Earlier this month I attended a Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University. One of the papers that has stayed with me was a piece of work-in-progress on ‘Disability in Cultural Spaces’ by Nancy Hansen from Manitoba University. She'd been to The Lowry Museum in Salford, where one of her favourite paintings 'The Cripples' is displayed.
I've never been a particular fan of LS Lowry's work. I’ve always felt a certain discomfort with the atmosphere of nostalgia evoked by his scenes of the industrial north in the first half of the 20th century, peopled by ‘matchstick’ figures. But then, Lowry has always been painted by the media as a sad, romantic, figure and perhaps at least some of my perception has been coloured by the copy I’ve read about him.
What Hansen brought alive in her talk was the extent to which how art and the artist is perceived, is so much about the curation of work and the focus on the way it is interpreted. She homed in on a later painting by Lowry - one of her favourites - 'The Cripples (1949). She talked about her own immediate response being one of liberation and a sense of being "amongst my people for the first time” in stark contrast to how the media and The Lowry Museum write about the painting.
One of the key things for Hansen is how the Disability aesthetic is misunderstood, through a cultural insistence that it is per se a metaphor for an ugly or defective aspect of society. For instance the painting is consistently talked about as presenting its panoply of disabled people ‘as figures in isolation' when, rather, if you look closely, there is a lot of interaction and inter-relating happening between the individuals depicted on the canvas. Hansen expressed wonder that they were indeed looking at the same painting she was seeing.
The teachers pack in The Lowry talks about the painting as being 'cruel and ugly', and of a 'disturbing, violent, voyeuristic nature.' Then with incredibly leading questions it goes on to ask: 'How does it make you feel? Is it meant to be a funny painting; a cruel painting, or both?'
In further references to 'The Cripples' quoted by Hansen, it is seen as a 'metaphor for all that is going wrong in the world'. Each of the impairments of the characters is often explored in full, reducing Lowry’s art to a medical model fascination with his subjects. There is a general assumption made, that disability is always a miserable state of being. The Lowry itself purports a reluctance to have copies of 'The Cripples' on postcards, for fear it might be in bad taste.
What is missed out, often, is context and analysis of the time it was painted, both in terms of The Cripples' being a post-war urban scene, when many war-amputees would have been seen on the streets of Manchester. Indeed at least ten of the characters in the painting were well-known individuals.
Meanwhile the painting meant much to Lowry as an expression of his own sense of being disabled by society. He said of it: “I feel strongly about these people. I am attracted to the sadness. I feel like them.”
The picture that emerges through Hansen's research highlights how what is written about 'The Cripples' says more about the attitudes of the media and the art education sector, than perhaps it does about the painting itself. Could the perception of 'The Cripples as 'a voyage into the grotesque' be merely a projection of the fears and prejudices of those interpreting the painting in this way?
I’m fascinated by the ways that disability is portrayed. Reference to disability in museums is so often ranged around access, failing to consider deeper implications of what the ways it is talked about (or not talked about) might mean. I look forward to finding more about Hansen’s research when it is ready for publication.
It's been an eventful year for DAO so far, gathering responses to the Unlimited commissions by disabled and deaf artists that have been wending their way across the country, culminating in the Festival at the Southbank Centre which ended just over a week ago.
Since then I've been at a Disability Studies conference in Lancaster University in which the ideas that originally spawned the Disability Arts movement are still celebrated - even though those ideas have perhaps become fragmented in the movements struggle to validate the agenda for inclusion and inclusive practice.
I wonder if we are at a cross roads where Disability Arts has had possibly the biggest profile ever - in terms of Unlimited - but is equally in danger of sinking? What will the legacy of Unlimited be? We hope to investigate this further in the coming weeks with comment and interviews with some of the key artists and movers' n' shakers.
One of the themes of discussions at the Southbank Centre ranged around the question of whether or not to identify as a disabled artist and whether companies should market their work as Disability Arts? Clearly the divergent views on the limitations of identification, versus supporting the cultural values of interrogation and subversiveness implicit within Disability Arts are arguments which will carry on. Personally I think what is exciting is the challenge of using a disability lens through which to analyse arts practice deeper.
For DAO over the coming months there are still several more Diverse Perspectives commissions to catch up on. We've published three of the eight commissions so far with Crippen and John O'Donoghue's collaboration on producing the O'Crypes cartoon and text. Aaron Williamson's The Eavesdropper - delving into the stories behind the stories of the paintings in The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, is under way. Coming up are further commissions from Liz Crow, Dolly Sen, Gini, Ivan Riches and Aidan Moesby.
DAO is also going through a redesign. This move has been inspired by several things. Firstly that since the current format was launched in 2006 we've realised that people have never quite got their heads around the left-hand navigation. Although when we user-tested our design disabled people felt there were advantages access-wise, the feedback we've had subsequently is that because left-hand menu for navigation isn't standard, generally internet-users find it confusing.
We are also going to redesign the navigation around artform rather than content-type, which seems to have been a sticking point with DAO readers because framing everything around the feature categories of review, discussion etc. makes it harder to find old copy. Because DAO is dedicated to citizen journalism there are also often difficulties in that sometimes the copy we publish could fit into several of the categories.
Meanwhile, in the run up to a redesign of DAO, which will happen later this year, we have introduced a mobile phone app which you can now download by going to www.disabilityartsonline.org/events-mobile
That's all for now. I look forward to updating you, dear reader…
Showing on Channel 4 at 5.25pm on Sunday 9th September 2012 is a documentary tracking the development of the Great British Paraorchestra. The idea for it was conceived by internationally renowned conductor Charles Hazlewood, inspired by his disabled daughter and the Paralympics. The initiative is described as "a global movement to recognise and showcase disabled musicians with extraordinary abilities. Its mission is to end the limitations placed on them, not by their physical ability but by lack of opportunity." The documentary will plot the formation of the orchestra, its members and their relationship to music.
One of the points of interest in this orchestra is that the range of instruments do not reflect that of a traditional classical orchestra. Some of the instruments have been developed specially for the musicians and others play instruments from all over the world. Combined, the Great British Paraorchestra is developing its own musical aesthetic that is fresh, interesting and original. Lloyd Coleman, Clarinettist explained: "Musically I'm really excited about it because of the range of cultures and musical styles that we have in this group and it's a group of musicians that you will never have seen together before.... I think people will appreciate the different elements that come to the fore during any one performance. We do anything from Indian Raga to Western Classical Music to electronic sounds. These elements all in one big mix is very exciting."
After seeing the orchestra perform at Glastonbury earlier this year I will be interested to see how they've developed following a summer of performances including a very well received concert as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre last week.
It would be easy to suspect there's probably a reason that Channel 4 have programmed this on the same evening as the Paralympic Closing Ceremony. The 65 minute documentary might not be the only time we see the Great British Paraorchestra on TV this Sunday!