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Colin Hambrook posts the debate from FaceBook group on disability art and Identity / 5 December 2012

ink drawing of several figures in a strange landscape

Ink drawing from illustrated poetry collection '100 Houses' © Colin Hambrook

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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!

Keywords: access,access issues,art,art and mental health,creativity,disability,disability art,disability equality,disability representation,disabled artist

Comments

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

Liverpool based poet and writer Denis Joe has written an important article at http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/rethinking_art_and_disability/

His feature is an opinion piece about art and the new trend in disability culture 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. 

Look at how Ed Miliband has stigmatised our citizens, that mental illness is the "biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age". This is a worrying trend, and when such thinking permeates art, or illnesses and disabilities that are effectively managed through breakthroughs in medical and technological innovation, can the broad church approach to defining disability be maintained as something in need of special support? Does this make a mockery of people who genuinely need the additional support because of their disability?



What do people think?"

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

I have always been pro the definition of mental health issues as a disability in the sense of social model thinking that society determines who is and who isn't 'sane' - but can see how the framing of 'illness' and 'disability' within the same 'broad church' can lead to simplification that is more of a hindrance than a help.

Steven James

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4 December 2012

"Disability" is often used poorly in society. "impairment" versus "illness/debilitating/confusion" etc. Sanity is subjective and about the only so-so test we have is: is the person a dnager to themselves/others, or can they function for basic needs? Beyond that...more we learn more we find environmental biology has massive impact, not psychology per se.

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

I was at the event Denis Joe described in his article. He criticised Rachel Gadsden for not talking about her impairment issues, when in fact she talked openly about how her growing sight loss has affected the way she makes work and about how the fact she has to be injected every minute in order to stay alive has given her an appreciation of living in the moment that led to her search for the Bamabanini when she happened upon some of the images. I don't know where he got the idea from that there were 'speakers' making patronising, racist assumptions about the plight of people in South Africa. The speakers who took part were three members of the Bambanini Group and Gadsden! On the one hand he talks about the group of AIDs survivors as being 'inspirational' and then goes on to rubbish their 'body map' artwork as being so low-brow as to be below any aesthetic critique. From several years of bitter, personal, family experience I know only too well how destructive denial of ‘disability’ is - how railing against the understanding that taking on that identity gives can tear families apart. Coming to an awareness of how illness disables you from taking part in society is a crucial step. The alternative is to remain steadfast in a belief in your own 'perfect' state, which perpetuates a state of dependence from a point of total ignorance.

Caroline Cardus

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4 December 2012

I didn't like the article. The point about a growing trend of labels may be relevant but the cynicism Denis Joe rested on does not acknowledge what is a complex issue. I fail to see the point of throwing around a few negative over-exaggerated examples (i.e. 'shyness' - oh, and is addiction trivial)?! He continued to over-simplify things with his ponderings on disability and the paralympics, again not expanding the point that paralympians and the use of assistive technology are not the answer for every type of impairment, or indeed show any awareness at all that there are plenty of disabled people who couldn't possibly be Paralympians (maybe it would help if could see Katherine Araniello's 'Meet the Superhuman' films). Then I couldn't help chuckling when in the second to last paragraph he un-selfconciously says 'But what of the art itself?' Was this an arts review, a diatribe on the misuse of labels, or a rethink (as the title suggests) on art and disability? In all areas a little more depth would have been gratifying.

Katherine Araniello

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4 December 2012

Perhaps the art world is advocating to remove the stigma imposed by society on the label 'disabled' in which case the more of us that refer to ourselves as disabled who do not 'fit' the obvious negative stereotype will mean the definition of the word disable will therefore transmute. If we are trying to shred the negative connotations associated with the label of disability, such as the article suggests, applying for ring fenced bursaries that automatically label your art as disabled, forces the audience to focus on the artist rather than the work. You immediately ask the viewer to appreciate the work in the context of having been created by a 'disabled' person, rather than an artist. Perhaps rather than there being ring fenced funding to produce disability art there should be ring fenced funding to allow artists with disabilities to make work with funding available for additional support that may be required in association to the individuals disability needs.

Trish Wheatley

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4 December 2012

Interesting piece and yet another text that confuses matters by not stating at the outset whether this is written from a social model perspective. The use of language suggests not (or not entirely). Maybe the question to be asked is more about how more people identifying as disabled will influence debate, art and thinking? I would have liked to have seen a more rounded and thought through argument about art as activism as this is core to much of the disability arts movement and is worth being contextualised and discussed in this arena.

Jo Verrent

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4 December 2012

Fascinating debate - I'm all for open discussion although not so comfortable when it all gets personal. I understand the issues but find it hard to find an easily drawn 'line' apart from self definition in accordance with social model approach... How many of the 12 artists (who all self define as disabled) in Total Permission 'count' for some? http://thespace.org/items/e0001ate

Rachel Gadsden

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4 December 2012

An article like this opens a can of worms doesn't it. I remember on the day that this article refers too being asked to define my disability, I sensed then that there might be some disbelief that I had one, perhaps because it is not visible. I questioned at the time whether it was of any additional interest or whether it actually needed to be stated, the event was about individuals coming together to share a sense of being through art. Anyone who knows me is more than aware that I am kept alive by an injection that every minute injects me with a drug to keep me breathing, I have also lost a huge amount of my sight, and I have an extensive list of debilitating physical conditions that affect my every living moment. Non are visible. The Bambanani now have life saving medical treatment, but we would be very wrong to assume that this therefore means that their reality is that of a so called "normal" healthy individual. The issues of defining as a disabled individual in SA are still huge, this is not something that the Bambanani Group have had the opportunity to do, as to do so brings further alienation to what is already a complicated difficult existence for all of them. The Bambanani and I do not see ourselves as victims, just circumstances. We therefore celebrate that if nothing else, this subject is on the agenda and being discussed here and that was what we hoped for. Interestingly the Body Maps are not part of this commission, they were created in 2001, visual diaries made for the makers families, there were 13 members of the Bambanani Group, 8 are still alive. Our collaborative exhibition of artworks, films and a performance explored the many layers relating to all of the issues we are exploring here and the commission enabled us to join together and create an extraordinary collaboration. And in response to Katherine's further comments on the other dialogue....... Many thanks for your further in put into the conversation Katherine Araniello in 2009, I spent 18 months as artist for Parliament, and it became so evident that there is still a huge necessity for creators to stand up and make sure that through their voices as artists, activists and makers etc these issues are kept alive and on the agenda. Your clear comments echo every hope I have that the can of worms is open and the debate is alive and kicking, many thanks!

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

I agree with what Katherine says. There is a need to break down the negative stereotype that is attached to a disability identity. The problem has always been that the 'disabled' label immediately puts a focus on the artist, rather than the artwork because of negative stereotypes and the fascination of the mainstream with anyone not dubbed to be 'normal'. The focus needs to be on the artwork but influence happens through being open about 'disability'.

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

This is a crucial debate. I am wallowing in my impairments right now, but will buck up and join in later!

Rachel Gadsden

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4 December 2012

Thanks, yes please do Penny. Your voice is critical to this debate. I too have been through the wars lately, the worst thing about impairments is that they never go away, and exhaustion overwhelms at times. I am sending you support to be strong and please keep speaking out!

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

Thanks Rachel. Bruised from having a Grant for the Arts turned down, despite massive guidance beforehand. Ties in - what the hell do we have to do? Is a 'broach church' a dismal insipid church? Through my writing, I want to be part of what blasts away the negative of 'disabled' labelling but, meanwhile, the struggle to survive can be hard enough. The grass roots are rotten and straggly, disparate, and we have less ties to connect us than in my younger days. What is to be done? More later.

Caroline Cardus

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4 December 2012

It's great how everybody is participating in this thread. I particularly like this bit from Katherine Araniello 'ring fenced funding to produce disability art there should be ring fenced funding to allow artists with disabilities to make work with funding available for additional support that may be required in association to the individuals disability needs.' I also agree with Colin Hambrookabout the need to break down negative stereotypes connected with disability identity. I do wonder if we will see less politically motivated work being favoured as a result as the mainstream / funders begin to be move receptive to partnerships with disabled artists, although I hope this is not the case. As we move into a time where organisations might be more receptive to working with disabled people a strong focus on the fairness and openess of the process is needed, not just in terms of access and equal representation but also culturally.

Caroline Cardus

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4 December 2012

I did wonder what Denis Joe meant by saying 'handicapped' is a more precise term... precise how? Did I miss being issued with a cap somewhere along the line?!

Gary Thomas

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4 December 2012

Although having had issues since birth which meant I wasn't fully accepted by society and then being able to have these corrected, but then having mental health and other issues as well, I definitely define myself as disabled as sometimes its just a fact. There are things I have major problems with, and there are many barriers to achieving what I want to do with my life. Having said that, here's an article I posted back in April about my take on the word disabled. Maybe I should do a couple more posts about why I use this word. http://www.disabilityartsonline.org/Gary-Thomas?item=1243

Ruth Gould

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4 December 2012

Glad the debate around this is still ongoing - but brings up loads of issues - the debate around disability /disabled arts will continue and those of involved by personal experiences have a lot to say about how our art is perceived ourselves - and the big gulf emerging around how those with no experiences of disability react to such work. I was at the said event - in fact we programmed and paid for this as part of DaDaFest and I was surprised at the reviewers comments. Wasn't he listening? Was his mind made up before he came into the room? He certainly had not done his homework - (this was the eleventh DaDaFest - not third) and given this was the second review of DDF and Niet Normaal I am of the opinion that is is lazy reporting. Nonetheless it is good to get different view points - but makes we so aware of how much people actually understand about diverse issues and the oppression that we live with. we do need variance in comments and I welcome them and pleased that Katherine felt to post this to move debate on - but I would like to feel such writers get the bigger picture and not make statements that are negative unhelpful and opinionated unless the context is well thought through fair in its assessments - this one clearly was not.

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

Just to throw more thoughts in for reflection and discussion. My point in my opening preamble is that the mainstreaming of mental illness is a greater problem than the genuine problems that need support and assistance. Have a read of this article by Lisa Appignanesi, where she raises a concern (one that I share):

"Such reports are worrying. They may draw attention to a rising toll of human suffering, but they pinpoint the imperialising tendency of the mental health sector. Our ills and unhappiness are squeezed into a package labelled "disorder" and an ever-proliferating assortment of supposedly objective diagnostic categories. A cure is somehow promised, though it rarely seems to come, certainly not for everyone or for ever."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/06/mental-illness-medicalising-normality

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

There are problems with medicalising mental distress - and labeling who we are and how we feel as 'problems' is largely unhelpful. But then so is ignoring the issues that arise from mental distress. The problem is that the psychiatric system doesn't know what it's doing - but presents itself in the mode of needing to justify itself, as though it knows absolutely what it is doing. There needs to be a greater understanding of psychosis and other phenomena that effect mental health, how it impacts on our ability to function and look after ourselves. In effect, how to sidestep the medicalisation of mental illness. But I believe firmly that recognising ourselves within a social model understanding of disability is absolutely crucial to developing frames of reference that can move things forward in an affirmative way.

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

I'm finding this thread of great interest and food for thought, so I want to thank Denis Joe for stirring up a much needed hornet's nest of debate, although I find the counter-arguments of "crap" and other such adjectives somewhat infantile.

The social model of disability seems entirely relative and possibly narrowing the complexity of individuals' lives. Much as I once identified with Black as a political and racial colour, I eventually dropped this mantle of identity. Yes, I'm not white, I've had people in the bad old past call me racist names, and had a couple of close shaves with actual violence, but I found that taking on this prison house of identity actually narrowed my horizons. What am I? I consider myself to be an individual first and foremost with a strong human-centred, politically libertarian tendency. I hate being pidgeon-holed! Regarding whether people with AIDS are disabled...well, that's also being debated hotly! http://www.dpi.org/lang-en/resources/topics_detail?page=324

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

I am sorry if I appear to be standing aloof from this but I do intend to respond as best as I can. I would just like to make two points, for now: firstly there is nothing personal in my article; I have no axe to grind and no material benefit to be gained from what I wrote. My concern is that we seem to have lost out on what we mean by Art, and identity politics (for want of a better phrase) has played a large role in obscuring what we mean by art. Colin Hambrook makes the point that he was at the same event and I read his article and my initial reaction was the same as his to my article. This suggests perspective rather than simply either of us being right or wrong. Secondly is my use of the term 'handicapped'. I am concerned with language and I try to be as precise in my choice of words. The word 'disability' is no more or less offensive than the term'handicapped' but they both have very different meanings. Disability says that someone is unable to do something,and thus there is a finality to it. 'Handicapped' tell us that there is an impediment but suggests that it can be overcome. This is not just simply a matter of semantics. Art requires much mental exertion and can be physically demanding in its execution, so the term 'handicapped' suggests that there is a solution to overcoming any physical/ biological problem a person may encounter. So I make no apologies for putting precision above 'identity politics' dogma.

Caroline Cardus

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4 December 2012

Firstly thank you for joining the debate Denis. Having your article picked over and then coming to stick your head out over the parapet is not easy, so welcome!

I think some of the fundamental objections to your article call into question your awareness, specifically whether you have understanding of concepts like the social model of disability, positive and negative disability stereotypes, and the roots of the disability rights and arts movement?

I think it is vital to have this understanding when wading into critical review in these areas. Debate surrounding disability is becoming increasingly sophisticated - as are the audiences who read the reviews. As we've seen on DAO time and time again, our readers now commonly expect journalists who cover this field to have awareness of the above, now commonly acceptable concepts as well as expertise in wider cultural debate.

To draw a parallel, one might recognise it's highly inappropriate to argue a case for an out of date racial or sexual term that the majority have deemed unacceptable (not to mention campaigned against). This is how many disabled people feel about the word handicapped. Justification on semantic terms, language precision (where the argument you give is based on an outdated concept of disabled people 'overcoming' impairment as acceptable!), or indeed a refusal to pander to "identity politicalise dogma" is hollow when the understanding of these fundamental concepts is appears basic. Please know the disability movement fought long and hard for the right to lose this word and respect that, as you would any contentious racial, sexual or religious word. In plain terms, it messes up the tone of an article when the writer uses a word that for many readers, is 30 years out of date!

It's not easy to get it right, and none of us do all of the time, but I hope as a result of this debate you feel encouraged to do some further research and thinking into these areas. DAO has increasingly sought to run programmes to encourage writers to hone skills and awareness in this area, in order that critical writing around disability and art pushes the debate forward culturally - to do that authentically, it's important language and ideals aren't mired in ideological faux-pas! The DAO website has plenty of resources for writers wanting to learn more about these admittedly complex issues, history, politics and new directions in areas of academic research. I would also add it is vitally important writers like yourself centred more in the mainstream join in these kind of debates, so thanks for reading...

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

Thanks Caroline. I assumed that this was a discussion on 'art' and that the artists here were concerned with 'art'. As am I. But I think that my Masters in Social Policy is still valid.

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

I've followed all the debate with some interest and find I have to make some comments, although like Liz Crow I am embroiled in impairment crap right now, the sort of crap that piles up, much caused by unnecessary and complicated systems we have to operate under. I object to the word handicapped because of its history and how it has been used to negate and control me and others - I can't simply disengage from that awareness, semantics or not. My disabilities which include mental health issues are by and large caused by barriers and flawed attitudes within society and the medical profession. I maintain there is no finality to my disability because those barriers can be dismantled and therefore my 'disability' would largely vanish. As for art, as a writer, my identity as a disabled person is central to my work. Does this negate the worth of it? In terms of serious critical assessment of my and others' product, it remains a thorny issue. Those of us with visible and undeniable impairments find that they can overwhelm genuine understanding and examination of the work. There is very little integrated understanding which is essential - but I refuse to write and be other than I am to seek mainstreamed approval, to it easy for the poor souls out there by denying my identity - as a creative AND a disabled person. I agree with Colin Hambrook that we have to move towards a more affirmative model for ourselves. Those of us with significant visible and invisible impairments do not remotely work on a level field - denied access to endless resources and channels of education - that we can scarcely move on to a genuine equality in the appreciation of our art and creative practice for what it is. I feel weary from these debates, I really do. We have a long way to go, don't we? Despite coming so far...

Caroline Cardus

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4 December 2012

Denis, as the title of your piece was 'Rethinking art and Disability' I assumed it was about disability as well as art. I'd really like to know if you understood the point that it's important you need expertise in both areas - and that I talked about disability in my response because by contemporary standards that is the area in which your piece lacked academic rigour. Please feel free to explain to what extent your Masters in Social Policy was concerned with the details of these issues.

Kev Towner

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4 December 2012

It's taken me a while to read all the comments, but let me attempt some sort of response. Firstly, I see no reason why D/disabled artists should not have their work taken as non-disabled artists. To suggest that (D)isabled artists shouldn't use that identity to be expressed in their work, or that that work might be deemed "not real art" seems ridiculous. Many well respected artists have done precisely that - Frida Kahlo springs to mine as a personal favourite. However, this distinction is ultimately meaningless in my opinion. Art is art, and anyone who picks up a brush or pastels in order to create a piece of art is surely demonstrating an emotional response to stimulus - and THAT is art in my opinion. I say this particularly because one group of disabled people who have not been referred to so far (as I write) are people with learning difficulties. I have a good friend who is an artist and has Downs Syndrome, and has already had his work shown in a prominent London gallery. I've also worked with an arts group for adults with learning difficulties. Much of this work could be described (and often is) as "naive", but in many cases it is an attempt by the artist to demonstrate the way in which they see the world. Is this not equally true of ALL art? Perhaps the idea of "disability art" is indeed increasingly meaningless in this respect. Surely even "art as therapy" is also no less art than any other type? Regarding the issue of terminology, I believe that in the context of this discussion it is not all that relevant, suffice to say that whilst the writer seems to show a distinct lack of understanding of the language of disability this is no more or less true than of journalism in general - and as such is a bit of a red herring. It's taken me a long time to think about this and write this piece - and I'm NOT an artist, so I hope it at least makes sense.

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

Frida Kahlo was first and foremost an artist, appropriating her as a "disabled artist" diminishes the power of her art. Lord Byron was a brilliant poet, it's irrelevant that he had a club foot. Robert Mapplethorpe was an amazing photographer... his lifestyle led him to contract AIDS and die as a result, but it didn't disable his incredible classicist style. None of these artists would have pigeon-holed themselves as a disabled artist. The Black art movement of the 80's made a similar error by ghettoising their work...the best ones escaped the label and their work transcended the label to speak to a wider sense of understanding the world. Of course, an artist is not an historian or a sociologist and subjectivity interacts with the world, but the power of their work went beyond the self-referential.

Katherine Araniello

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4 December 2012

I am so pleased and would never have predicted the amount of people who continue to contribute to this thread – I never anticipated it would spark off such a debate. This clearly demonstrates that this debate is long overdue. I am quite certain that those of us living and embracing a social model existence would not write an article that was going to cause such provocation. I find it liberating that someone (an outsider) who might not use language in the way that we expect from a social model perspective has written stuff that some may find uncomfortable and have personalised.

As artists (who identify as disabled) for years we have wanted mainstream critics to critique our work – but seldom does this happen – and if it does a mainstream critic will find it challenging to write about work without displaying a medical model context. This is of no surprise particularly as all around us we are fed with negativity around disability – triumph over diversity stories – documentaries displaying extraordinary bodies – all of this homing in on key elements of what creates a negative stereotype image of disability. The positive is that mainstream contemporary art establishments are now engaging and creating opportunities that includes artists with disabilities that write about the artist in the same way as any other artist irrespective of race, gender disability etc.

My point is that I want my work to be judged on its own merit – I don't want an article to be written about me that even mentions my disability unless I authorise this to happen. As an artist I like to feel in control of how I'm being portrayed and the way to do this is to continue to play with people's assumptions and rather than become defensive and offended by people outside the disability clique I say please continue to write about us and I think it's always a good thing when someone is not necessarily disability savvy. Some of my most liberating experiences have been from receiving mentoring from people outside of the disability movement – if I was to become touchy every time the wrong word or sentimentality was used in relation to disability for certain my work would remain static.

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

Fascinating to see this thread unfold. In response to the above I would say there is a massive problem with the 'medical mode'l context in which work gets placed, but equally to ignore the 'disability' perspective of work is to diminish its power in my opinion. I was inspired by Frida Khalo's paintings when I was at college - long before I'd had any contact with the Disability Arts Movement - but I immediately recognised her as a disabled artist; recognised that her work had something very important to say through its focus on transcending impairment. Her art - informed by the disability context - gives further resonance to its meaning. I think it's a mistake to assume that focusing on disability immediately means that work becomes 'self-referential'. It is about a wider understanding of the human condition.

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

I can see how Kahlo has inspired a generation of artists from all walks of life. Yes, her work expressed a pain lived, but she also transcended that subjective experience. "I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling."

Simon Startin

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4 December 2012

Churches are places of sanctuary. If someone knocks on our door, do we require them to fill out a form, or do we just welcome them in and accept they have identified they have a need that we might be able to help with? Surely our church of "God the totally indifferent" is strong enough to do that?

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

Ah but when they knock, do they accept and welcome us as we are? Colin Hambrook, I think it would be great to have this debate on DAO itself.

Katherine Araniello

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4 December 2012

That is an excellent idea Colin to put this on to disability arts online – this will open the debate

Paula Louise Dower

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4 December 2012

What a fascinating debate. I have worked in Disability Arts for 8 years now and I finally feel brave enough to have a say. The term 'normal disability' interest me greatly. What on earth is that? It would be a great one to add to a evaluation form - Please tick - Normal Disability - Not Normal Disability - Out of this World Disability - Off the scale Disability. (I think I might actually use this!) If someone perceives themselves to be Disabled by society, or that they have a Disability I would say they are. I know many Disabled people who say they are not Disabled. Does this make them less or none Disabled? Whose perception should we choose? If an impairment or health issue stopped me from doing something in my life, for a long period of time, then I would consider myself to have a Disability. I have had some mental health issues in the past, but I would not describe myself as a Disabled person, because it is not a continuing issue for me, though obviously for others it may be. So the question about the broad church Katherine Araniello - It's all about perception. If mental health is publicised and normalised through press and media coverage - Does this stop it being a Disability? No, but it could stop the people with mental health issues being Disabled by Society- NB probably not in my lifetime! Will it prevent others with greater support need getting the support they need? - I don't feel qualified to answer that one, I certainly hope not. So what about the art? I'm pretty steamy about that one. The 'work' has been put in a gallery space - therefore it is art. The artist's - whether they are addicts, have HIV, trauma sufferers, victims of rape or those with off the scale disabilities - are the artists. They created the artwork, just because you may be defined as one thing, does not mean you cannot be an artist as well. I used to think that because I didn't take photographs as a profession, I could not call myself a photographer. Well b****** to that, I'm an artist, a photographer, a crafter, a dressmaker, a horserider, a manager, a Mother, a partner, a friend, my list is ever growing. It's not up to anyone else what I say I am. Disability Arts - Wow! It's a forever opening can of worms. Disabled Artists do you want to sneak in the back way to the mainstream or protest at the doors? Perhaps saying hello can we talk and find a way together? Does the word Disability devalue the art? I think it has to be said that it can conjure negative connections, but surely that is what Disability Arts is about, breaking down the barriers and creating new ways of thinking.

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

One thing I would say though is that the obsession with identity is very mainstream... that's how Obama won the USA elections. Certainly wasn't because he had a bold economic strategy for the country.

Marysia Kurowski

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4 December 2012

I find this puzzling: "Perhaps the most notable thing about the Paralympics was the extent to which prosthetic and medical technology had advanced, to a point where disabled people can have as full a life as other members of society". This is a very odd view of what "disabled people" and "as full a life as" might mean. This definition of "disabled people" would seem not to include, for example, people with brittle bones, most people with hidden impairments, people with twisted spines (hidden or otherwise), and many other examples, most of which would, I think, be classed as "disabled people" whatever definition one has of the word "disabled" (specifically the social model and medical model), *if* by "as full a life as" refers to or includes their ability to take part in sports. I've not yet found a paralympian sport that I could partake in, and can think of no advances in technology that could enable that, even though prior to my current physical challenges I was a pretty sporty person.

Ruth Gould

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4 December 2012

Definitions are always subjective and we always have the choice in a 'free' society to choose how we want to define and shape why we do, think and act in the way we do. After living as a scared, timid, shy, nervous and stigmatised person for the first 35 years of my life, I now declare openly that I consider myself to be a social modelist (!) disabled person - this liberates me, helps me use my life experiences to partake in art and in how I view art - and I am now quite mouthy.

I love that disability arts as a concept is wide open to debate, but I will not move from believing it is the most challenging, most exciting, and most freeing arts being created in society today. I am not the person I was - see - it is personal! it is my choice and i don't have to fit in with others views about its relevance or worth or definitions - i just KNOW that it has changed me and how it has allowed me to feel part of society today. Do remember the movement started from the need to be proud about who we are, that our work is valid and worthy of exposure and that it evolves and moves on to continue to be a reminder to society that diversity and difference require space, not boxing in. the best is yet to come!

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

Ruth, great punchy comment. I feel a blog coming on - my feeling is there is still a debate to be had about how disabled artists with 'high' support needs can be fully supported in their creative practice. Especially at a time when we are under atrocious attack. Personal example? When the Independent Living Fund is closed down, as proposed, I will face challenges about the very basics of daily living, before any hope of writing a word... Katherine Araniello Thanks for kicking off this amazing debate my sister SBC!

Anne Redmond

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4 December 2012

As I keep saying access is about addressing the time and energy spent on complex and exhausting management needs.

Lynn Harrison

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4 December 2012

I would like to ask Denis Joe how he defines normality? And to expand on his view that: ' contempt of ‘normality’ may well be a factor in the drive to expand our view of what constitutes disability in our own times.' Regarding the film Harvey, it is an interesting film in the issues it raises about 'mental illness' however, whilst it highlights society's problems with accepting 'difference' it isn't surprising given the era when it was made, it gives the impression of 'mental illness' being something akin to measles, that happens randomly whilst for those of us who experience mental distress this is often within a toxic social, environmental and familial context. If only those of us who have ever been admitted to a psychiatric hospital had been as cheery as Elwood in the film (even though the film does acknowledge that being admitted is seen as a frightening prospect). Also, Denis, you write that it seems, self-diagnosis is king, and I wonder what you mean by that? I would really love to be able to undiagnose myself from my mental health label, which is borderline personality disorder, and I hesitate to disclose that even here, so, there are often good reasons behind people's apparent 'covertness'. And, art as therapy, your questioning whether this is really art.. who is to say, how is Real art defined? Is someone's art more real if it ends up in an exhibition rather than on the artist's living room wall? Does it matter?

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

While we are talking art, I'd like to post this work up as not only does it explore a debate about art, but what is also conspicuous is the absence of the word disabled and disability. Steve Dwoskin was a great filmmaker, and yes a romantic https://vimeo.com/13452299

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

Thanks for posting this debate. I'll find some time to watch it later. Stephen Dwoskin also was at the forefront of the disability arts movement and made several films related to disability and impairment, notably ‘Pain Is ....’ and ‘Intoxicated By My Illness (Parts 1 & 2 Intensive Care)'. In 1981 he programmed the UK’s first season on disability in film at the National Film Theatre - ‘Carry On Cripple’. My point being that however much you take the disability out of art, you'll find that whatever terms you use, it can and does keep coming back, because impairment is a fundamental part of the human condition. Allan Sutherland interviewed him for DAO 3 years ago when he had a retrospective at the NFT http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/stephen-dwoskin

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

Hi Colin, thanks for that link to the interview with @Stephen Dwoskin. It's an enlightening and good interview. My point is that powerful art irrespective of whether an artist is disabled or not, will rise above the average fare of art. The author Philip Roth's last book (and sadly may well be his last novel, after declaring that he has nothing more to say or write about) could be argued that it is as an example of "disability art", even though Roth is not a "disabled artist". Death, suffering, the tormented mind and pain are indeed part of the human condition, but not the privilege of the disability arts sector...Good art goes beyond the social model theorising. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nemesis/129120073898240?fref=ts&rf=431977580176757

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

First may I just say thank you for the responses to my article and for allowing me to take part in this debate.

Trish Wheatley and Caroline Cardus are concerned with the categorisation of the article: whether is from a medical or social model perspective. It is from neither and from both. As the piece was not written as a sociology paper there is no need to wander into academic theorising, which, I believe, would be simply pretentious. However in the real world both models are interrelated: you cannot discuss the medical model of disability without also drawing on the social model and vice versa.

I attended the Unlimited Global Alchemy discussion because it was a part of the DaDa festival in Liverpool. I had already reviewed the ‘Niet Normaal: Difference on Display’ exhibition (http://www.manchestersalon.org.uk/niet-normaal-difference-on-display-bluecoat.html ) and though I found much of the work to be challenging I was frustrated at the fact that the works seem more to do with disability than they do with art. The ‘ghetto’ mentality overshadowed much of what was interesting in the works. As Katherine Araniello suggests throughout this thread an artist is an artist. I believe that art, in all disciplines, succeeds or fails on what it says about the human condition, as Kevin Towner suggest, and no section of society has a monopoly on experience. I would say that experience is the bricks and mortar of art: each artist has something to say from their own perspective as human beings. And it is as human beings that we engage in art, irrespective of whether the artist is black, a woman, a disabled person, etc.

Or so it should be.

Over the past 20 years or so there has been a move towards using the arts for more instrumentalist ends. So we are told, for example, that classical music is good for your baby, writing or painting has therapeutic values, and so on. Even if these claims were found to be true (which I hold reservations about) I would still find this a disturbing trend as it is not only prescriptive but also we end up losing sight of what the value of art is. And I think that we are very near that point.

I was interested to see if the Unlimited Global Alchemy offered a different take on this trend. For me it failed to do that. Like many projects that can be found in local communities, the aim of Unlimited Global Alchemy seemed to be nothing to do with the creative discourse and more to do with making people (in this case, people with HIV) feel good about themselves. Yet it also threw up many ideas about the art world in general. Not least of these is the question of identity.

I do find the self-diagnose a strange state of affairs: why would anyone want to be seen as disabled? And whilst I was rather suspicious of Rachel Gadsden’s ‘invisible disability’ it was not my intention to be either cynical or prying, though I concede that I can see how Rachel and others could reasonably draw that conclusion.

My use of the scene from the film ‘Harvey’ was not meant to be trivial. I think that it does point to a very disturbing trend that arises out of ‘identity politics’ and that is the distancing of one’s self from the norm and the suggestion that there is something distasteful about other people (the majority?).

But this trend runs in tandem with another, disturbing, trend. And that is the medicalisation of behaviour and nowhere is this more worrying than in the catch all phrase ‘learning difficulties’. This phrase ultimately lumps together the very real disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome along with dubious diagnose such as Attention Deficit Disorder (which, in reality, is simply a display of boredom). And it is the uncritical acceptance of the label ‘learning difficulties’ that is a great concern.

Many people with cognitive disabilities are quite capable of learning. My late sister was one such person. Whilst she may have had some difficulty in understanding the concept of medical and social models of disability, she did learn to appreciate (not ‘like’) opera music, for example. At her funeral one of her friend, a person with Down’s Syndrome, took to the lectern and delivered a moving and eloquent eulogy. So perhaps the most demeaning label that you could apply to someone is found to be acceptable even to those that are squeamish about terms such as ‘handicap’.

I think that this concern over words such as ‘handicap’, as expressed by Gary Thomas and others, is particularly sad as it seems to be creating barriers for the sake of it. No one has expressed why the term is so bad beyond some vague notion of offensiveness. And this is a worry, that some things are being accepted uncritically. I would argue that this lack of critical evaluation is at the very root of identity politics and it trivialises the very real concerns that arise from day-to-day living (this is not just a problem for disabled activists, it applies equally to women’s groups and black activism).

That there is a widespread trend towards medicalising behaviour (and it is not me that trivialises this issue, it is a very real trend) is also of great concern. For if artists are to rise above their disability and be judged on merit rather than by their personal situation it makes it impossible if any Tom, Dick or Henrietta can appropriate the disabled identity, to be taken seriously if so many others are assuming the label to be of prime import.

For now I would just like to add that I do not see a problem with the existence of a disabled arts movement. My concern is that the movement, as it stands, is concerned more with identify than it is with the actual art itself. I believe that a disabled artists movement based on aesthetics is a very real and exciting possibility.

I’ll leave it there for now.

Rachel Gadsden

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4 December 2012

Many thanks for this continuing discourse, it would be so great to know if you (Denis Joe) were able to actually see either the exhibition of the UGA artworks at MAA Cambridge or the UGA exhibition and Performance in London? I know you saw the head to head films that were created to enable audiences to have the chance to meet the Bambanani artists, ultimately 3 of the six members were able to travel to UK from Khayelitsha Township for the Cultural Olympiad, but initially this had not been expected.

The films are not the art but serve as documentaries of the lives of the individuals who were part of the commission, and take a talking heads approach, perhaps? This is important because if you haven't actually seen any of the completed artworks in the exhibitions or the visual art/dance performance then this is not a critical piece or debate about artwork but something else.

Trish Wheatley

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4 December 2012

Thanks Denis Joe and everyone for continuing to put forward your views. Fascinating stuff! It's brilliant how so many people have been moved to join in the debate and are clearly very passionate about it.

Katherine Araniello

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4 December 2012

I am finding this thread so exciting and it is brilliant that writers and thinkers are contributing and that this debate is evolving intelligently.

In agreement with Dennis the social model of disability would not exist without a medical model and the two coexist. We need both models, because if we were to just live to the medical model this would be a backward state of being. The social model is undoubtedly a good model that many disabled people have adopted as a means to be identified by society in a positive and equal way.

Under the social model anyone can identify as a disabled person and the medical model isn't relevant unless one needs to have a medical report in order to claim benefits for their 'impairment.' This is where things start to become very blurred and unfair. The parameters of self defining as a disabled person has allowed an unprecedented amount of people to now identify as disabled. In this thread there have been comments that opening the world of disability up to a wider context enriches the art world with disability art and creates an even more dynamic platform.

Sure, but in this rush to become disabled there are serious failings. But of course nobody wants to admit that because we are all too desperately wanting to identify as disabled people because that's where the £££ is. In this modern society let's think avant garde - it's far better to identify as 'disabled' than normal?

Lynn Harrison

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4 December 2012

Denis, I find the use and lack of understanding of the history of the term 'handicap' disturbing along with the reference to people with, as you describe 'real disabilities'. Your notion of art seems narrow and elitist and seems to be in line with that of the much discredited F.R. Leavis who tried to protect so-called 'high art' forms from what he saw as a qualitative attack, or, watering down as 'art' became more accessible through the expansion of the mass media in the early part of the last century, this appeared to be an attempt to restrict 'art' to those from upper-middle and above classes. If someone is disabled and an artist and wishes to be known as such that is their choice, because, after all, the meaning of art can be elusive but can be the fusion of the intention of the artist and their experiences, the context within which art is communicated and the interpretation and experiences of the 'viewer', what one person may regard as art, may not be to someone else. And, as I understand it, you object to the work in question being presented as a piece of art due to your fears about cultural imperialism, however, do we know whether the women featured objected to this? To assume they did not know seems insulting.

Manick Govinda

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4 December 2012

This has been an excellent debate, more rigorous and passionate than many arts conferences or symposia I've experienced in real space! We should all cut'n'paste it as a word doc so it doesn't get lost in the ether of the fb! I hope Colin Hambrook will distil this debate and publish it on DAO. My final words are in response to Lynn Harrison regarding Denis's outlook on art, that it is narrow and elitist. Please, let us not dumb art down! To do so would be to disarm the power of art and cast it into a grey murkiness of mediocrity. Good art will need to stand the test of time. Leavis was not discredited, he was the first to set a canon for a morally profound body of literature which stood the test of time. Other good critics have either challenged his selection or added to it, or found other moral impetus to act as criteria for what is the best in art and literature.

Surely that is the power of art? There is the great, then the good, followed by not bad to indifference to the god-awful? Let us not be afraid to judge!

I don't think anyone has any objection to an artist defining him/herself as a "Black artist" or "a Disabled artist". Many artists of colour I know would shirk at the very thought of defining themselves as a black artist as it conveniently ghettoises their work and limits the meaning and importance of their work. Quentin Tarantino once described himself as a "black" filmmaker because of the subjects he tackles in his films and for his approach to language. Now I KNOW Tarantino ain't black! But as for his films...well, there's a debate to be had, as much as I think Philip Roth has written one of the most profound novels which explores the moral compass of a protagonist being crippled - permanently disabled - by a disease and the hysteria surrounding the Polio pandemic in the 1940's.

The new politically driven moral hysteria of our times seems to be that we are all mentally ill! I refer to Miliband's quote in my preamble and Appignanesi's article. Rather than realising that some people genuinely need social and medical support, mental illness is now accepted as a feature of peoples' everyday lives. Hence the over-zealous drive by policy makers to address well-being. In my opinion, that is a sinister intrusion, and we should all be very suspicious of it.

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

Rachel Gadsden I didn't get to either. My view of the work was based on what I found on the UGA blog which is why I did not spend time writing about the work. The piece I wrote was intended as a review of the discussion. Lynn Harrison, I have explained my use of the term 'handicapped' and I have an understanding of the history. I would suggest that perhaps during that history there is too much haste in shaking off the past. The term 'elitist' has, as I understand mit, become one of abuse. I have written elsewhere about how we understand an elite today and how it differs from the old guard elite, who I assume you are aligning me with. Whilst the old guard were certainly intent on ensuring that the arts were protected from the 'barbarous mob' in case we defiled it by our presence, I think it is interesting to consider exactly what they were safeguarding. Yes, it was the high arts, the very best artistic achievement. And whilst I would not go along with the idea that we ordinary folk are incapable of appreciating the high arts, I do accept that there is a demarcation between entertainment (low art) and art itself; that is works that speak to us of the human condition as opposed to works that make us feel all cuddly inside. And I would hope that any artist of worth would strive towards producing the very best that their discipline has to offer. So I am okay with 'elitist'. And you are right, if someone wants to see themselves as an artist they are free to do that. Only others may not see it that way.

Anne Redmond

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4 December 2012

I think Denis Joe is saying something about safeguarding a clear space. This to me would be a space in which to explore our [humanities] relationship to that which is constitutive, beyond any desire or willingness. A place to approach the unbearable for example. Contemporary art can make room for this. That is the beauty of the discpline.

Anne Redmond

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4 December 2012

Just in response to Manick Govinda re written post which I have just seen. Over zealeous 'we want you to like us' policies go largely unrecognised as both symptom and cause of anxiety around the possibility of living in a more dynamic way with our humanity.

Michelle Baharier

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4 December 2012

This is a really interesting point. Art therapy is used to enable people to communicate. Artists have choices whether to communicate something or not. Inclusivity as David would say perhaps as Beuys would say, any one can be an artist and so it's just a shame money is the real prize in the twentieth century art world.

Ruth Gould

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4 December 2012

Seeing as this debate started due to DaDaFest - a festival that is unashamedly about creating works from the perspective of disabled and deaf arts with disability, deaf and non disabled, hearing artiste/creatives about issues that have a resonance with how we as society can view and engage in arts practice, processes and ultimately finished results...commissioned and brought in - DaDaFest does not ghettoise - quite the opposite - respondents to feedback - show that 27% define as disabled/deaf people showing that the work attracts many who wish to view arts from different perspectives of life. That is our context and we wish to share the results - as this debate is doing with all people - it is interesting that some of the comments are coming back to what art is or isn't - some fundamentals are open to questions - but it is such a thrill to see that disability arts provokes such reactions - hey we have done our job!!!! incidentally, and to know this is likely to further provoke comments and reactions[!!] in Liverpool DaDaFest is a mainstream event not only in terms of programming but also in funding status [one of 7 cultural drivers in the city]

Melissa Mostyn-Thomas

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4 December 2012

We need disability arts. I understand the wish to avoid ghettoization and become part of the broader context in which art explores the human condition - and of course it should already be. I speak not just as a deaf person but also as a mother to a child with disabilities. There is a need for disability artists to be identified as well as the work itself, so they can be role models for not just other people with disabilities but also parents who are learning to adapt to their children's disabilities, and yet are their most important influence in the formative years, whether they like it or not. Art is art as people have said, but we cannot ignore either that disability will always inform artists' perspectives to varying degrees (when I think Frida Kahlo, I think disability themes - she only transcends disability art because the country she's from is the sort that celebrates death as a thing of joy in bright pink). The only person who says that the art of Rachel Gadsden and the Bambanani group only informs is the one who doesn't want to engage with it. If people are uncomfortable with the presence of disability in art - good. They have to learn at some point to confront their fears of their own mortality, as we have. That is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Melissa Mostyn-Thomas

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4 December 2012

Speak of the devil! Emailed to me just now - an article in the Huffington Post about an exhibition of Frida Khalo's clothes: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/27/frida-kahlo-clothing-exhibition_n_2197314.html?utm_campaign=112712&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Alert-uk-culture&utm_content=FullStory

Lynn Harrison

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4 December 2012

I find the argument for a way of discerning art from non-art and the comments relating to mental health quite disturbing. Who is to define what is and is not art? What qualifications would they need and what criteria would they use and who would define these? F.R. Leavis was discredited and, in particular, the British Social Realist Films of the 1960s which celebrated ordinary people and were popular and accessible thanks to the mass media championed working class culture as being of equal merit as indeed was art communicated by the mass media. On the apparent discreditation of so-called, art therapy, or art created by people with mental health diagnoses, why should this be seen as 'less worthy'? Often, this is the only means by which people can communicate and express the complex world of feelings, experiences and imagery they inhabit? Personally, I spent 6 months on a section 3 in a mental health unit, my senses at that time were very heightened due to a traumatic experience, and I slept little, I wrote a lot of poetry and produced a lot of art, all of which was displayed in the uniti during my stay and some I left there. I joined with others in the unit who wrote and painted, we talked and worked together and even went to an open mic event for mh, this was no mean feat as I was on a section, so, to step foot outside the door required a lot of effort. The week after I was released my pictures and poems were exhibited by a community art organisation in a public venue in Warwickshire. Yet, I fear according to some definitions of art expressed during this thread, my work (and presumably that of other survivor artists/writers etc who define themselves as such) would be of less value, in an artistic sense because it could be seen as some sort of therapy and because I ghettoised myself as a survivor.. have I got this right?

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

Hi Melissa. I have a problem with the idea that artists (or footballers or celebrities) should act as role models, it is not their business to serve as role models and it should not be. I think that art can and does serve as an inspiration but for the artist to take on such an exemplar role would be both arrogant and, I believe, destructive. As with ‘Art as activism’ it would restrict the artist to speaking to a particular audience rather than creating a work that is universal. I think you overestimate the idea that ‘normal’ people have a problem with disabled people and in doing so you give the impression that the disabled have a monopoly on suffering, which I feel is disingenuous to all.

But you are right that art can make us confront that which is uncomfortable and I think that it is in this area that disabled artists can provide a unique approach to art. As I have said, my problem with the disabled art movement is that it is more concerned with disabled than it is with art, and, to be honest, that is an invite for ‘normal’ people to approach the art from a patronising angle, creating a thoroughly dishonest confrontation. I believe that a disabled artists movement based on aesthetics is a very real and exciting possibility. Like everyone else, disabled artists have their own unique experiences and, as such, can present those experiences in a unique way. What I think is important is not disabled artists but disabled art.

Kev Towner

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4 December 2012

This demonstrates to me that you are not understanding the nature of the Social Model. The reason that disability art exists is not to demonstrate that Disabled people can "do art too" - although that may well be a consequence for some Disabled people. To dismiss the idea of "art as activism" is also ridiculous and suggests (although I find it hard to believe) that you also have no understanding of art history. Many non-disabled artists have used their art to express political ideas - surely you know that!! The disabilit movement has a saying "The Personal Is Political" Thus the experiences of Disabled artists are often by definition political.

Lynn Harrison

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4 December 2012

It seems that for people who choose to describe themselves as disabled or survivor artists is their choice and art critics may not like it but have they got the right to deny us the choice to define ourselves as artists and disabled which is an equally important part of who we are? And.. ultimately, if people don't respect that, well.. que sera.. are we bothered?

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

Kevin - yes it is true that artists have used their art for political ends. What I am saying is that to simply treat art in such an instrumentalist way means we end up losing sight of what art is. But that said, Picasso's 'Guernica' was a political statement, but there is much more to it than simply a comment on the Civil war. I would say that it speaks to all humanity. No amount of playing around with paints or clay or whatever, in order to make the person feel good about themselves could say anything to anyone except the person who is creating.

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

Art cannot exist in a vacuum devoid of activism surely, and also, I fear Denis Joe you are underestimating the sense to which the 'normal' do not accept disabled people, when all veils of political correctness are ripped down. I value the discourse I have with non-disabled creatives more than I can say, but it is rare to find those people, who do not approach my work with a whole raft of preconception which has no bearing on my life experience and reality. Therefore, how can most 'normals' be in a position to engage? The barriers we face to being assessed on pure aesthetics are fundamental and extensive. But I do welcome this debate, as it is necessary for evolution of our arts scene - and believe we must remain open to it.

Melissa Mostyn-Thomas

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4 December 2012

I agree completely with Lynn Harrison. You can't separate the person from their condition, essentially, and the same applies to artists. Denis - our preferred term is 'disability art' rather than 'disabled art'. Are you saying that because disability is a creative impulse (as Jo Verrent so succinctly put it in a recent blog) then the art is disabled? What does that tell us about your perspective of art in general?

Antoinette Morris

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4 December 2012

Antoinette Morris Denis Joe are you saying that disabled people are only ''playing around with paints or clay or whatever, in order to make the person feel good about themselves?" And if so, what qualifies you to say such a thing?

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

Penny I have observed the response of 'normal' people to disabled art and you are right they come loaded with preconceptions. But have you ever thought that if the Disabled artist were less concerned with identity and more with actual art itself, then maybe the wider audience would be able to approach the work as art and not something created by a disabled person. There would certainly be a great deal of hypocrisy in my criticism of identity politics if I then made a big deal out of my identity. I suggest that the argument is the thing and not the arguer.

Kev Towner

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4 December 2012

"No amount of playing around with paints or clay...". There are two things wrong with this statement. Firstly, it assumes that Disabled people who create "art as therapy"are doing it "to make them feel good about themselves". Whilst it is often true that those (invariably non-disabled) people who run art therapy classes are motivated by an altruistic (and arguably patronizing) desire to produce that effect in their "patients", this assumes that the "patients have the same motivation - and I know from experience that this is invariably untrue.

Also, if such art can only speak to those who create it - surely that is true (within the terms of your argument) to any art regardless of who creates it. Therefore all art is valid - and you have defeated your own argument.

Heidi Killick

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4 December 2012

I personally think, that good work speaks for it self. Personally I want my work to be known not the problems I had to getting it out there, I want to be me, and recognized for being me, I could do with just a little support to get it out there, and yer it's classed a disability, but i am a person, and should be valued as one, I am not in wheel chair, etc.

Lynn Harrison

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4 December 2012

For me, the poetry and art I have produced has been very much about the context within which I have worked, and that is very much to do with me being a survivor of the mental health system and that forms part of the meaning and is inseparable from the work itself.

Heidi Killick

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4 December 2012

There was an exhibition at the Haywood Gallery in London, and it was sad, and amazing about it was about a German shrink who had collected the work of his patients in the asylum, the work was from the 1930s, and these people weren't ill, they just didn't fit, it was when Hitler was growing power, these were people who didn't agree, had the wrong colour eyes, hair, thought out of the box, things that were considered different.

Denis Joe

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4 December 2012

Okay Kev we differ, but if art is not an end in itself then what is it? Communication is a by product. In reality art is completely useless yet it is also necessary in that it can help us to make sense of the world. I would suggest that you might want to consider the standpoint of the audience now and again. I know that some poet friends (poets are such touchy creatures) go berserk if someone 'interprets' one of their poems in a way the writer didn't intend. But I go along with Victor Hugo when he said of his work that whilst he was producing it the work was all his intent, but once the work was in the public domain he had no control over how the public responded or interpreted it. And I think that is a useful view of the impact of art. It forces the viewer to confront something in the work that they see. If the artist is so precocious about their work and want to maintain the 'meaning' that they have endowed it with then they shouldn't allow the work to be seen by anyone else. Now that is really useless!

Lynn Harrison

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4 December 2012

Exactly! And that is why some of us want to be known as disabled artists, in order for connotations of this to be included in 'the meaning' and hopefully encourage the 'viewer' or reader, or listener to think about why that should be important to the creator, although, we can't guarantee that person/people will interpret this in the way we intend, it may still make them think

Kev Towner

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4 December 2012

Communication is not a by-product in my opinion. Indeed, I think any art historian would concur with that view. Picasso painted images of the Civil war because he wanted to communicate the horrors of war - of which he had direct experience. Others who have not directly experienced war have done the same. At the other extreme, many artists have painted scenes of natural beauty, not to display their skill as artists but to convey (i.e communicate) their subjective experience.

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

One key problem is that disabled creatives often face barriers to literally being seen and experienced by the 'normal' mainstream. This may be on a practical level and also in the form of patronising attitudes. This is the crux of why it is a political act, an 'activism' when a disabled person creates art in reflection to their own life and that of the human condition. Art is a response, and I think perhaps you still lack an understanding of the social model which is important in a debate with disability artists. I'm not suggesting an exam is needed to 'allow' you and others to challenge in these debates, but it does mean we are askew in some ways on some very basic concepts. Audiences are fine... if the creative individual has access to the gallery (etc), to the educational system to get that individual to that level, to the networking, to the many intricate layers that lead to the outcome of shown/published/produced work within the so-called 'mainstream'. I am not remotely precious about my work. I want it out there, everywhere! Yet should I stop writing what drives me, examining disabled experience? Would I then be 'acceptable' to the Normals and would my work have a higher creative value? I will gladly engage and provoke anybody with my work - yet like many of us, the road I travel on to find that exposure is still a very rocky one and it ain't barrier free.

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

I'm concerned with my art all the damn time. I sweat it, guts, heart, blood, tears. I want to be the best I can be as a creative in all my work as a writer, a poet. That is my heart, my beginning. My identity infuses the work, because it comes from that beginning and encompasses all that I am.

Kev Towner

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4 December 2012

A key problem is the failure to recognize that 'disabled' is WHO we are - not WHAT we are.

Penny Pepper

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4 December 2012

Yes, disabled by a disabling society. The 'who' we are is what artists reflect upon and it includes the experience of our exclusion - implicitly or not.

Josonia

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4 December 2012

Dear Denis,

I write in response to your comment "if the Disabled artist were less concerned with identity and more with actual art itself, then maybe the wider audience would be able to approach the work as art and not something created by a disabled person."

My friend performed recently at the Royal Festival Hall, a short time after the Unlimited festival. My friend performed brilliantly and it was obvious that in her preparation she had been entirely focused on "the art." However it was physically impossible for her performance to be approached by the public "as art", as she was the only one who could not access the stage, There was no ramp for wheelchair users. My friend was the only artist to be viewed by the public offstage, without proper stage lighting and with a background that was visually very distracting.

When I wrote to the RFH about this it transpired that they had not imagined a wheelchair user might appear at a performing event open to all members of the storytelling public. I bet there's loads of disabled performers out there who would love to perform at any venue of their choice and only have to think about "the art."

Colin Hambrook

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4 December 2012

We are disabled by the barriers that society places in our way. It's always been clear to me that those barriers are very different for different impairment groups. This has lead to much dissembling of whether or not, for example, deaf people are, or are not disabled. Access is key. BSL interpreters cost a fortune, making it more and more difficult to make the arts accessible for deaf people. Much Disability Art plays with ideas of access, addressing directly the barriers we face. It is the nature of how individual our access needs are, that makes it so complex.

David Bower

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4 December 2012

The Culture Wars

It's interesting in that this debate gives us an example of a mainstream journalist who publishes a response to an exhibition that hinges itself around the Disability Arts movement. The review is botched from the outset and lo and behold the poor reviewer flounders in an area rich in history and nuance, history that has been in motion for hundreds of years and has only began to define itself once again within a contemporary context. The earlier and yet still influential 'Age of Reason's well meaning dabbling within the lives of individuals who form alliances with like minded kindred spirits, were administratively categorised 'anthropologised' and effectively divided into corrals, outside the box of perfection, easily farmed.

Inevitably in our human zoo, fissions and separations arose within once strong communities, sophisticated and universally generous in shared kindred recognition of our mutual existence as artists who explored a similar theme. The cycles wrought by the winds of change and power storms on the horizon divides and splits one and all.

Let it be known to all, the following 'Disability Arts is the last great Avant Garde' and our movement/genre and yes, it is both, stirs afoot with the ruminations of its equivalent Picasso's, Bretons, instigators of Cubism, Futurist et al. The cold rap of a familiar terror knocks on our door this time, and the wise and prescient hearts muster to our defence. A defence against an old enemy, the enemy of art, and its mistrust of its power to empower, to define and by voice free the nameless ones whose lives threaten to disappear into a wilderness of oppression, confusion, doubt and poverty.

The term Disability Art was agreed upon in a time when the term 'handicapped' was tainted by way of utterance with the stench of belligerent ignorance and cruelty. Whatever the etymological origins of the term 'handicap' are, it is still interesting to note that it also, coincidently, suggests hand in cap. In defiance we claimed for ourselves a name. The name that at once we felt empowered by, yet at the same time defines the creative vision perceived through our unique perspective on the world brought about by our individual experiences. Art as is shown and attested in history transforms and transmutes our knowledge into gold. Art as alchemy, creative Kabbalist once more shake the foundations of the establishment, yet again to shake and free humanity from a portending enslavement to the same narrative for the next two thousand years, as the stone age nappers in the great rift valley experienced when they spurned the same yarn in a Ten Thousand year recycling of the olduvai technique. Fear makes the world hunker down and in our safety we become a quantifiable and controllable entity. So yes, we are a Disability Artist and to mistake this movement/genre for ghetto is to be profoundly deluded by the blinkers. Disability Artist never insist you join, people join because they are inspired to, by an intelligent and accessible artistic discourse and vision. If an artist is Disabled and they elect not define themselves as such, that is in no way a problem. The problem is thus, a net tightens its stranglehold on society, society as an entity is increasingly called into question concerning its viability, ie the well known but fatally flawed old saw "there's no such thing as society". The question arises now as it asks in its professionally sincere tones, in what way is it wise to define yourself as a disabled artist? or (controversially as those who know this debate!) a Deaf artist, how can that be 'financially viable'?. So now we are asked to kowtow to the ultimate commercial El Dorado that states in its dogmatic but ever so polite terms, to survive you need to give em what they want. So now they want us to give a tap dance and commit ourselves to a round of tried and tested formula's usually centring around themes like 'I'm a crip, get me the hell outta here!'.

So yes, you are right to question our viability as to whether or not we can turn a coin. But isn't that just a clever way to demean our artistic integrity, a real question would ask something like this.

How can we defend and protect our integrity as "The Last Great Avant Garde", from horizontal violence and remember this isn't a clique, its a movement/genre created by people like you and me. Because if we lose it due to internal weaknesses, it will just fade into another brick in the wall, stamped, controlled, categorised, numbered, filed, farmed and 'validised', whatever that may mean! (even my spell checker doesn't know!)

Mocksim

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6 December 2012

Most people are disabled in some ways and especially able in others. Not only that but this variety contained in each individual changes with time and depends on the situation. Thirdly definitions and categories can have contradictory impact, may act to liberate to entrap. In the ideal this complexity could be accomodated.

aaron williamson

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5 December 2012

So who is going to police this question of 'who is a disabled artist and who isn't?' When I first self-identified as disabled I went for a medical and was issued with a card and a number (D.I.N. or something) that I used to quote on applications to arts funding. It established my credentials as a bona-fide disabled person and made me eligible for such funding. I actually memorised the number and even thought about having it tattooed. The surveillance state, anyone? More compulsory medical checks?

I take broad agreement with Denis Joe's view that a lot of disability art isn't in fact artistic - a quick glance at DAO's December newsletter listing the Xmas pantos and musicals by 'disability arts' organisations reinforces my opinion. Why is arts funding used to support entertainment?

But the 'Niet Normaal' exhibition is the wrong target for the points that Denis makes: the curatorial premise wasn't the usual 'disability art' status quo, but was predicated on the question of what is 'not normal'. Yes, it was commissioned by a disability-led organisation, DaDafest, but surely the theme was relevant to disabled people's lives? Generally we aren't considered to be normal but there are many other identity groups who aren't either. Imagine a debate about 'who is black and who's not?' 'Queer enough?' etc.

This is where some of the comments have trodden for my liking, too far into Daily Mail territory. Indeed, many indisputably disabled people are happy to sing and dance and even vote for the current Tory mayor who leads the Liberty Festival that’s aimed at showing disabled people 'celebrating' their lives through rubbish 'art' even as their social rights are being eroded.

The issues of quality in disability art and the consequent danger of ghettoisation were interestingly discussed by a number of authors in the 2010 issue of the online art journal Parallel Lines: http://www.parallellinesjournal.com/

Joe McConnell

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7 December 2012

I agree that the Liberty Festival has become an event with dodgy motives behind its organisation. But dismissing all the art to be found there as 'rubbish' and all the work on offer at the minute as empty 'entertainment' seems rather reactionary – especially if it’s on the basis of a 'quick glance'.

Colin Hambrook

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8 December 2012

The founding ethos of Liberty as 'Disability Rights' Festival, changed with the move to the Southbank. Nonetheless much of the work is reflective, thoughtful storytelling that goes beyond being simply 'entertainment'.

Fittings Multimedia's 'Master Juba' for example could indeed be described as 'circus' - but in the tradition of Brechtian cabaret-style circus performance. The show told of the story of an African American who was highly influential in the development of tap, jazz, and step dancing. In order to work, Juba had to pretend to be a white man pretending to be a black man. It told the story of the discrimination faced by African Americans in the mid 19th century - an important and valuable story to bring to the attention of a mainstream audience unlikely to know that piece of history. StopGap Dance's 'Spun Productions' was a send up of advertising and also had a message about society's values, as well as being entertainment.

It's true that some of the core politics behind the Liberty festival has gone, but to say that it is aimed at showing disabled people 'celebrating' their lives through rubbish 'art' is gross oversimplification. The key problem, as I see it, for old-style Disability Arts was that it was going down a route of replacing one set of elite ideas about art with another. Is there a way forward?

Aaron Williamson

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9 December 2012

I probably didn't see all of Liberty Festival two years ago but what I did see was: acrobatics, line dancing, 'standup' comedy, juggling, storytelling. ... no mainstream arts organisation would commission these forms. So maybe I'm being elitist, but I just want to appreciate art that is challenging and innovative and not juvenile forms of entertainment.

Colin Hambrook

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10 December 2012

I see Liberty as responding to a pressure to 'mainstream' disability arts, as coming from funders criteria. The point is that these forms of entertainment, as 'art', are the bread and butter of mainstream arts organisations.

aaron williamson

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10 December 2012

But they're not, are they Colin? I dont know any mainstream arts organisation or gallery that promotes 'acrobatics, line-dancing, stand-up comedy, juggling, storytelling' and so on. Which mainstream art galleries and organisations are you referring to that place an onus on entertainment over art?

John Kelly (Rockinpaddy)

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10 December 2012

Thank you for the debate and open discussion, like many i feel uneasy about parts (out of date language handicap/suffering, perceptions...elitism.....who is/isn't.....stereotyping.......high/low end art???) but equally thinking deeply about the debate and what it means to me, as a musician, i identfy as that and identify with allparts to my diversity/difference as critical to me. I identify as a disabled artist as i recognise in a lot of my work my experience influences where i come from and what comes out....i guess my art can be dismissed as low art as it often falls into the realms of entertainment as defined earlier (i dont agree with this but hey ho....but as an artist i work to craft my music to be the best it can be, work and refine, work and refine, before i might share with a wider audience and even not always for an audience but because Im exploring of myself....sometimes i feel its good enough to be shared and critiqued by whoever wants to here/see/feel it! Oh and just felt i should add that me cap stays firmly on my head on stage....never in my hand...its so 60's ......thanks for a thought provoking discussion which i hope goes on!

Colin Hambrook [ED]

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11 December 2012

Aaron - if you go to the Southbank Centre any weekend - especially through the summer months, you'll see all kinds of art as entertainment being promoted within and without the various buildings within the complex for the tourists who gather in throngs along that stretch of the river. Liberty isn't presenting anything exceptionally different to what those spaces are used for ordinarily.

aaron williamson

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11 December 2012

Yes, I agree about the Southbank Centre Colin, but they are now primarily a family/tourist entertainment venue. (Although if you are including the Hayward Gallery then, thankfully, they still have interesting shows and don't commission entertainment). As well, comparable 'art palaces' such as the two Tates, and big Galleries such as Serpentine, Whitechapel, SLG, and so on would not commission work in these forms as they are not considered to be 'artistic'. So I think the Southbank is the exception rather than the rule.

Colin Hambrook

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12 December 2012

But just look at the kinds of work the majority of London theatre's produce. It is largely, commercial, family-based entertainment.

Opera gets more arts funding than any other artform. The Royal Opera House - on its own - gets something like 10 per cent of all of Arts Councils funding.

Within the world of dance, the UK is still stuck in ballet-influenced pretty posturing targeted at family audiences.

We are miles behind the progressive work being produced and programmed in Europe. [I am thinking of companies like Les Ballets C De La B and others who occasionally get programmed by the Barbican or Sadlers Wells.]

Visual arts venues aside, I would argue that the Southbank's approach to programming is the rule, rather than the exception.

I could be wrong but I think there was a much more progressive attitude towards performing arts in the UK 30 years ago than there is today. Financial, commercial concerns lead the way in what is programmed and have influenced the development of many disability arts companies, like Graeae for instance.

Katherine Araniello

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12 December 2012

The late David Wesley Morris was the motivator and initiator of the Trafalgar Square disability arts festival called Liberty. David, at the time, was the Disability Advisory Officer to the Mayor of London. David's vision was to ensure that disabled people had their place on Trafalgar Square alongside other festivals that ran throughout the summer.

Disability art was ghettoised, however, by placing it in Trafalgar Square. It meant that the thousands of people who travel through daily would come face to face with Disability Art. David used his position to persuade the Mayor to place disability art on the agenda, ensuring that there was a disability art festival annually.

As with all festivals there will be good and bad art which is subjective. What is important is that art by disabled people when in the public domain receives the same level of criticism as with any art of similar genre. Constructive criticism is an essential ingredient that allows space for expansion and development of ideas.

I am in agreement that there are problems with the organising committee of Liberty because the same acts reappear year after year. To my knowledge there doesn't seem to be an application process, but rather a select few are hand-picked by the organisers.

My best experience of Liberty was when David organised the Blue Madonna Bistro, a pop-up restaurant in the middle of Trafalgar Square. The public came in their droves to sample David's culinary delights, being served by a deaf waitress. The uniqueness of this restaurant was that the food was delicious, full of flavour, and the staff were disabled one way or another. Blue Madonna Bistro was unlike any restaurant I've ever been to, the guests were not presented with a bill, they just paid what they felt the food was worth. Coupled with this, diners were entertained which included Aaron Williamson and myself (The Disabled Avant-Garde).

Below is a link to Aaron and our wonderful unprecedented musical talent!

Simon Raven

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12 December 2012

I think that maybe two forms of art are being argued over, Disabled Art and Disability Art.

'Disabled Art' is that which has no critical valency. The artist is defined by their disability, not their art.

'Disability Art' is that which insists upon a critical approach. The artist seeks to redefine disability - their own specific experience and/or in a broader cultural sense, through their art.

A festival like Liberty might be generously funded - which is 'enabling' in one respect, but without any critical bite can only fall into the former category.

What's needed is a festival for the latter category. If everyone on this thread was involved I bet it'd be interesting!

If everyone on this thread were to make a disability arts festival... I can imagine a disability arts festival that humorously turns the condescending 'Liberty' approach on its head. Instead of disability being put before art (The Disabled Art Model) and the overall tone is childish and celebratory (of what? ATOS! 40% cuts to DLA...) artist are curated who's work responds to the challenging

aaron williamson

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12 December 2012

Colin - I'm uninterested in theatre, ballet and opera. All the visual arts organisations that I listed have 'live' programmes, supporting performance made in an art context. Indeed, if I can blow my own trumpet, I've made many performances for tate britain, tate modern, whitechapel, SLG, Hayward, Barbican, Camden Arts, and practically everyone else in the real artworld. None of them commission juggling or acrobats. . .

david bower

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14 December 2012

I have to say that Simon Ravens comment RE Disabled Art and Disability Arts, makes a lot of sense to me and seems like something we could all agree on? Of course there must be a point where they overlap slighty as in a venn diagram. But this seems key and I think it would be great if we all try to assess for ourselves where exactly our work fits? The two distinct categories I think are key to our future progress.

david bower

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14 December 2012

I went away and thought about 'Disabled Art' and 'Disabilty Art'. I can imagine that some people would take offense at the Disabled Art term in that it could perceived as somehow disempowering. Perhaps there needs to be a discussion to find a more empowering term for this kind of work. I wondered if the tag Disabled Art would even be necessary at all. As disability Arts is clear in its artistic reasoning. My concern is that the term Disabled could be used in a derogatory way. Does anyone have any ideas?

Katherine Araniello

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17 December 2012

The term 'disabled art' doesn't work – it sounds as if the work itself has a disability and is crippled in some way.

I think there is a clear distinction between entertainers and artists. Liberty is mainly made up of entertainers and this will come under the category of disability art because it is a festival of disabled people performing and providing entertainment to the public.

A disabled person exhibiting at Tate Britain etc will be referred to as an artist not a disabled artist.

A collective of work shown at a gallery by disabled people will not be labelled as disability art.

Someone who has studied contemporary dance is an artist and would not fit the Liberty afternoon of light entertainment.

For disabled artists who are not entertainers but are performers – (in the fine arts sense) this is where Liberty fails. Liberty acts are predominantly entertainment – I spoke to one conceptual artist a couple years ago who was commissioned to do some work at Liberty and the artist was disappointed by the way in which there art was received i.e. the audience wanted to be entertained and as a result the comments towards the artists work was inappropriate.

david bower

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17 December 2012

Thats interesting Katherine, I think its essential to retain the header 'disability arts' to refer to the investigation which defines the remit, 'what are the creative possibilities that our disabilities suggests'. As in 'Disability Arts' is the last great Avant Garde' this was already well established to begin with.

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