Disability Culture Watch

22 Apr

Disability: Almost There

I am interested in how prevalent disability is in all manner of cultural formations, and, paradoxically, how invisible. As I watch a film or read a book, I can (or think I can) guess when the impaired character, theme or trope will emerge, and then how she, he or it will serve the plot or the mood. How, most likely, it will serve a metaphoric function. And it all bores me to tears and irritates. So, while these representations abound, they rarely increase the cultural authority of disabled people, nor deepen audience understanding of our lives and thoughts, or the social contingencies that shape our experience.

What passes for disability representation in the arts is instead mostly fantasy about us. {What I am reluctant to tackle right now is the issue of authorship of these products. It is too simple to “blame” the fantastical representations on non-disabled writers who imagine disability experience. There are also people with impairments who write about their personal experience, with little or no reference to the larger disability community, nor to social determinants of experience. While that may be effective for certain types of artistic productions, if the work intimates that this experience is universal or inevitable, or that the impairment itself determines experience, then I ……………… struggle with it both artistically and politically. So, back to this at another point.)

The thing that got me going on all this: This past Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section of the NY Times is chock full of disability references. A significant portion of the articles are about disabled people or representation of disability in various art forms. Here is a sampling and a few comments:

The cover article that caught my attention is titled: “Still Dancing in Her Dreams”, dateline Beijing, about a young woman, “a 26-year-old dancer named Liu Yan (who) was supposed to give the performance of her life at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.” (NY Times, April 19, 2009, p. 1). She sustained a spinal cord injury during rehearsal, and is now paraplegic and a wheelchair user.

The focus of the article is on the loss, both Liu Yan’s personal loss, and the loss to China of an enormously talented dancer. One of China’s leading choreographers, Zhao Ming, said that she was one of the most talented, with a “perfect waist and the most flexible legs. Dance is the art of beauty, and it requires the perfect figure.”

The degree to which such notions of perfection and beauty dominate discourse about dance, in China and elsewhere, are rarely the subject of critical inquiry. Instead, these are assumed truisms.

The articles tone can be summed up in the title: “Still Dancing in her Dreams.” And that might accurately capture Liu Yan’s mood, just 8-9 months post-injury. She comments: “Life is not that sweet and beautiful after an injury.”

The writer states that Ms. Liu has started talking about studying to be a television broadcaster. This may be a hint that she is beginning to imagine a pleasurable life following injury, but I don’t trust the reporter to tell us that. Maybe Ms. Liu doesn’t feel that, maybe she never will. No way to know.

The second article, “Mental Illness, The Musical, Aims for Truth” is about a new musical on Broadway titled “next to normal” (all lower case letters in title) whose central character is a woman with an unspecified mental illness. There are a number of comments in the article on the “uses” of mental illness in theatre to convey ideas beyond the condition itself – authenticity, creativity, intellectual depth. I don’t have the sense, though, that the writer is commenting on how the use of metaphors of disability is problematic.

The playwrights describe their deep concern that someone might approach them and say: “There’s something wrong with that portrayal.” Their wish to present an accurate, unromanticized view of people with depression and other emotional conditions is admirable. Yet the composer’s other comment: “We want to do right by those people” irked me.

In part, of course, it is the “those” in “those people” – the distancing, othering quality to the term. Also, it is a reminder that they consulted with psychiatrists but, it seems, did not collaborate with people with these conditions themselves.

The third NY Times piece of interest is a profile of the actor John Goodman which comments directly and indirectly on the ways that Goodman’s weight and alcoholism determine his personality traits.

Another article is about the upcoming film “The Soloist”, based on a true story about “Nathanial Ayers, the formerly homeless musician and schizophrenic” played by Jamie Foxx.

The final article with disability at its core is “Communicating Across Barriers Few Could Imagine” about an art exhibit featuring four artists with significant impairments at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea (529 West 20th Street – Wheelchair accessible according to the Gallery). Also at the Gallery are screenings of a film titled “Make” about these four artists, Ike Morgan, Royal Robertson, Judith Scott and Hawkins Bolden. “Make” will be shown Saturday evenings April 25 and May 2 at 6:00pm – RSVP to info@riccomaresca.com. The exhibit runs through May 16th.So here is a prime example, in one issue of the Arts and Leisure section, of the prominence of disability in cultural reporting, and yet, paradoxically, its opaqueness. In all of this coverage what is missing is the active voice of disabled artists. While some of the artists described here or portrayed in some of the work may have limited mechanisms to comment on their work or collaborate with writers on renderings of their experience, others could it seems. Also, we don’t have a sense that efforts have been made. For instance, it is psychiatrists that are consulted, not people with mental illness. Further, outside of disability studies, we never read cultural commentary about the phenomenon of disability representations in culture/arts. What disability studies has done is provide context, perspective, critical commentary, language etc. When are journalists/critics/filmmakers etc gonna wise up to the meaning of what they are doing??

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