Sparked by a comment at an Unlimited Connects event, Simon Startin looks to the metaphor of a pentagram to trace the dynamics of power within the Disability Arts Movement.
At the recent Unlimited Connects South East Event at Firstsite in Colchester, a delegate proclaimed with shy defiance that the recent exhibition of disabled artists she had curated would have been better attended if she had avoided any reference to their disabled status. It was a visual arts event, so their impairments could have been easily anonymised and its relevance to the work was marginal. What is the need for an identity brand? It was then that the image of the disabled artist caught within the “Disability Arts pentagram” appeared to me.
In occult magic, the pentagram is a well-worn Dungeons & Dragons cliché. A ritualistic symbol drawn around the endangered wizard to ward off evil spirits. Is Disability Arts a similar magic spell? We bandy together inside our pentagram in the hope that we somehow gain some significance and power. What do we gain from this separation? What do we lose? And has the magic lost its power?
Power is too neglected a word in Disability Arts. Dressed as it is in the innocuous trappings of cosy gatekeeper chats, funding forms and foaming conference lattes, it is easy to forget what Disability Arts is and always has been: a power grab. Power to access, power to make our own decisions, power to attract attention (particularly of the powerful), power to be funded fairly, and then if we are honest, to be funded advantageously. Power to take control of the narrative. If we achieve our dreams, some non-disabled people will lose opportunities and jobs. The privilege of the world is a constant quantity; where one laughs, another cries.
Post 2012, the Disability Arts pentagram has seemed to some like it was not only warding off evil spirits, but powerfully attracting attention, possibly of the angels. In the current funding economy, the focus on so called ‘protected characteristics’ has created a currency of tick boxes. Straight white male: no ticks. Queer BAME and disabled: three ticks. Dressed as the creative case and undoubtedly righting past injustices, this is a power grab if ever there was one. Are we smelling victory?
Well, funding is more available. There are some places you can go to where access needs might be listened to; little access holiday parks where life can be better for a day.
However, our influence over mainstream aesthetics remains scant and grudging. The gatekeepers remain the same old enabled faces and one has to wonder for whose benefit this glorious woketocracy is? There seems to be a policy of containment being waged against us. The pentagram is often drawn by another’s hand. Not so much for our protection as theirs. Whenever I have worked to address subjects outside of the disabled experience and say something more universal, the drawbridges are soon flung up. Has this pentagram become a performance space, where we act out inspiration rituals to redeem our imperfections in the eyes of the enabled? If we fail in this deal breaker, they will look to others to play their game.
On top of this, the protective fires of the pentagram are often used as a smokescreen for a lazy plea of authenticity. The orthodoxy runs that ‘only disabled people know about disability.’ If this is the grounds for the authenticity of our art, it is on unstable foundations. Lived experience is but one thin strand of artistic expression, and if you are trying to create an ownership of metaphors, good luck with that. To shroud ourselves in a ‘Maoist’ quest for purity may be an easy power grab, but to do so not only imprisons ourselves deeper within the tick box,it makes us look artistically naive, misunderstanding how art and narratives work.
Is it possible to escape this pentagram? The visual arts curator at Firstsite seemed to think a Faustian pact for visual artists might be possible, but speaking personally, as a performer, the disabled body can no better escape the Disability Arts frame than it can escape its own impairment. To step out of that frame requires either to compromise to enabled aesthetics or feel the full weight of the mainstream bear down upon you, employing the structures of medical model fascism disguised as the canting voice of artistic excellence.
Perhaps the only response to our inescapable prison is to rejoice. To powerlessly stare out from the cage with a gleeful grin, banging our cup on the bars. To live in opposition to the face of fascism for all eternity, never winning, but never defeated, rubbing our disabled derrière’s in their faces and ripping up rulebooks with impish irreverence, seems to me the very image of what an artist should be. Survive by whatever means necessary. Concoct pentagrammic metaphors. Furtle the petticoats of the mainstream if it is expedient. But above all, insult their aesthetics by virtue of our existence and take pride in that.