Having entered a decade akin to the Victorian age with an increasing rise in importance placed on benevolence and charity we have to ask ourselves is there a place, now, for Art Movements that seek to address social justice and inequity within society?
Or do we rather want to throw in the towel; see it all as worthy nonsense and let the White Men in their ivory towers carry on business as usual putting the mundane and populist at the top of the charts. Has Disability Arts or Black Arts or Women’s Arts or Gay Arts, for that matter, ever made a difference?
I came away from DASH’s Awkward Bastards conference with an overriding sense that the communities that fit within the ‘creative case for diversity’ conversation, set up by Arts Council England, have more in common than you might have realised.
For some time we’ve had this sense of all of what have been deemed by the Equality Act 2010 as ‘protected characteristics’ ie communities of Disabled, Black, Gay and Women as having been lumped together in some politically correct paradise where none may venture except with a sense of worthiness.
After all as Tony Heaton, CEO of Shape and one of the Awkward Bastard panelists, is fond of saying: “no-one looks at me wheeling down the street and thinks ‘there goes a ‘diverse’ person’.” I would hasten to add, though, that I can’t imagine anyone of any characteristic, boxing themselves in with a ‘diverse’ tagline, in the same way that no-one would describe themselves definitively as an ‘equal’ person. Diversity is a process surely, a way of understanding the differences that exist within society. And equity is, hopefully, what we strive towards.
So how do we unravel ‘diversity’ as a platform for issue-based artwork? Awkward Bastards named after a piece of poetry from Firing the Can(n)on of disability arts - a film and digital artwork by Sean Burn was all about unpicking several conversations about Art and the Art-maker and the relationship of both to what’s happening in the world.
It was also about the fact that the history of artists who have had the audacity to presume that Art can change anything for the better have continued to be consigned to a wall of silence. The will for universal Human Rights moves in cycles and we’ve been arcing back towards greater and greater inequity over the past 15 years. Who knows how far the tide will turn?
If you compare Human Rights under Queen Victoria’s reign between 1819-1901 to the previous eighty years, you could argue our society then existed at a time of enlightenment. You’d have to discount the ravages of the British Empire and atrocities such as those perpetrated by the East India Company for example.
On the face of it you could argue that the 19th century marked the beginning of 200 years of moving forwards. The Slave Trade Act came into force in 1807, abolishing the slave trade in the empire, followed by the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834. Women first got a vote in 1918; Homosexuality was decriminalized within The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 and finally the first Disability Discrimination Act became legislation in 1995. But then how much did legislation actually stop corruption, abuse and the misappropriation of power?
However much you try to make a meal of race and disability, what it really comes down to is issues of class and the lack of opportunity, which comes with being marginalized in one shape or another. Of course, the communities that mostly tend to get left out of any conversation about equality is reference to the rights of Children and Old People.
Emily Dugan in The Independent recently reported that every year, an estimated 5,000 children die in the UK, with disadvantage being a major factor in preventable deaths.
The Office for National Statistics reports that the current death rate in England and Wales is running about one-third higher than its normal rate for this time of year, official statistics show: with 28,000 deaths in the two weeks ending on 23 January 2015, compared with the average of 21,000 deaths, which has been consistent over the past five years.
However you wan to package and box the Arts, or not, there is a responsibility for artists to reflect back on what is happening within society. Without the structures that allow for reflection and pause; that give rise to an understanding of how we see ourselves and how we are seen, then we will inevitably veer towards a fascistic state that only allows expression that supports a singular view of itself.
Access to Arts, Health and Education is being snapped away by the bucket-load. Libraries are being closed down, the Arts are generally being devalued more and more as we increasingly become a cruel society; one that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
While the brunt of austerity is born by the poorest and least powerful people within our culture, according to an OECD report in 2011 the wealthiest tenth of society earns 12 times as much as the poorest, up from eight times as much in the 1980s.
We need our awkward bastards more than ever, I would say!
A stimulating discussion unfolded on Dao’s FB group last week in response to the Shape Open Exhibition, which was launched at Shape’s Gallery in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford last week.
The call-out for Shape’s annual Open Exhibition was for the third year opened out to disabled and to non-disabled artists specifically asking for work on the theme of [in]visible.
The question posed was whether Shape should be supporting work by artists who didn’t necessarily see themselves as disabled people?
When I got into Disability Arts in the 1990s there was a massive energy from disabled artists making work that was based on real-life situations. I was attracted by the fact that disabled artists were making work that had a correlation with the reality of stuff that happens in everyday life.
In the 1990s there was a swell of activism by disabled artists. Indeed Shape’s CEO Tony Heaton was at the centre of an agit-prop Art protest that received massive media attention. Shaken Not Stirred had a knock-on impact on ITVs telethon and indeed that particular charity fundraiser defining disabled people as poor, needy objects of pity, was abandonned.
In the 1990s there was a lot of action by disabled people against the charities that are supposed to represent us, who largely – then as now – are very adept at playing the ‘worthy cause’ card to fundraise, but actually do little in the way of providing the kinds of services we actually need or to even employ disabled people within their workforce.
The Social Model defined ‘disability’ as the problem society has with accommodating anyone different from the ‘norm’; and it was key to a collective politicised will for change. Then around the year 2000 the climate went through a dramatic transformation.
The Disability Arts Movement had been very effective in drawing disabled people to it and creating opportunities for disabled people to take part. Disability Arts had largely been about disabled people entertaining other disabled people. In the 1990s there had been a thriving scene of Disability Arts cabaret, which gave disabled performers an opportunity to talk about discrimination. The DDA came in and the Capital Lottery Fund (with massive insistence from people like Paddy Masefield) had disability access provision enshrined into planning as a rule for any public building looking for money for new build or refurbishment.
Disability Arts was largely seen as Community Arts and key funding bodies like the Arts Council who had supported Disability Arts changed tack towards what was termed ‘excellence’ in the arts. And disabled-led organisations that had been incredibly effective in supporting and empowering disabled people were suddenly put into the position of having to think of ways to ‘mainstream’ the disabled artists they worked with, in order to survive. There was a bid to get curators and producers from wider arts organisations to recognise the ‘quality’ of the work that they were supporting.
Paul Darke saw the writing on the wall back in the late 90s when he wrote a dissertation called Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe He realised that the political will for Disability Arts to follow the Social Model and to subvert the idea of being ‘normal’, was being overturned by the idea of inclusion: that disabled people could become part of the fabric of society with a move towards an enlightened dismantling of the physical and attitudinal barriers backed by access provision.
And so a message went out that the job was done and the majority of disabled-led arts forums fell by the wayside. Shape has survived by stealth. Tony Heaton, Shape’s CEO, inspired by Adam Reynolds, saw the potential for Disability Arts to rise out of the ghetto and to take a more ‘mainstream’ focus.
Part of Shape's aims are about getting the work of disabled artists into mainstream galleries and through programmes like Unlimited, supporting a new wave of Disability Arts that is focused on the Art and which perhaps expresses disability politics in more subtle ways. [Or less subtle, perhaps if you consider the recent Adam Reynolds bursary winner Carmen Papalia using the services of a brass band to announce his access needs.]
But there is another strain of thought of behind the principles of the Shape Open. There has always been a real difficulty in promoting the understanding that ‘disability’ is constructed by society. A significant number of disabled people have always resisted defining themselves as disabled people because of the stigma that comes with that identity. My own father, who is ageing rapidly and has become severely impaired, won’t see himself as a disabled person, because he sees it as ‘giving in’. He can’t be persuaded to use a wheelchair, because although it would obviously give him more independence and quality of life, he sees using a wheelchair as immediately defining him as ‘dependent’, as ‘less’ or as ‘other’.
And so by making the Shape Open available to disabled and non-disabled artists, there is an attempt by Shape to allow entry for artists who might define as disabled people, but are uncomfortable with framing their Art within that definition. By asking artists to respond to what [in]visible means to them, there is an opportunity to attract work that expresses what ‘disability’ means within a broad parameters and so at least to get people thinking about it.
Whatever you think of the idea of society becoming more inclusive and the agenda for inclusivity, it is perhaps the sole idea that remains – and that only in a very piecemeal way from what was a thriving movement. Unless there is a new surge of energy to organise and make some noise that rattles the cage of the status quo, then disabled peoples rights will continue to rapidly diminish, as they have done in the last four years.
By Colin Hambrook