born by the poorest and least powerful people within our culture, according to an OECD report in 2011 the wealthiest tenth of society earns 12 times as much as the poorest, up from eight times as much in the 1980s.
We need our awkward bastards more than ever, I would say!