Disability is the Poor Relation of Identity Politics

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Following on from a recent discussion on DAO about disability and curatorial practices, Anna Berry relates the frustration of having to assert her identity within the mainstream gallery circuit in New York.

Earlier this year I found myself on a networking residency in the US. I say ‘found myself’, because I had applied for a disability fellowship, thinking it was a production or research residency, as they usually are, and was alarmed to find I was expected to elbow other artists aside to secure studio visits with various New York gallerists and curators as they wafted through. Needless to say I failed miserably at that! I’m not one of life’s natural networkers.

I’m not experienced at ‘The Studio Visit’ – partly because I don’t have a studio, and partly because my practise is quite divorced from ‘The Art World’ – so the phenomenon of studio visits is not really in my repertoire. However, I threw myself into it – it had to be good practise, right? I began each visit with a general statement about my art and myself – contextualising my work by, amongst other things, mentioning my disabilities.

I do this because it takes what seems, on the face of it, to be very dry esoteric concerns (about the extent to which our cognition creates reality), and makes them human and experiential – a source of lived anguish (because my brain doesn’t work as it should) – rather than something academic and abstract. I think that gives a helpful ‘in’ to my work, which might otherwise seem dry or overly conceptual.

After several visits I noticed a common thread in the art professionals’ responses. When I would introduce my disabilities, they would say something along the lines of “I wouldn’t have known by looking at you” paired with “I don’t think you need to mention that part” or “I think you could leave that out”.

After hearing this again and again, I began to realize: the implication was that, because I can pass for ‘normal’, I should. Why let the guise slip? It’s unnecessary to let that particular cat out of the bag. If I can pass for normal, then surely I ought to. They regarded my disabilities as extraneous, and even slightly embarrassing, information. (I often have the experience, when I mention The D Word, of people looking horrified and adopting defensive body language – even putting their hands up in front of them – as if to say ‘please don’t tell me this’.)

Artwork showing dollars within leaves. It links to a page of information about the artwork.

Dirty Money. Image © Anna Berry

Eventually my equanimity strained. I snapped back, “would you tell me to be less in-your-face about being gay?” The recipient of this outburst, an eminent New York curator, was momentarily silenced. I watched a slow dawn of understanding spread across her face – the analogy was not lost on her. Of course nobody would say that to a gay artist (except a homophobe), because it’s about who you are.

Yes, my work plays ok without that contextualisation – but it makes a lot more sense with it. Ultimately, as uncomfortable as I am being so personal, if I’m not, it feels wrong – like hiding or denying who I am, or trying to be someone else. It’s like living a sort of double life. And the more I encounter people who want me to shut up about it, the more I feel a tremendous responsibility to do precisely the opposite.

There is so much conversation in the art world about identity (arguably too much) – race, gender, culture, sexuality – but we’re still not on an equal footing in that discussion when the identity is one of disability. It’s the poor relation of identity politics. Disability is not afforded anything like the same graceful acceptance, tact, and recognition about the need for representation in that discussion.

A producer was telling me the other day about the bad old days, when people were reluctant to be in a show featuring only black artists or only female artists, because they felt marginalised from the wider art world. Like it forced them into a kind of art ghetto, when they were keen to be seen more as artists who also happen to be female, or artists who also happen to be gay, etc.

Nowadays, if your art is concerned with identity, you can wear that on your sleeve without so much fear of ruling yourself out of the race in the wider art world. (Of course, if your art doesn’t concern those things, then you needn’t foreground your identities; I’m merely saying that now you can do so without worrying about the negative impact on your art career.) I’m not saying there isn’t still a great deal of progress to be made in this area – representation of non-white-men in art institutions, to pick but one example, is woeful ­– but some progress has been made. You’re less likely to be not taken seriously as an artist because you are black/ female/ gay, etc., than you would have been twenty years ago.

But disability is lagging way behind; roughly where other strands of identity politics were in the eighties, I’d argue. The sad reality is that it’s still an identity you think twice about adopting if you want to be taken seriously in the art world.

Gratifyingly, the curator said with some chagrin that she wished she had not made her earlier comments. She went on to confide that she was reminded of a board meeting they’d had recently where representation was discussed – they covered women, minorities, most marginalised voices, but when disability was mentioned, “it was like the conversation just couldn’t go there”. Her words.

Find out more about Anna Berry’s Unlimited commission, ‘Breathing Sculptures’.

Editor’s Note: We are aware that the use of the word disability in this instance contravenes our policy. In the context of discussing disability as identity, the writer’s choice of terminology has been retained.