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In his treatise What is Art? Leo Tolstoy argues that art is not an activity which is simply meant to produce beauty – a very subjective criterion, or to provide pleasure and entertainment. He claims that art is a means of expressing experience, of communicating various aspects of the human condition. In this sense, art can be a powerful way of both exploring and sharing a life experience shaped by disability. In addition to its great potential in engaging in self-exploration and communicating experience to audiences, art has the ability to challenge presumptions and thus incur attitudinal and political change. After looking at the relationship between art and disability, we will look at two examples of artists developing their work in the context of these two trends.
In her 2011 article When Art Informs: Inviting Ways to See the Unexpected, Linda Ware explores the historical changes that have recently occurred in the intersection between art and disability. She advances the ideas presented in the documentary Disability Takes on the Arts (2004) produced by Sh. Snyder and D. Mitchell, who argue that in spite of a well-known history of world-famous artists with disabilities like Monet (visual impairment), Munch (schizophrenia), and Goya (deafness), in their works’ analyses, disability has largely been thought irrelevant and rendered almost invisible.
This is in sharp contrast with some of the present-day disability art, which often assumes the disability identity to be a filter shaping the artist’s life, “a source of insight and power”. Instead of narrowing down one’s approach to binary values such as abled/disabled or high functioning/low functioning, Ware recognizes a growing move towards viewing disability as a value-added identity.
In a recent academic paper titled Inclusive Education and the Arts, Julie Allan highlights that disability art performs the double function of displaying difference but also of working on non-disabled people’s notions of normality, disentangling them, creating dissonance and doubt, and in result making one rethink. She backs up her argument with Nussbaum’s brilliant distinction between the take on the body experienced by disabled and non-disabled individuals – the former having to “enhance an otherwise dulled network of sensations”, in contrast to the latter, whose body naturally draws “an undue amount of attention to itself”. Such “bodies” enter into a powerful and transformative interaction with the audience, offering themselves to those who lack this body-bound connectedness, and eventually, restating disability as a source of insight and power. In this way, Allan visualizes artists with disabilities as creators who have used their own bodies as material, and some of them even as weapons, to subvert a disabling environment.
Disability art performs the double function of displaying difference but also of working on non-disabled people’s notions of normality.
Myriads of talented artists with various kinds of disabilities have found a meaning in and beyond their own impairments. Let us have a glimpse at two examples of such artistic expression.
Photo: © Everydaysheros
Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi is an artist from Taiwan. She grew up labeled as deformed as she was born with two fingers on each hand, and two toes on each foot. The years spent in Chicago where she pursued her BFA and MFA degrees at the School of the Art Institute, exposed her to disability art activism and challenged her to articulate her pain of disability oppression, to start exploring the meaning of bodies through art, and by creating body adornments to connect with herself.
At present, Sandie crafts wearable art which aims to initiate a dialogue between the wearers and the viewers of the created objects. Sandie’s garments, accessories and footwear are based on the individual’s medical experience, physical position and state of mind. Before making the accessories for her disabled clients, she goes through a process of mutual sharing and exploration of the meanings of altered bodies and difference, and chooses materials and patterns that would echo back each person’s narrative. Each piece of art tells a personal story informed by and made unique by disability.
Sandie states: “My wearable adornments have played many roles: sometimes they shelter, protect, comfort and adorn me; sometimes they expose, fight and scream for attention. They have lots complex and paradoxical expressions: together, they make me a full person with diverse expressions. They help me to claim my disability identity.”
My wearable adornments have played many roles: sometimes they shelter, protect, comfort and adorn me; sometimes they expose, fight and scream for attention.
Unlike conventional prosthetics or orthotics, which aim to create a standardized body form, Sandie’s creations are not correctional physical aids but bodily adornments that highlight difference, redefine both fashion and disability, and satisfy the individual’s own perception of physical comfort and beauty.
Photo: © Sandie Yi
Music is considered by Allan the art that provides great opportunities for experiencing connectedness. She seconds Deleuze’s statement that music “rids bodies of the materiality of their presence… it disincarnates bodies”. This might be the reason why it has been one of the most powerful sources of reaching out to people and imparting messages urging for attitudinal and political change.
An Adelaide-based girl singing group is creating art while trying to evoke such a change. The Sisters of Invention is composed of five girls aged 24-29, who, besides having fantastic voices, all have learning disabilities – Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, blindness, a mild intellectual disability and Williams Syndrome. The message they transfer through their music, defined by them as alternative pop, aims “to change the opinions of disabled people in general”. In an article published in the Daily Mail, their producer Michael Ross says that people tend to see individuals with intellectual disabilities as infantile and often use derogatory language: “They think that you will forever be a child. So for these girls to actually be singing gutsy, blatantly honest, emotionally mature songs and to sign them so beautifully that in itself is enough to make people go “oh”.”
Ross is the person who works with them on the lyrics of their songs. These take shape after the group discusses themes and experiences they want to express and share. Most of them are very personal and honest – sometimes acutely painful as that of one of the singer’s cousin’s suicide, or another one’s being told at school she would never be able to learn anything. The BBC News Ouch blog comments that constructing a piece of work though conversation is a norm among learning disability artists. Their producer acknowledges that the most important part of his work is to let their “truth” go out – a vision of “the world through a lens that people in pop culture almost never get to see. It is creative gold.”
Both examples of disability artists reveal a key role of the person with disability’s narrative. In the first story – a narrative of a body adorned with limbs of two fingers and two toes – adorned and not deformed; telling a different story of beauty – of self-appreciation and not self-acceptance. The second story – a narrative of deeply felt emotion and sincere openness, of a brave display of talent and broken barriers. In the first one, disability is what makes the artist what she is – the audience is invited to interact with the disability and grow by enlarging their own experience. In the second one, the artists challenging the audience to go through the bodily disability without overly interacting with it, but further exploring the inner dimension of experiences common to all.
These stories are only two instances of the abundance evidence that, in Allan’s words, disability art is “driven by pride, beauty and the celebration of difference, giving disabled people a voice, whilst also ensuring their voice is not valorized in the margins”. It is both a medium for disabled artists to validate their own experience but also, as Allan claims, an arena in which non-disabled people need to work on themselves in order to challenge their own exclusive perspective.
[Head photo: © Sandie Yi]
Blagovesta Troeva works at the Department of English at New Bulgarian University, Sofia. She obtained her first Master’s degree in British and American Studies at Sofia University, Bulgaria. While her career develops in the field of foreign language teaching, she also has profound interests in human rights, anti-discrimination, inclusion and learning difficulties. She has completed the Erasmus Mundus Special and Inclusive Education – a joined Master’s programme of the University of Roehampton, London, Oslo University, and Charles University, Prague.