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Blog - Mike Fryer

The Paranoid Painter

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Wheelchair Marathon. Painting 800 x 800 mm, acrylic on canvas © Mike Fryer

Perhaps I am paranoid or just very worried? When I say ‘paranoid’ I don’t mean I have a medical diagnosis and I’m not belittling or disparaging people with genuine paranoia, it’s just that I am worried and it may be for no reason and usefully, the word begins with ‘para’ and fits my theme.

You see, over the past few years I have became increasingly concerned about a new phenomenon that’s sprung up in the arts that I call ‘para-art’. It has a parallel (excuse the pun) with the ‘Paralympics’ and ‘para-athletes’.

We have the Olympics and then everyone goes home and after a few weeks there’s the ‘Paralympics’ which until the London 2012 Summer Olympics-Paralympics seemed to be regarded as something of a side-show receiving nominal media coverage.

The ‘para’ of ‘Paralympic’ meaning parallel (I am told it does not come from paraplegic as in the Paraplegic Games), implying that there are the Olympics and here are the Paralympics i.e. parallel and therefore, never meeting. As a model of integration it fails not only as a description but because the Paralympics have never been integrated within any Olympics.

The 2014 Commonwealth Games did have integration and was a unique event showing that an audience will happily watch either type of event, helped, after the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, by the rise of para-athlete superstars who were taken seriously by the media. The failure of integration was seen at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics where the Paralympics followed the Olympics as before. So the Paralympics exist in a kind of bubble, isolated from the Olympics and never the twain shall meet.

The use of ‘para’ as a prefix is, however, now used as a synonym of ‘disabled’, hence para-athlete means an athlete with a disability rather than a competitor in the Paralympics. It gets complicated because there’s also the world championships that are clearly not the Paralympics for which para-athletes compete.

Painting of Lee Pearson riding the horse Gentleman

Superstars. 800 x 800 mm, acrylic on canvas. A painting of nine-times Paralympic Dressage gold-medalist Lee Pearson on Gentleman © Mike Fryer

‘Para-athletes’ seems to be a word liked by the media perhaps because it avoids the ‘D’ word and is used even when there’s no reference to a particular sports event. But para can have interesting connotations. Think of the word ‘para-medical, paralegal or para-military to name a few. Here the meaning is ‘not quite the real thing’ (not a fully qualified doctor or solicitor and not the official army) so does that convey the sense that para-athletes are not quite real athletes?

Ouch! I here the shouts of protest as that clanger hits the ground. There are other connotations, brought by words such as paratrooper, para-skier or parascender where the ‘para’ is a contraction of parachute and therefore, has a completely different meaning. But I reckon it’s unlikely that anyone would think para-atheletes hurl themselves out of aeroplanes with a parachute strapped to their wheelchairs, but you never know…

So what’s the issue with para-art? What we have is another bubble, a little environment especially for disabled artists. We have arts organisations and funding streams existing to help disabled artists, (although it must be said that the Unlimited funding of £1.8 million is only 0.4% of the current Arts Council annual budget).

We have a national collection of work and competitions/ exhibitions by disabled artists and we even have a movement called ‘Disability Arts’ that’s thematically and contextually concerned with disability. Get it? Now, I understand how this has come about with the need to support and help disabled artists, the historical lack of opportunities and discrimination, not to mention the growing interest in ‘Disability Arts’. But have we constructed something that’s turning into a monster that will soon turn round and bite us?

I thought ‘para-art’ was a theoretical worry until I read DAO News for 10 October 2017 in which there was a report about the Paraorchestra. I have nothing against this orchestra, by all accounts it’s doing a great work of supporting integration, but why PARAorchestra? Is it that they are not a real orchestra? Or is it that they really do play their instruments as they descend on parachutes? Do they play parallel to other orchestras? No, they are an orchestra of highly-rated disabled musicians hence ‘para’ is therefore used as a synonym for ‘disabled’. It seems then that para-art really is here!

‘So what’ you might say, ‘what’s the problem with para-art?’ The problem, as I see it, and don’t forget I am probably worrying unnecessarily, can be summarised in three areas.

First, the use of ‘para’ attaches a label where there shouldn’t be one. Hence I am not a painter and printmaker but a ‘para-artist’ who is a painter and printmaker and so the focus is on my disability and not on the work I do. We don’t generally see artists described in terms of ’tall’, ‘short’, ’bald’, ‘hairy’, ‘left-handed’, right-handed’, or even ‘blue-eyed’ or ’brown-eyed’ yet somehow ‘para’ is acceptable?

Secondly, is all this making it harder to obtain integration by reinforcing the bubble that ‘para-artists’ inhabit and of course, thinking of the original meaning, parallels never join? Could we get to the point whereby funding bodies refuse to support a disabled artist unless they go to the ‘correct’ funding stream or could competitions have a separate ‘para-art’ stream?

I remember going to a local car show room a few years ago looking for a new car and was told that the sales representative could not deal with me and that I must wait for their ‘Mobility’ (sic) specialist, even though I told them that I did not want to use the Motability Scheme! When the Motability specialist arrived he could not answer my questions and referred me to someone who had been there all the time…

Thirdly, will the discrimination and inaccessibility be generally challenged whilst the disabled artists are working, exhibiting, performing, etc. in the para-art bubble? Let’s hope the various arts organisations are punching holes in the bubble and getting recognition for those artists. Is anyone keeping a record of the level of integration or is it no longer seen as a general issue? Do we know if schemes such as ‘Unlimited’ are leaving a positive legacy and that the various arts organisations are succeeding in promoting disabled artists into the arts mainstream? Does anyone know what’s going on?

Call me naïve, but it seems to me that if my work is good enough, then it’s good enough and that should be sufficient and is what I should be judged by, not whether I am disabled. The arts world is hard to find a way through so anything that distracts or sidelines that progress is clearly unwelcome.

Given the high quality of art produced by many disabled artists we should be pushing hard not to be ‘parallel’ but to be ‘artists’. Should I be paranoid or at least worried about this? I don’t know, but I will pack my parachute very very carefully…

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