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How do art historical texts and the media deal with disability? Answers on a postcard please...

For the Outside-In Step-Up program I am doing some research on how artists talk about themselves in terms of disability; and how art historians and academics refer to disability. As a beginning I am planning to gather as much material as I can on a broad spectrum of artists, before narrowing down to focus on a few artists.

The point of my research is to look at references to disability and impairment from the perspective of the Social and Affirmative Models of Disability. As a rule of thumb, within art catalogues, media reviews and art historical texts, disability is always viewed from the Medical Model: ie as a negative. Disability is always something to be endured, rather than something that inspires originality, in terms of technique.  It is something that places the artist in the realm of ‘the other’.

In contrast the Affirmative Model of Disability understands impairment from a disabled persons’ perspective. To quote Dr Colin Cameron from his PhD research, “impairment is part of who we are as human beings, part of the human condition (to be expected and respected on its own terms rather than pitied, excluded or reacted to with hostility), part of what makes us us (and proud to be us).”

Often, artists who are willing to talk openly about disability, do so from a much more rounded point of view. For example in her Creative Case for Diversity article, Jo Verrent, in exploring the portraits of photorealist painter, Chuck Close, quotes the artist talking about ‘prosopagnosia’ or ‘face blindness’ as the inspiration and motivation for the large portraits he is renowned for.

In The Madness of Peter Howson - a  BBC Four profile of the painter, screened in the summer of 2011, the celebrated Scottish artist talks with humour about mental illness and describes living with Asperger's Syndrome as an essential part of his being an artist. The dedication and vision he brings to his painting have a very real correlation with the impairment. Yet media reviews, tended to report on this aspect of the documentary as self-defeating.

I recently wrote about the painter Edward Burra whose work has been given a major retrospective as Pallant House Gallery for the first time in 25 years [see my blog on Dada-South's website]. As an individual he was very reticent in talking about disability, but there is no doubt that his painting technique, which makes his work stand out amongst 20th century British painters, was a response to living with arthritis.

Within the Social Model is the idea that disability is social construct. We are disabled by the barriers that society puts in our way, on account of having an impairment that makes us different from the perceived ‘norm.’ Within the Art World there is a myth that to be an artist, you have to be ‘special’. Being different is to some extent something that is expected, if within certain bounds.

Art School training in England over the last 30 years, has swallowed the myth of the ‘troubled artist.’ To be interesting, to be a potential ‘celebrity artist’, there has to be something different about you. As a result, there is often a cruelty in the way that the personalities of students are often interrogated and torn apart by art tutors, as part of the ‘artistic’ process. This idea of what makes an artist is nothing new! In her book Illness as a Metaphor, writer Susan Sontag, deconstructs the myth of the 'troubled' artist, by looking at a broad range of novels and literary texts from the early 19th century onwards. She analyses how myths that underpinned the romanticisation of tubercolosis were transferred onto myths about madness, during the last century. Within this she interrogates the romantic imagination and the struggle for divinity.

And within that struggle lies the rub. What is it that makes us spiritual? Or spiritual enough to be a ‘proper’ artist? How is it that the notions of being ‘troubled’ and being ‘spiritual’ are somehow interchangeable? The Social Model says that it is not impairment per se that is the ‘trouble.’ Rather, it is societies attitudes that create barriers to a truth about where responsibility lies.

I am looking for responses to help me in my research and wondered if you would provide some feedback on the following questions. Please feel free to post comments below or  send an email seperately to
Do you know of references to disability within art history books or exhibition catalogues, that I might investigate for research purposes?
How do you feel about talking about disability or impairment in relation to being an artist? Is disability something that you are open about when talking about your artistic endeavours?
How do you feel about Disability Art as a concept or art movement?
Do you have any thoughts on the notion of the ‘troubled artist?’

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 November 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 26 April 2016