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How do art historical texts and the media deal with disability? Answers on a postcard please... / 15 November 2011

For the Outside-In Step-Up program I am doing some research on how artists talk about themselves in terms of disability; and how art historians and academics refer to disability. As a beginning I am planning to gather as much material as I can on a broad spectrum of artists, before narrowing down to focus on a few artists.

The point of my research is to look at references to disability and impairment from the perspective of the Social and Affirmative Models of Disability. As a rule of thumb, within art catalogues, media reviews and art historical texts, disability is always viewed from the Medical Model: ie as a negative. Disability is always something to be endured, rather than something that inspires originality, in terms of technique.  It is something that places the artist in the realm of ‘the other’.

In contrast the Affirmative Model of Disability understands impairment from a disabled persons’ perspective. To quote Dr Colin Cameron from his PhD research, “impairment is part of who we are as human beings, part of the human condition (to be expected and respected on its own terms rather than pitied, excluded or reacted to with hostility), part of what makes us us (and proud to be us).”

Often, artists who are willing to talk openly about disability, do so from a much more rounded point of view. For example in her Creative Case for Diversity article, Jo Verrent, in exploring the portraits of photorealist painter, Chuck Close, quotes the artist talking about ‘prosopagnosia’ or ‘face blindness’ as the inspiration and motivation for the large portraits he is renowned for.

In The Madness of Peter Howson - a  BBC Four profile of the painter, screened in the summer of 2011, the celebrated Scottish artist talks with humour about mental illness and describes living with Asperger's Syndrome as an essential part of his being an artist. The dedication and vision he brings to his painting have a very real correlation with the impairment. Yet media reviews, tended to report on this aspect of the documentary as self-defeating.

I recently wrote about the painter Edward Burra whose work has been given a major retrospective as Pallant House Gallery for the first time in 25 years [see my blog on Dada-South's website]. As an individual he was very reticent in talking about disability, but there is no doubt that his painting technique, which makes his work stand out amongst 20th century British painters, was a response to living with arthritis.

Within the Social Model is the idea that disability is social construct. We are disabled by the barriers that society puts in our way, on account of having an impairment that makes us different from the perceived ‘norm.’ Within the Art World there is a myth that to be an artist, you have to be ‘special’. Being different is to some extent something that is expected, if within certain bounds.

Art School training in England over the last 30 years, has swallowed the myth of the ‘troubled artist.’ To be interesting, to be a potential ‘celebrity artist’, there has to be something different about you. As a result, there is often a cruelty in the way that the personalities of students are often interrogated and torn apart by art tutors, as part of the ‘artistic’ process. This idea of what makes an artist is nothing new! In her book Illness as a Metaphor, writer Susan Sontag, deconstructs the myth of the 'troubled' artist, by looking at a broad range of novels and literary texts from the early 19th century onwards. She analyses how myths that underpinned the romanticisation of tubercolosis were transferred onto myths about madness, during the last century. Within this she interrogates the romantic imagination and the struggle for divinity.

And within that struggle lies the rub. What is it that makes us spiritual? Or spiritual enough to be a ‘proper’ artist? How is it that the notions of being ‘troubled’ and being ‘spiritual’ are somehow interchangeable? The Social Model says that it is not impairment per se that is the ‘trouble.’ Rather, it is societies attitudes that create barriers to a truth about where responsibility lies.

I am looking for responses to help me in my research and wondered if you would provide some feedback on the following questions. Please feel free to post comments below or  send an email seperately to
Do you know of references to disability within art history books or exhibition catalogues, that I might investigate for research purposes?
How do you feel about talking about disability or impairment in relation to being an artist? Is disability something that you are open about when talking about your artistic endeavours?
How do you feel about Disability Art as a concept or art movement?
Do you have any thoughts on the notion of the ‘troubled artist?’


Bob Williams-Findlay

15 November 2011

I'm a little "troubled" by your methodology, Colin.

Is it possible to apply ideas from the Affirmative Model from an external gaze or are you only concerned with Artists who can 'self-identify' around impairment/disability issues and therefore seeking 'conformation'?

I'm questioning using methodology that might be anachronistically applied if text pre-date the conceptualisations being applied. It may be possible to 'read' texts which echo similar ideas from different time or cultures - however the reliability of 'interpretation' undermines, in my opinion, the purpose of the research.

Finally, there are 'social models' of disability which argue the view that disability is "socially constructed" however this excludes the original one developed by Mike Oliver. He states it is primarily "created" via the nature of Capitalist social relations.

Colin Hambrook

16 November 2011

Thanks Bob. I would go along with Mike Oliver's definition of the Social Model that disability is a construct of Capitalist social relations. In terms of methodology I'm interested in examining the dichotomies that exist. The Social Model of Disability has always struck me as a difficult to relate to for people with a mental health record; partly because we move in and out of 'impairment'; partly because many of us see the label, and the discrimination that comes with it as the problem. Within art history there is a further complication in the way that notions of 'madness' have been adopted and romanticised to create the persona of 'the artist.' The research is a line of enquiry, rather than a methodology, but the core of it I want to give an overview, firstly of the kinds of discriminatory reflections on disability that exist within art texts. And secondly at look at the reason many disabled artists with invisible impairments, don't see themselves, or don't relate the concept of being disabled.

Anne Cunningham

16 November 2011

The Art House includes artists with a wide range of perspectives e.g. disability arts through to people who never mention disability but work with us because they know we individualise what we do. Also people who are outside the debate and community around disability arts or disability.

One of the things that occurs to me is that the answer to your questions, for us, is grey and always individualised. I can think of artists we work with who do think of their disability as a struggle & find making work emotionally challenging and others who consider being disabled as an enabler or contributer to their practice. We often have the debate that this is not

'correct' in terms of social model thinking but honest to their experience - perhaps accepting a full gamut of emotions.

We are a partner for Pallant House Step Up Programme and really looking forward to the launch here on 1st December.

Best Anne

Anne Teahan

19 November 2011

Your research questions prompt many immediate thoughts. The idea of the 'troubled artist' - I suppose the classic romantic example of that is Van Gough - I would tend to think of the humanity in his work as a result of a high degree of sensitivity to people and their situations. But his periods of illness must have prevented him from working when they occurred - but maybe nourished his work afterward.

I think it's very hard to work when one is feeling 'troubled' - I know I work best when I'm able to do meditation and I know other artists who say the same thing.

So perhaps the experience of being 'troubled' whatever form that may take, can feed creativity and empathy once it is over.

I think the image of the 'troubled artist' in contemporary culture has shifted a bit to young, tragic musicians or performers and away from other artists - The most mainstream artists are sometimes ultra 'cool'- taking the emotional charge out of powerful subject matter (say the Chapman Brothers squeezing the emotion out of Goya by turning his images into cold shop-dummy sculptures).


2 December 2011

As an artist my work has always been issue based. Before my quality of life was enhanced by a wheelchair the issues were different. The visual intervention of the wheelchair necessitated a degree of re-focusing and when I felt confident to engage with society’s changed attitudes towards me I was able to add Disability Arts to my list of issues as well as acknowledging my disabled gaze as the context.

While I am happy to work with any issues that grab me, disability is inevitably a priority, with access on all levels, my main fascination.

Disable = to deprive of an ability.

As an artist I have never felt deprived of my ability. In a social context I see my life enhanced by my various wheelchairs, but the nature of my enhancement brings me into conflict with a society which consistently neglects responsibility for its attitudes and practices.

In that context I acknowledge that I am a disabled person, but would not describe myself as a disabled artist.

Disability Arts needs re-branding – a new logo and a new context.

As for troubled artist – is this the British way to describe an engaged and creative personality? I don’t think I understand it.

Colin Hambrook

2 December 2011

The whole 'troubled artist' thing is complex and is pretty unhelpful, generally. I agree with Anne that the image has perhaps moved more to young musicians. Perhaps one of the most well-known visual artworks that kind of sums it up for me is the image of Tracy Emin's 'bed'. I would contend that her installation reached such fame and notoriety not because it was a 'good' artwork but precisely because there is a stereotype being played out and exploited by the art world cognoscenti that to be a 'proper' fine artist you have to have 'something wrong with you.'

I would argue against the stereotypical assumption that to be a disabled person is to 'have something wrong with you'. It is a matter of perception and is much more fluid I feel, than is allowed for. My sense of dealing with having M.E. changes on a daily basis. I think it is for this reason that Disability Arts has something very important with which to educate the educationalists.

kaite o\'reilly

4 December 2011

Fascinating subject and fascinating comments, too.

Some immediate thoughts:

Surely this is about identity? Personally, I identify as a disability artist, as much of the work I make or write is informed by my politics and my experience of living within a disabling world - even if this is not immediately 'visible' in content.

But this is not the sole or defining tag I use - it also includes many other things I may choose to call myself (as a feminist i believe these roles are myriad and ever-shifting and that identity is a social construct).

But it's also about labelling and fitting very narrow definitions and pigeonholes that others (usually in the media) use to label or contain us.

Years ago when i wrote 'peeling' for Graeae, the media interest that followed the success of the show always focused down on me being 'a disabled writer who writes about disability'. Then I wrote a play about the relationship the Irish have with the English West Midlands following the IRA's 1974 bombing campaign in Birmingham, and confusion ensued: Suddenly I was the Irish writer who wrote about social politics. Then I co-created several pieces of live art across Europe, won an award for a performance event about avatars using CGI, produced another radio play, directed a piece of sign performance, was commissioned by the National theatre of Wales and suddenly there seemed to be separate, individual Kaite O'Reillys who had no relationship to one another, all scampering around the world making work - or at least, that seemed to be the way i was represented in the media. There was no one artist/practitioner/ writer called KOR who worked across these forms and subjects - I could only 'be' one thing at a time.

The way I self-identify (in myriad ways) has remained the same - but how I am boxed or defined or described by those outside me (agents, publishers, publicists, media, academics, cultural commentators, etc etc) differ according to the context, the prevailing tastes or fads tempered by the time.

I have no idea if this answers your question, Colin - I suppose I wanted to give an overview. I may self-idenitfy, but I am constantly being reinvented or made one-dimensional to 'fit' a simple context when others write about me as an artist.

As to the 'troubled artist' -as a writer and maker I avoid such terms as they seem reductionist and cliched.

Colin Hambrook

5 December 2011

Thanks Kaite - I used the term 'troubled artist' because it describes something about how we are seen, particularly in terms of the visual arts and how anything that isn't clearly decorative is often perceived.