Should disability arts reflect society? / 30 September 2014
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?