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Disability Arts is dead! Long live Disability Arts... / 26 April 2015

StopGap bring 'Bill and Bobby' to Brighton Festival's Without Walls free performing arts showcase

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In a recent Guardian blog theatre critic Lyn Gardner quotes the late Chinese Communist leader, Mao Zedong: “Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, no matter how progressive they are politically.”

Gardner goes on to talk about ‘quality’ in relation to Disability Arts, specifically Learning Disability Arts and the Creative Minds conference, which took place in Bradford recently. Posted on the Dao FB group. It provoked a fair bit of response from a few Disability Arts old-timers, asking what Disability Arts? And what 'quality'?

Disability Arts as was died over a decade ago with little sign of a younger generation of disabled people picking up the mantle. For a time from the early noughties there was a concerted effort to improve inclusive education and to remove barriers to an arts education for disabled students.

But in the last five years there have been increasing barriers to arts education generally. According to the recent Warwick Commission report on the Future of Cultural Values, between 2003 and 2013 there was a 50% drop in GCSE entries for design and technology, 23% for drama and 25% for other craft-related subjects. 

We have seen investment in the Disability Arts sector slowly whittled away over the last 15 years. The report goes on to to say that disabled people are largely invisible within the arts both as creatives and as consumers: “Only 1.6 per cent of artistic staff, 2.8% of managers and 3.9% of Board Members within the 2012–15 National Portfolio Organisations and Major partner museums consider themselves disabled.

Not surprisingly the value of the idea of organisations and projects being disabled-led has all but disappeared. We’ve seen a rise in a few individual disabled arts practitioners finding a place within the mainstream, but largely Disability Arts as an expression of our experience of disability and what it means to live in a disabling society has disappeared.

Unlimited is one of the few remaining initiatives commissioning work of artistic quality whilst holding on to a vestige of the political intent that Disability Arts set as a challenge to the discriminatory values of non-disabled society. And it appears Unlimited within its limited capacity, is having some effect. 

For over a decade I’ve complained year on year of the lack of programming of disabled artists in Brighton Festival. But this year with Ali Smith as Guest Artistic Director, there is record amount of performing and visual arts being programmed - and no pro-assisted suicide theatre, which the Brighton Fringe has showcased, in recent years.

This year, Unlimited 2012 award-winner Claire Cunningham is bringing a new show to Brighton Festival. ’Give me a reason to live’ commemorates the lives of the disabled victims of the Nazis Aktion T4 program and of those who have died under the austerity measures of current UK government’s ‘welfare reform’.

One of the rising stars from Unlimited 2014, Jess Thom, is also taking her riotous show 'Backstage in Biscuitland' to the Brighton Dome’s Studio Theatre. StopGap Dance are appearing in the Without Walls programming and Outside In have also been invited to present a showcase as part of HOUSE.

The politically driven Disability Arts movement of the 80s and 90s was, thank goodness, significantly devoid of work with ‘artistic quality’, that is If you measure 'quality' by 'what's made it' within the judgement of the likes of the Guardian. How many Damien Hirst’s or Jake and Dino Chapman's creating acclaimed masturbatory artworks, do we need?

I got involved with Disability Arts because it was about art that was about real life, not dull concepts full of cynicism and devoid of imagination. The question is, where do we go next?

Keywords: assisted suicide,brighton festival,community arts,disability art,nazi party atrocities towards disabled people


Fred Jay

26 June 2015

It's good to read of the successes of Unlimited