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Should disability arts reflect society? / 30 September 2014

black and white photo of French poet and theatre innovator Antonin Artaud

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), theatre director, poet, actor, and playwright. Image in the public domain from Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) website.

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I very much see Dao as a bridge between the aspirations of the Disability Rights based, Disability Arts Movement of old and the current, confused notion of disability arts, which draws largely from the inclusion agenda, and seeks to encourage disabled artists to work professionally within the Arts.

Back in 1989 Allan Sutherland wrote an essay for DAIL Magazine ‘Disability Arts, Disability Politics’. He said “I don’t think disability arts would have been possible without disability politics coming first. Our politics teach us that we are oppressed, not inferior. Our politics have given us self-esteem. They have taught us, not simply to value ourselves, but to value ourselves as disabled people. 

Watching the Ian Dury biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll on tv the other night reminded me that Disability Arts, as a movement, emerged in part at least, from the anger of disabled people segregated into Special Schools and subject to intimidation, bullying and a pretty damn terrible education in equal measures. Disability arts was an outcry against the bid to isolate and to ‘cure’ us.

There has been more integrated education around for Disabled kids over the last 25 years. So the core of their relationship with the world is bound to have changed, but the voices of younger disabled people haven’t emerged as strongly. It’s not clear how that fundamental change has affected their experience, but I would suspect that their is less of a disability identity.

Meanwhile discrimination against our community, generally, is on the rise. The move to label, dismiss and demonise us as scroungers has been achieved by the media. Disabled people are dying with hardly a murmur of protest. Disability rights are being undermined left, right and centre, with the running down of the Access to Work Scheme, the dismantling of the Independent Living Fund; and doing away with Disability Living Allowance. 

As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: “And so it goes…” The dominant attitude now is that human life is measurable in terms of currency, not quality and as such, disabled peoples’ lives are at the bottom of the heap. 

In contrast the efforts of schemes like Unlimited seek to programme work by disabled artists, to create new work and to get it seen, discussed and embedded within the cultural fabric of the UK. This isn’t a politically-motivated move, nor is Unlimited about disability arts as a medium for telling issue-based stories, necessarily. It’s more about encouraging disabled people who are artists, to find a space for their work within the cultural fabric.

There are more disabled artists now, who are doing what they want to do in terms of making and performing the work they want to make, who don’t see themselves as part of a community, as such. There is a sense of them getting support from their disabled peers, but their aim is to make art that will be received by a wider audience than a disability audience. They’re doing what they want to do and using their experience to inform what they do.

As such I see what’s happening as a move to put impairment on a map where it is understood as a part of everyday experience, not something to be lamented. And surely disabled artists who are making work that talks about their experience with the intention of dispelling myths about being tragic but brave objects of fear and pity are doing something that is aligned to some of the intentions of the Disability Arts Movement of yesteryear?

But the question is how does one work as an artist in the fabric of a culture that detests any notion of human rights - and simply ignore it? For the arts to be in any way meaningful they surely have to reflect the realities of the society in which they’re produced? If not, what’s the point?

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction at the core of the oft-repeated mantra about ‘mainstreaming’ as if ‘good’ art means ‘popular’ art. If you would judge Art by whether or not it has changed the way people think, it’s probably true to say that the work has often been challenging and / or angry. I’m thinking in particular of movements like DaDaism and Surrealism and artists like Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud spent large periods of his life incarcerated in asylums and achieved minimal success as an artist within his lifetime. 

Artaud was possibly the most successful failure within the history of theatre. Without Artaud we arguably would not now have the idea of a physical theatre, or a performing arts that seeks to express ‘the body’ itself. Artaud’s battle cry was to rally against theatre that sought to ‘represent’ reality, rather than to present it, as it is, in its raw form.

And so maybe Unlimited, in looking forwards to an Art that addresses access creatively and seeks to innovate, also needs to look back at the lessons learned in the past if it seeks to reflect society?

Colin Hambrook


Colin Hambrook

6 October 2014

Thanks for all your comments. I see the benefits for disabled artists placing work in the mainstream, but I do worry about the message that sends out: that we're integrated and have equality, when the reverse couldn't be more true for the majority of disabled people. I wonder if disability arts hasn't sold itself out and is in danger of losing or forgetting its prime motivation as a force for change.

Kate Jay-r

1 October 2014

This is a very interesting article - I have always thought of myself as a writer first and foremost but realize just how much mental and physical limitations hold me back. Not only is it hard for disabled people but also artists so those with both are doubly affected and cutbacks in funding make it harder than ever. In the publishing world (the old print model anyway) publishers expect authors to be 'out there' doing book signings, able to travel, do talks etc. But if you have anxiety or social or agoraphobia you cannot do these things and publishers don't accommodate you. You're therefore forced to fail or underachieve (as well as keep below the radar) because you're not accommodated. At least the digital technology has enabled us. I would love my work to be valued by various governments but as I say in my Facebook Group 'Don't Go Breaking Our Arts' if we make any money at all, it is not enough to live on. Successive governments don’t value the arts unless they are economically productive. They only value us as economic units, hence all the talk of ‘something for nothing’. We are all nothing to them unless we are economically self-reliant. When they refer to hard-working people, when did you last hear this in relation to artists? In an aggressive Capitalist society, we are dispensable if we can’t be self-reliant, even though our health problems prevent us from being self-reliant. The arts is precarious, our health is precarious.

Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that: “States Parties shall take appropriate measures to enable persons with disabilities to have the opportunity to develop and utilize their creative, artistic and intellectual potential, not only for their own benefit, but also for the enrichment of society.”

All I see on the internet is the reverse of 'something for nothing' but 'nothing for something' (the former name for the Facebook Group, in fact). I see so many people giving something away for free and expecting nothing or very little in return, whether this be arts or voluntary work or just simply helping their fellow human beings.

Dr Ju Gosling aka Ju90

1 October 2014

This is a very important and ongoing debate. What concerns me, as an international artist who has benefited greatly in the past from the services and activities provided by Disability Arts organisations and bespoke funds and commissions - not to mention the opportunities offered by now-defunct public arts programmes such as Croydon Clocktower's - is the lack of opportunities for emerging disabled artists today. Unlimited offers valuable opportunities to progress, but artists need space and encouragement to develop first.

There are also fewer opportunities for disabled arts workers than there ever were – and even before the closure of the DAFs, where most disabled workers were employed, 97% of publicly funded arts workers and fewer than 1% of freelance contractors were non-disabled. ‘Mainstreaming’ disabled artists rather than the Disability Arts Movement does nothing to create training and employment opportunities for aspiring arts administrators / directors / producers / stage managers / sound engineers / curators / invigilators / front-of-house workers etc etc etc.

Disabled people’s participation in and engagement with the arts may actually be at an all-time low (and let's not forget that 97% of the 2000+ volunteer performers in the Paralympic Ceremonies were also non-disabled). Disabled people’s spending power has been heavily hit by cuts in benefits and rises in essential costs such as food, fuel and energy, while service cuts to Taxicard etc have also had a substantial impact on participation. Meanwhile many of the Day Opportunities and Day Service programmes that used to offer daily opportunities– albeit of varying quality - for disabled people to practice art have closed without any alternative being offered, using 'mainstreaming' as the excuse.

What we are missing here is the language of rights and equality as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and in particular in Article 30, which gives disabled people the right to access the arts on an equal basis, and also recognizes that disabled people have our own unique cultures which are worthy of respect and support. The inherent difficulty with the dominating language of the ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ is the underlying assumption that a case needs to be made, rather than taking it for granted that diversity is an essential component of excellence and that all human beings have an equal right to participate in the arts. In reality, disabled artists have far more to offer the ‘mainstream’ than the mainstream currently has to offer us; Unlimited benefits the participating institutions most of all.

As Colin says, there is also a great deal of confusion about what Disability Arts is, with the assumption being that disabled artists are limited by the Disability Arts movement and instead need ‘helping’ into the mainstream. In reality, many of us consider that we have always been part of the wider art world. Having begun to make work around our own life experiences, we are then delighted to discover that there are not only other artists with similar ideas and interests, but also a whole body of theories and debates that has been developed over the past few decades. We are not part of the Disability Arts Movement because we have no other choice, but because we have made a positive choice to do so; we identify as disabled artists because we are proud of who we are.

Rich Downes

1 October 2014

I think this is a pretty good analysis. All I would argue with is statements around the idea that we are now valued as currency and we are at the bottom of the pile. The only word I'm objecting to his now. As a special schooler late to disability politics I'm of the view that this has been the case for 100's of years.

Against that the movement gives us a value that is so much higher than that of society's and it remains the remit of our organisations, arts and non arts, to keep on promoting a better worth both individually and collectively. I think we have done this pretty successfully, despite some criticism from our own, but feel a relatively new onslaught of attacks on our people.

I aam currently doing a piece on songs from the movement. There is a lot I didn't know/don't know but I feel grateful for the heritage of the movement and disability arts and culture. Rock on