It's Easy For You To Say: Rowan James and the emergence of 'impairment-laden' work by disabled artists
I recently caught an ITV news item celebrating the “ordinary heroes of Britain.” An eight-year-old disabled child was put on the spot for being ‘inspirational’ for completing a triathlon. It was notable because the lad was much too sharp to be fooled by media patronising bollocks: “I don’t even know why I’ve won an award. Anyone could do it.” His response caused immediate embarrassment to the news presenter and to the boy's father and he was promptly put in his place. [He was true Laurence Clark in the making.]
It seems that the tragic but brave stereotype just won’t go away. Meanwhile for many of us – especially those of us with invisible impairments – the need to shape up and prove our disability status is growing.
At the end of August I saw Rowan James's excellent spoken word piece ‘Easy For You To Say’. An antidote to the plethora of confessional-style, impairment-fixated work in Edinburgh; it is a raging comment on what a short distance we’ve travelled in our attempts to be a more inclusive society. It begins as a meditation on normality: “What do you need to be ‘normal’, a 3-piece suite, a subscription to Netflix, a body that’s perfect…”
With a combination of beatbox and rap the performance rises to a crescendo, ranting on the exigencies of labeling. Rowan’s generation have grown up with the tick-box system. It’s refrain is clearly anathema – an excuse for bureaucracies to dodge any real, effective inclusion of disabled people (or for that matter women, people from black or minority ethnic racial backgrounds, or gay people) by replacing the needs of individuals with the self-satisfaction of meaningless statistics – certainly within the education system.
But then with poor statistics for inclusion in every sector, you wonder what’s going on? It can seem as if the point of equality forms is to advertise a failure of society to do anything but marginalise people with ‘protected characteristics’: even the Equality Act (2010) term reeks of kindergarten.
The essential piece of equipment – the ‘necessary evil’ – in the game of tick-box is the ‘Equality Monitoring Form’. Rowan asks his audience to respond to the categories before going on to self-define: what labels would we choose for ourselves and for each other?
There’s a level of basic dignity and respect that is tested as soon as you are asked to identify as one thing or another. The caveat ‘prefer not to say’, seems to say everything about the context of what the form really means.
The question is where do we draw the lines? How do we build a context for meaningful inclusion: “where’s the line and whose line is it anyway?”
In her recent blog Sophie Partridge raised the question of why disabled artists seem more impelled to “'spill the beans' about impairment?” Even a decade ago, entering into ‘Medical Model’ territory, was actively discouraged by the sector. There is so much prodding and poking and the question of ownership of one’s body and the right to say ‘fuck off’ to non-disabled people who assume they’ve a right to a piece of you, is an issue.
But equally, if you present as a non-disabled person, and there are edges, then you will be judged and will be the object of discrimination. Unless that is, you go through the obstacle course of explaining your impairment issues. And so perhaps a reason for artists like Jess Thom to hand out medical details is to counteract the ill-advised, if not downright ignorant assumptions about what it means to have a particular impairment or illness.
And lastly there have been a lot of advances in technology, which has meant that for many, the medical model has presented the possibility of adaptation, rather than the mantra of ‘cure at all costs’, which was the stance a decade ago. It seems as if research into assistive technologies is broadening the scope to make music, perform, write, drive, achieve a host of functions, which would have been impossible even a decade ago.
The problem with the Medical Model approach has always been to do with the distribution of power… our lives in the hands of ‘professionals’ whose understanding is based on their prejudices rather than our needs. But the question is, has the Medical Model changed in the last ten years of emphasis on facilitating adaptation, rather than working to effect ‘cure’?
In order to get the access (to education, to work, to transport, to health etc. etc.) we need, we have to explain ourselves… and there is still the risk that what we say will be judged negatively; that our attempts to explain will still be patronised. From my own experience I know that making work about mental health issues always elicits responses of fear and loathing. It seems to go with the territory, no matter that the context for expression is a challenge to the taboos, it seems inevitable that it will be misunderstood.
There isn’t a conclusion, except to say it is more understandable for artists to talk about impairment in the current climate where key obstacles are less about the oppression of being subject to cure, and more how to survive.
Rowan James ended his piece on a note of hope and restitution. Equality is subject to cynicism, but equally, it’s an ideal worth holding on to. “Our quirks make us real… our commonality, solidarity… We steer our own lives through good times and bad nights… all people are equal. It may not be easy for us to say, we are the same.”
The City of London laughs in the face of the plight of disabled people with the erection of a new/ old Damien Hirst monument
A statue by artist Damien Hirst which according to the Evening Standard “aims to challenge our prejudices around disability” was recently installed next to St. Helen’s Church and opposite the Gherkin in London’s Square Mile.
The seven-metre high sculpture, called Charity (2003), is a replica of a 1960s Spastic's Society charity collection box depicting a disabled young girl clutching a teddy bear and a collection tin.
The Standard goes on to say that Hirst said he “aims to question society's historical tradition of representing charity as a pitiful image.”
So, firstly you have to ask yourself, why? And at a time when disabled people are suffering more than any other community within society as a result of the increasing prejudice and discrimination being expounded by the media and government.
Both FAD Magazine and Artylst tell us that “Hirst’s Charity revolutionises the classical practice of elevating a noble subject, by selecting the dejected image of a disabled girl with her leg in a splint and depicting the charity box having been broken into.”
What utter drivel. And yet another example of 'disability' being used and exploited by the rich and powerful as a commodity for trafficking ideas and power. Since the 2012 Paralympics it seems that we have gone beyond 'disability'. We live in such an equal society now, apparently ‘disability’ no longer exists.
'Disability' has been written out of the benefit system. Access to Work has been cut and the Independent Living Fund is no more. And now, of course, we hear the government want to make further steps to legalise killing us off.
Yet Hirst deems it appropriate to celebrate the fact that the 'disability' begging box has been broken into and the few meagre pennies we had have been stolen, right in the middle of the biggest self-serving tax haven and money laundering centre in the world.
As a movement we’ve always given ‘pity’ bad press. Johnny Crescendo urged us to 'piss on pity' when it seemed we were fighting for a more just world. But society has gone so far in proving that any form of compassion is outmoded and that as a result society itself no longer exists.
We’re just a group of individuals stacked up against each other like pawns in a China shop, self-righteous about the need to throw away anyone who doesn’t justify their worth to the economy. Even then, the logic of throwing away the ILF and the Access to Work Scheme doesn’t bear thinking about. The amount of money wasted by disavowing disabled people from making a contribution through employing PAs, paying tax. etc. is sickening.
The first thing you realise is how utterly lacking in imagination Hirst and the producers of Sculpture in the City are. I mean, come on, a sentimental 1950s image of a young disabled girl begging in a short skirt. The crowbar and the scuffed appearance are probably reminders of how sick people got of these objects on the streets in the 1970s. My own memory is that they always stood, vandalised and broken into.
Simon Raven reminded us that by far the best artistic treatment of the charity-box pity theme was by Katherine Araniello who did an ironic imitation, collecting for the Sick Bitch Crips. (As an aside Araniello is performing in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on 25 July as part of One City One Day)
Simon also suggest a group coming together to organise a 'Beggars Banquet' event at the foot of the sculpture to address our concerns. Anyone else up for it?
There was a lot in the media last week, centred on Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Dr Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything'. Newsnight covered it with an interview with the US disabled actor RJ Mitte - star of 'Breaking Bad'.
Frances Ryan's critical response to news of a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Redmayne on the Guardian’s comment is free pages was to say: “while ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage, ‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards.”
A debate followed on Dao’s FB group. Lloyd Coleman argued that he saw that it is important for high profile roles to be given to disabled actors. He qualified the opinion saying: “Frances Ryan makes some valid points, but also makes a fundamental error in comparing the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors to the (rightly) outdated and unacceptable act of 'blacking up'. The latter is offensive because the colour of one's skin is a matter of race, which doesn't alter over the course of a life time. Men playing female roles (or vice versa) would also be considered absurd in a conventional 21st century drama."
"But 'disability' is a much more fluid area, in terms of what it means for the identity of the individual concerned. If it is unacceptable for Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking, does that mean it is always unacceptable for an able-bodied actor to play a visually impaired person for example? No, just as we would like it to be commonplace for visually impaired actors (or any other disabled actor for that matter) to play so-called 'able-bodied' characters, if they were suitable for the role. By the same principles, would we want all straight actors to only play straight parts, and all gay actors to play only homosexuals? Again, I don't think so."
"Acting is the art of portraying a character, who may well have very different attributes to you. I have seen 'The Theory of Everything', and it tells the story of Stephen Hawking's life from his student days, before the onset of motor neurone disease. So practically speaking, the film also required an actor who would be able to show this, which I think Eddie Redmayne does remarkably well.”
Bob Findlay-Williams argued in response: “Frances Ryan collapses two very important issues into one badly articulated argument. Casting actors needs to be done in relation to a given character. In terms of this film it makes perfect sense for an actor who can portray a person with and without a specific impairment, therefore, casting Redmayne makes sense. This is a different issue to the historical tendency of overlooking disabled actors in favour of non-disabled ones. It isn't about disabled or gays only playing disabled or gay parts. It is about negative attitudes which reinforce institutional discrimination and leads to the underemployment of disabled actors.
"Of course quotas and 'politically correct' solutions aren't the answer: writing decent scripts, casting disabled actors in non-stereotyped roles would be a good starting point, but the best solution of all would be to create an inclusive society where disabled actors would be reflecting a wider reality of opportunity.”
I would follow what Findlay implies is the real problem in terms of reinforcing discrimination with what I thought was the most coherent argument in Ryan’s column. Christopher Shinn is quoted as saying: “the act of watching a disabled character being played by an actor who we know is really fit and well, allows society’s ‘fear and loathing around disability’ to be ‘magically transcended’… pop culture is more interested in disability as a metaphor than in ‘disability’ as something that happens to real people”.
I think there is a truism here. It’s the sentimentality that surrounds the depiction of disabled people; even when the depictions are not just utterly erroneous bad acting. (My no 1. hated portrayal is Russell Crowe as John Nash in 'A Beautiful Mind'). Anyone with a daily lived experience of impairment would know that 'The Theory of Everything' is a fairy tale, and that the truth of Hawking’s fight to life and to acclaim would be far more harrowing than Hollywood’s interpretation of the story.
But, then, is that how we would want our own story to be protrayed? Whether or not it is valid to criticise in terms of identity poitics or in terms of discrimination, I don’t believe anyone can gainsay Hawking’s own validation of 'The Theory of Everything', allowing copyright to use his synthesised voice, as reported on biography.com.
Many would have watched and enjoyed the film, as an entertaining piece of escapism. Whether or not it’s ‘Art’ is a very different conversation.