I found a great, really thought provoking article, today – see here – that not only strongly resonated with me but extended my understanding regarding how one could characterise disability arts in the UK. The paper was published in 2003 and I am reading it in 2015, but it still seems very relevant. The paper’s title is Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe (Darke, 2003) and the title and article could not be more different. Where the former was oblique the article was clear, powerful and concise.
Darke, takes the reader through a simple overview of where the Disability Arts movement was up to 2003. He makes his argument early on: that Disability Art is important because it challenges the hegemonies of normality and taste. He locates its vehicles such as the London Disability Arts Forum and Disability Arts magazine DAIL and places it within disability politics agenda and explains how Disability Art has been used not only to reveal and construct new realities but to play its own part in challenging mainstream society’s exclusion of disabled people.
“Thus, Disability Art philosophy is based upon legitimating the experience of disabled people as equal within art and all other cultural practices; not as an equal opportunities issue but as part of a process of re-presenting a more accurate picture of society, life, disability and impairment and art itself.”
But then Darke goes on to show how the appropriation of disability art through the establishment of outreach programs by arts institutions and even fulfilling some funding body’s equal opportunities prerequisite not only has done little to challenge hegemony, but have actually neutralised disability art and so reinforce the dominant hegemony. This has worked in several ways such as mainstream organisations controlling funding and the focus of disability arts and the move of disabled artists into funded positions linked to these programmes and equal opportunities more generally. Thus we the artists collude with the mainstream – which is the organ of oppression.
In order for disabled artists work to challenge the mainstream it needs to be understood by it and that this can result in diluted output so it is comprehensible to non disabled people – and there is the paradox. Thus he argues the dilution of what we say either by our own hands or through appropriation suggests that we have forgotten our theoretical basis – aimed at revealing hegemony – and that as a result Disability Art and its Artists have become re-enforcers of it.
There was so much in this article it’s difficult to know where to begin. Is there an artistic hegemony? Yes – people don’t see the disability connotation unless there is an impaired body in the frame and then its often connoted through individualisation.
So what does this mean for my work? I think it suggests I am on the right track. Indeed the article specifically addresses one of the issues in my project proposal. “I will need to explore how visual meaning is transmitted and received in terms of the visual representation of disability.” (Mansell, 2014)
Darke articulates the problem I constantly face when I make images that speak to the subject of the social construction of disability only those who understand that perspective get my evocation. Thus I will have to modulate my work and focus on illness, impairment and disability in order to locate and contextualise. Not as easy task. Yet others do achieve it. For example, Carly Jane produces interesting sculptures that challenge many assumptions around the social construction of disability.
oh – and the General Election results in coming in and a new political dawn begins…
Darke, P. A. (2003) Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe (thanks to Pierre Bourdieu) in Disability, Culture and Identity, Riddell, S. and Watson, N. (eds) Published by Routledge
Mansell, P. (October 2014) MA Project Proposal v3 Available here.