In the Ghetto? A Polemic in Place of an Editorial

by Aaron Williamson

If the artistic activities of a minority identity group are either ignored or sidelined by the majority, then it’s possible to refer to the existence of a cultural ghetto. For many years, the situation (in the UK at least) has been one in which the same small group of ‘disability artists’ show work to their familiar audience – consisting, in the main, of other disabled people – without achieving much extraneous critical debate or appreciation. This effect is referred to within the community as ‘the disability art ghetto’ since its activities and achievements remain isolated and unknown to indifferent mainstream (supposedly ‘non-disabled’) audiences.

The ghetto can form from within too: many disability artists, festivals and organisations maintain themselves without seeking involvement or critical attention from the mainstream and a fairly established, yet isolationist, culture receives significant support through public funding.

The purpose of this editorial, and the contributions that have been written in response to the questions behind it, is to consider what the effects of ghettoisation - from both within and without – have on disability culture.

Intrinsic to the notion of a ‘disability culture’ is the formation of disabled people into a collective identity. This isn’t straightforward, since the widespread acceptance that disability is not an interchangeable concept with impairment meets with ongoing, frustrating resistance. For disability to be a collective identity, then, the categorisation of people into impairment subsets – blind, deaf, wheelchair users, and so on – needs to be downplayed or even disregarded.

The social model of disability, as it evolved in the 1980s, tried to establish this emphasis – that people are disabled by barriers to social inclusion, by the lack of access that can be facilitated by the provision of wheelchair ramps, sign interpreters or personal assistants. The social requirement for this provision did take some hold in the wake of the otherwise ineffectual Disability Discrimination Act (2004), but the notion that an individual is disabled by their impairment is still the prevalent mainstream way of thinking.

Oddly, this phenomenon is not exclusively a mainstream perception. One of the largest cultural organisations in the disability firmament is the Superfest International Disability Film Festival held annually in San Francisco. I’m only selecting this event as an example on the basis of its size and influence, but its publicity material is reasonably typical of a noticeable return to specifying individual impairment rather than social identity as the basis for disability art. Whereas the descriptions of access provision to the festival seem faultless, the blurbs accompanying each individual film to be screened make graphic specifications of each filmmakers impairment: ‘an autistic young man’, ‘a young blind boy’, ‘a woman with Tourette tics’, and so on. It may be the case that the filmmakers themselves are depicting their impairments as the basis for narrative drive but, if so, this is surely a regression from the kind of disability art that addresses and builds upon social identity. Why so? One of the difficulties shared by disabled people is that, whereas other identities formed on the basis of gender, sexuality or ethnicity, for instance, emphasise difference as an attribute, as something the individual might have, the impaired person is defined by what they don’t have, by what they are considered to ‘lack’.

The identification of disabled people by their impairments, therefore, echoes the traditional medical model of disability that seeks to sustain a profession through replacing lack with prosthetic aids, drugs or surgery. In opposition to this debilitating perception, it is imperative that disabled people assert that impairment need not be a reduced circumstance, that it can be a meaningful, central aspect of their experience, culture and identity; an attribute.

Before the recent cuts in funding by Arts Council England (ACE) ‘diversity’ and ‘audience development’ was a sizeable part of their policy. This meant in practice that, by the early 2000s, ACE often appeared to be a sub-branch of the social services, funding numerous agencies to ‘include’ minority identities in ‘empowering’ and ‘celebratory’ ways. 

In the disability sector, this has come to mean big public events such as the annual Mayor of London’s Liberty Festival (staged in Trafalgar Square before moving to the South Bank in 2011), and the large-scale commissioning of work for Unlimited, the branch of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad that is supposed to represent the art and culture of disabled people.

A glance at the publicity material released after the first round of Unlimited in 2009, gives an idea of what has come to be officially identified with disability art in the UK. Large awards were bestowed on groups making circus, street art, storytelling, mime, juggling, line dancing and ‘aerial performance’. The tone is one of celebration – of various buzzword-ideas like diversity, empowerment, inclusion – with the overall aim being to show disabled people to be a thriving social group who are happy to sing and dance and give a good account of their sense of belonging, to show mainstream audiences that they are positive and upbeat. If their chosen art forms – circus and so on – appear infantile in character then that can only serve to draw a mainstream, family-oriented audience who might take ‘inspiration’ from disabled people’s triumphant victories over adversity.

The term ‘mainstream’ can be a little confusing: the word is used in disability circles to refer to everything that is not disability culture – including radical or innovative contemporary forms of art. Confusing, because the traditional meaning of the term ‘mainstream’ outside of a disability context is taken to refer to culture that is lightweight, popular and easily digested. So what is notable, ironic even, about such disability art on view at events like Liberty and Unlimited, which refers to itself as non-mainstream, is that it has, in fact, fused with the most asinine, easy-going and entertaining forms of art in existence and that it attempts to attract a mainstream audience through being bland.

Supporting the ‘culture of celebration’ represented by much disability art is the almost total absence of criticism of it. It is as if criticism is forbidden and – even on otherwise excellent journals such as Disability Arts Online – a bad review or even a constructive ‘negative’ one is hard to find. Thus, disability art as a tradition may be in danger of stagnation through being entirely uncritical of itself. The intrinsic problem being that if the weakness of certain art works cannot be identified, nor can the strengths and achievements of others. Everything is held to be good, or at least not bad. The consensus being (to paraphrase Dr. Johnson likening a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind-feet), [disability art] ‘is not done well but one is surprised to see it done at all’.

In contrast, in order to inspire cultural debate and to attain critical attention, a significant portion of mainstream contemporary art sets out to be combative, challenging or difficult and to be innovative in radically breaking from formal tradition. In the mainstream, the stakes for critical appreciation are high and artists expect a rigorous consideration of their efforts. Thus, criticism rather than celebration is the bedrock of mainstream art and, in many ways, forces artists to take risks and to oppose cultural complacency. 

However, the mainstream critical tradition can also be considered exclusionary towards minority-identity or oppressed artists’ work. Whereas, historically, male artists and critics had no hesitation in ‘criticising’ women’s art, there was a time (during the 1980s) when the emergence of Black art met with critical silence from a predominantly white art establishment. Likewise with disability art today, mainstream art critics may simply be unprepared to comment negatively on artists who they consider to be socially disadvantaged or, even worse, deserving of pity. The critical silence towards disability art might, therefore, be considered to operate from both within and without.

This lack of criticality in the disability art field finds a curious echo in the concept of access. It is notable from the literature of many disability ‘celebration’ events that the art is described as ‘accessible’: this does not follow on from the practical provision of physical access, but rather implies that there will be no difficulty in understanding the meaning and intent of the work (i.e. it is celebratory). In contrast, much art, historically, has caused bafflement or confusion through pushing its audience’s expectations of what art is or what it can do. Essentially, the meaning and purpose of art is always in contest and open to redefinition and often this distinguishes it from popular culture. It can, therefore, wilfully be ‘inaccessible’ – not just to disabled people but to audiences in general.

This leads me to the root of ghettoisation. Often such ‘high art’ depends upon the viewer’s critical sensibility which, more or less, may correspond with the degree to which they have either trained themselves or, more likely, been educated. So is it feasible to expect disabled artists to engage with or infiltrate ‘the mainstream’ when access to higher education, and thus ‘high culture’ and academic/critical debate, is denied them? And when officially sanctioned disability art is funded precisely for its unchallenging, non-critical nature, for its ‘empowering celebration’ of a minority identity?

Clearly, access for disabled people to Higher Education is crucial but an insistence that disability art produce a critical yield that makes it resonate and last, is surely not culturally conservative despite this imperative.

Does the complexity of the lived/gained experience of disability mean that its artistic treatment automatically demands critical attention? There is no simple answer to this question, but in terms of art’s potential to afford artists working from political perspectives a powerful mandate, then I am reminded of the 1970s slogan: ‘Art Needs Disabled People’.

It does seem that, as a collective identity, the achievement of social equality for disabled people is much lower than it has been historically for feminism, racial equality and gay rights. If there is one category that might be more marginalised from western society it is the poor. Even so, disability has often been associated with, and even cited as the cause for, the most dire poverty: it is still the case in many societies that a disabled person’s means of income is limited to begging.

The idea that disability comes lowest in the pecking order of identity communities is reflected in disability art’s standing as a critical category. Of course, women artists still do not have statistical parity with men and black artists are below that in terms of their representation in the Western art world. Queer art can appear to echo the problems faced by disability art in that much public support is invested in popular, celebratory types of events, such as Gay Pride; and yet there is evidently far more work made in the mainstream about sexual identity than about disability.

So, it is tempting to conclude that if there is a pecking order for the ‘traditionally marginalised communities’ then disability is the runt chick hobbling along at the back: the last and lowest of all the identities. And yet, it is my belief that the progressiveness of a society is measured not by its cultural achievements at the top, but by those at the bottom. This is the call that rings through many of the words and ideas contained in the ‘Parallel Lines’ essays collected here: that a critically appreciated disability art needs to be achieved and supported by society itself and not just by disabled people. There needs to be a cultural tradition of disability art that is complex and compelling enough to gain widespread and lasting critical worth so that its significance is not limited to disabled people themselves. Disability art needs to survive the ghetto.