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Disability arts - is it politics, or is it art? Who decides?

I have always been reluctant to write about my impairment issues. Such talk always leads towards a medical model, victim mentality. And that is why the disability arts community has always, rightly, made room for self-definition. We’ve been labouring against medical model labels that brand us as tragic for a long time. And certainly the weight of media still continues to represent us as victims of our conditions and to define us with negative stories about our lives; or dressing us up in the emperors’ bravest clothing.

For some time we have been labouring to get to grips with the Social Model thing about celebrating difference and understanding how the barriers to equality of opportunity etc. have been imposed on us by society. There has been a lot of mileage in those ideas; questioning the medical model and societies attitudes to disability. They have given us room to build the disability arts movement.

But now we have the DDA and a lot of positive change has come over the past ten years, in terms of accessibility and equality of opportunity. But there is still a weight of discrimination to fight against and I am not sure that any of us know where the disability arts movement is going? We have consistently failed to come together to debate our vision and purpose and to fight our corner for self-determination as a whole.

There is a case for saying that the disability arts movement has done disabled people a disservice in raising expectations of ourselves as artists beyond what we are capable of. In many ways it was simpler when we were plain ‘community art’ and had no truck with ‘excellence’.

For me a big motivating factor is still that creativity belongs to all. But somewhere along the line the political debates have outshone discussion about Art and aesthetics. It has become a case of the cart leading the horse. There is a big question to be tackled about why social and political issues have been conflated with art-making?

Why is a socially excluded disabled person expected to be an ‘artist’ as well as a person with a political grievance? I don't think there is a requirement, but I do think that the conditions of living with discrimination, means that we often become artists because or in spite of ourselves.

The nature of being in the public gaze and experiencing otherness influences our artistic sensibilities. And I have found that making artistic responses to discrimination has been essential to my survival – whether or not the work I’ve created is ‘good’ art or not.

During the heyday of Disability Arts cabaret we saw a lot of work that took a critical look a the Charity sector from the likes of ‘The Tragic but Brave Show’ and a host of performance artists that performed on that circuit. In recent years we’ve seen a lot of interventionist work from the likes of the Disabled Avant Garde that explores societies’ attitudes towards disabled people.

Not to forget Paul Darke’s spoof of the Leonard Cheshire website. The Charity sector has been responsible for many works of anti-disability art in the guise of self promotion – and these have been fuel for many disability creatives’ fire. The game has got more subtle as the Charity sector has either cottoned on to better marketing or has tried to do a better job, generally.

One of the most all-time personally hard-hitting pieces of anti-disability art was the poster campaign that launched Marjorie Wallace’s organisation SANE. It was 20 years ago when she plastered every high street across the country with sensationalist images representing people with mental health labels as dangerous murderers. One of the main campaign slogans read ‘He thinks he’s Jesus. He wants to kill you.’ And a central graphic, used a distorted manipulation of a bearded face intended to reproduce the idea of what it is to go through psychosis. It was an image influenced by Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but which turned the meaning behind his work on its head. SANE’s agenda then was to actively promote fear of disabled people. It inspired hundreds of us from the mental health community to take to the streets.

Discrimination is more subtle now. Such blatant examples of misrepresentation don’t get through the net so easily, but is the Charity sector more responsive to the needs of those they purport to serve? Today, I would still actively question SANE’s motives as an organization.

The job of reflecting back still needs to be done. And I would maintain that we still need disability arts to do that job. But as things move on questions about quality and aesthetic may prove to derail us unless we embrace constructive ways of opening up opportunities for education in the arts – and learn to face critical appraisal of what we put out in the public realm.

Pivoted as we are between making art for a community of disabled people and making art for a wider audience is there any wonder we consistently fail to attain the agenda for excellence? I have just been to the performance arts festival in Greenwich where a host of disabled and deaf companies were programmed and aside from Graeae’s exceptional ‘Against the Tide’, much of it was poor in comparison to the non-disabled work on show and is unlikely to get used again.

To accommodate change I wonder if disability arts, as a form that questions discrimination, may well have to die? It seems to be a prerequisite of human activity that we don’t recognize the value of what we have until it disappears. There is another important question to be asked in how we develop quality art in a world where the increasing pressure is to create work that has commercial viability. There are many and complex problems to overcome.

What do you think? How would you define disability art? What do you feel about the current climate within the movement as a whole?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 July 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 3 November 2010