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Colin discusses Unlimited asking can Art and politics be separated? / 3 February 2014

Mat Fraser Cabinet of Curiosities- How disability was kept in a box. Photo © Richard Sandell

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It seems to me as we enter deeper into the New Grim there is a need to question further what the role of Disability Arts is, currently. In a conversation with Mat Fraser recently we talked about why it is more pressing than ever for him to weave a discussion about the three models of disability openly and creatively into his one man show ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’.

Back in the late 1990s we always knew the Disability Discrimination Act was half-hearted. We persisted in face of barriers being removed, but failed to attract younger artists. In the early 2000’s access within new and upgraded public buildings became enshrined in law, so why should younger artists feel the need to embrace Disability Arts?

And we became more confused about our efforts to push the idea of ‘disability’ as a way of thinking about the world that does a disservice to people who don’t fit the perfect framework of what society expects, largely in order to fit our art to funding criteria. Some felt we were getting somewhere in getting mainstream recognition for work by disabled artists. Others, that we had taken a backward step.

But as Mat said in conversation: “at what point was it that we took our eyes off the ball?” For the first time since the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany we are suddenly living in a time when our lives as disabled people are being judged by the media purely in monetary terms. Politicians like Cornwall’s Collin Brewer are fine with openly declaring that "disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down."

So, in the light of how society is changing, what is the role of Disability Arts in this decade? Is it to challenge or comply with values of mainstream entertainment to support the status quo? I saw a lot of references to Unlimited 2012 as being about ‘celebration’ rather than ‘politics’. I didn’t agree with it, because what I saw of the festival contained a whole gamut, emotionally, politically and in terms of accessibility. For example Sinéad O'Donnell's 'CAUTION' was extraordinarily challenging.

But why do we so easily forget that all art and all entertainment is political: whether it is Lord Sugar extolling the virtues of a capitalist free market economy on ‘The Apprentice’ or Matthew Bourne creating an adaption of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with an all-male cast or Mat Fraser getting his kit off in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to show an audience at the Young Vic how a disabled man with shortened arms and no thumbs washes his bottom.

The context for each of those randomly chosen cultural phenomena has a political stake in affecting societies values and judgments. My choosing of those specific examples is in and of itself a political choice. As someone proud of my working class roots Sugar represents everything I hate about the working class and I’m prone to screaming fits in the unfortunate situation where I happen to be in a room when he is on the telly. Equally, I have known and loved a lot of gay people and will always support Gay rights – so would applaud Bourne for challenging notions of masculinity. Beauty and the Beast – although very adult in content – represented the most grown up piece of Disability Arts I’ve witnessed. Julie Atlas-Muz talking about encouraging her mother into the open about having discriminatory values was extremely moving. It was the first time I’ve seen a positive, compassionate spin on encouraging openness about ignorance. Attacking ignorance dismissively, has historically been a core value within Disability Arts – and although it has its place, it does little to change the attitudes of those subject to criticism, unless they actively want to be challenged.

So what is the place of Disability Arts now? Within its criteria Unlimited says that “We are looking for work that is innovative, varied, excellent, led by disabled artists. Unlimited is about art, not about disability.  Some work may reference disability, some may not.”

I’ve seen interpretations of that statement declaring that it means Unlimited is "not for disabled people". I disagree. ‘Disability’ is a role (as much for disabled people as for non-disabled people); it is a journey and where an artist is in relationship to their impairment will define whether or not they are at a point where they are comfortable with referencing ‘disability’. There is no getting away from the fact that Unlimited has a social and political context. It is born out of decades of disabled people striving for a voice in the world – a part of that being the struggle for artistic freedom. Whether or not the work that comes through Unlimited 2014 references disability or not – there will be a judgment of that work from the perspective of a disability arts aesthetic, simply because of its context.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not Art and politics cannot be separated. As a painter I know how key self-delusion is to the process of making Art. Traditionally, painting has always been about creating a 3 dimensional illusion of reality on a 2-D surface. The question is whether Unlimited 2014 can break out of a narrow idea of what is Art to present something that has meaning for disabled people?


Colin Hambrook

8 February 2014

Thanks for all your comments.

Don't get me wrong. I'm excited about Unlimited 2014. I am very proud of the massive buzz Dao created around the festival in London in 2012 and I looking forward to doing the same this coming September. I think Unlimited has a hell of a lot of work to do in an incredibly short time.

I can see why they've said Unlimited is about 'Art' and not specifically about 'Disability' in the guidelines - but I still think it makes it prescriptive in a way that isn't helpful. It will be down to who the judges are and what their political standpoint is. I don't know whether a judge is allowed to enter work? If that were the case there would have to be a clear protocol around how applications are judged. I do know the fee for being a judge was small compared to the amount of work involved.Yes they've asked artist to include media links to articles about their work but where outside of the disability press does work by disabled artists get reported on - aside from one or two exceptions like Mat Fraser?

Julie McNamara

7 February 2014

Are the Arts Council or Unlimited promoters trying to re-write history? Disability Arts in its' myriad of forms is still the cutting edge cultural response to a dis-abling world. That's political. The strongest creative arts I have ever witnessed are responding to the socio-political contexts of their era. The personal is political. The Arts cannot be divorced from politics. Let's not forget Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer, a passionate artist and an activist with great clarity who was executed for speaking out against the Nigerian government in the '90s. Are we really going to be silenced by the ConDem government responsible for the deaths of so many disabled people in this country? Unlimited may well attract applications from disabled artists who do not want to express political statements about Disability. So be it. But I really don't think we should be putting out messages that discourage art that is at its core a political response to a government with blood on its hands!

David Roche

6 February 2014

Keep bringing it, Colin! I love reading your comments because you frame the issues so clearly and succinctly. And you do it in a way that is encouraging, not didactic or preachy. You use concrete examples, which makes what you are writing about very real. I love to get DAO here in British Columbia; it (and you) deserve an international audience so I will do my best to share it. Thank you from Canada and I hope to see you all sometime soon.

Anne Teahan

6 February 2014

I really enjoyed reading your article and it has prompted many thoughts. I think that if art is authentic, it will contain the political and personal experiences of the artist, whether they are at the forefront of the work, or a subtext. Easier to pin down, but very hard to solve are the downright practical things that get in the way of opportunities. For example, I understand that 'Unlimited' jury members can also be grant applicants - I may be wrong and would be happy to be proved so - but this seems politically wrong and a conflict of interests.

Secondly, with obstacles and barriers - I don't think Unlimited should require applicants to produce a journalist's review as a condition of entry. I would argue it's much harder for a disabled artist to schmooze with journalists and engage in tiring promotional rituals, than for an artist who isn't tackling daily obstacles. I hope I'm not 'fouling my pitch' - would be happy to have this clarified.

Third thought is, I think the 'open' Unlimited theme is good, because in theory it allows artists to decide what they want to pursue, rather than box them in to a committee's view of what art by disabled people should be like.

But I'd be interested in your view of these things Colin.

Dave Lupton

3 February 2014

"Whether we want to acknowledge it or not Art and politics cannot be separated" - totally agree Mr Colin