In this blog I share my provocation for the Public Conference – Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows at the Midland’s Art Centre in Birmingham. Anna Berry is an artist and the curator of the exhibition Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement at the Midlands Art Centre. For her DASH Arts Curatorial Residency, Anna curated this event as a public conversation.
Anna asked panelists to bring a sacred cow of disability arts to the conference for slaughter! As she explained in an email,
‘The idea of the day is to try to create a space where people feel they can think and express their thoughts freely, and be accepting of a multiplicity of opinions, even if it’s not toeing-the-party line when it comes to disability politics.”
My approach was to unpick solidarity to share frustrations about the lack of diversity within disability arts. The conference was super-interesting and my reflection about it will be published shortly on Disability Arts Online.
“I want to begin by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with my own argument (I’ll leave that up to you to work out), and that I’m treating this as being like the debating societies I was excluded from due to failing the 11+ spectacularly – because of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and being selective mute at the time without knowing it. So, this is my opportunity to be an obnoxious smarty pants! That’s the persona I’m going to adopt.
My argument pokes a stick at Anna’s question…
Where do mental health issues and neurodiversity sit within disability arts? Although, I will focus more on neurodivergence stick to what you know, I always say.
I also want to ask: can we laugh at ourselves without fear of offending one another? And why does this all feel so uncomfortable? I’ll leave that out there.
As a late-diagnosed autistic person I’m a newcomer to disability arts and think of neurodivergents as the next frontier marginals.
So, like the youngest child of the disability arts family I’m going to misbehave royally and go for the jugular!
My sacred cow is solidarity – that fluffy idea that we’re better together. Well, some autistics might disagree – just putting it out there!
(This was meant to be a joke!)
I feel solidarity contains the illusion that disabled people can all work together; that we can consider one another’s disabilities sufficiently to be good comrades in the joint struggle against our oppression. But are we? And can we?
The definition of solidarity is “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”
Even I’ve got to admit it sounds good. So what’s the problem with it?
Well, I want to put it to you that the notion of solidarity for such a diverse, and increasingly diverse diverse group of people is terminally woolly, and, that in 2020, it’s quite possibly not unlike trying to herd cats. How can we contain all the cats that are likely to go off message? I’m thinking particularly of some of my neurodivergent friends and colleagues who don’t even want to identify as disabled!
I think that solidarity probably depends on a shared history and understanding, which makes it difficult to include newcomers, let alone cater for all groups and perspectives that could come under the umbrella of disability arts.
So I argue that, however far it may have got disabled artists in the past, our solidarity today is a perhaps a mere fantasy. I argue that indeed our so-called solidarity is, in reality, a hot mess of bickering and jostling in which the specificity of need is lost and no group en masse actually has their needs met. Perhaps because the abled are just not literate in nuance and we’re too busy perpetuating our own misery by arguing.
(At this point I noted that there were no communication badges or flapplause.)
I wonder if we’re doing both ourselves and the abled a disservice in not talking-up and educating about the wonderful diversity within our solidarity, and also if we’re not just a bit crap at meeting each other’s needs too? Shouldn’t we just admit this?
In herding together, are we also unwittingly sustaining our marginal, outsider status? You can’t have insiders without outsiders. But, can I only be naughty and ask this because my disabilities are invisible and I’m congenitally tactless. (I think my disability and my privilege just got tangled up there.)
Shouldn’t our end goal be to destroy this outdated and delusional idea of solidarity, because it shouldn’t be and won’t be needed anymore when we’ve swallowed up the mainstream with multiple ninja infiltrations of the system.
As I’m not really sure whether my argument has legs or even wings, I’d like to end abruptly with the assertion that solidarity is so yesterday, and throw it open to the floor with one last petulant, youngest-child-thinks-they-know-best, retort.
Aren’t we all just better off blowing our own trumpets and talking about the brilliance of our art?”