Disability Arts Should Be Madder


In the second of Dolly Sen’s opinion pieces as DAO’s Guest Editor, the artist asks whether Disability Arts has become too sanitised and needs a bit of shaking up.

a graphic of a pill with the words "being your self can cause side effects"

Self As Side Effect. Artwork © Dolly Sen

In recent days I have been wondering why Disability Arts isn’t madder. Why there isn’t more work challenging the increasing persecution of disabled people? Does that work only belong to those of us who are multiply oppressed?

It’s true, we do need beautiful things in an ugly world, and there is room for that, but it seems aesthetic is hung off a nail surrounded by thousands of nails that aim to pierce our world. A million flowers can do fuck all about oppression. Some of it is partly to do with intersectionality. If you are a middle class disabled artist, what can you know about poverty and brutalisation that the current benefit system inflicts on your poorer counterparts?

Disabled people, like any sector of people, can be racist, sexist, homophobic, and I have experienced that from fellow disabled artists. Have I burst a bubble? I do not apologise, but I ask where is the exploration of disabled people’s intersectionality within Disability Arts? It needs something as Disability Arts does not reflect the diversity of disabled people in the larger world.

I get angry when other ‘isms’ encroach the stage and pissed off the conversations are not happening about it. Do organisations and people worry about inflicting too many oppressions upon the public lest they get scared off by it? Let’s show only one barrier at a time, even though some of us are trapped by several walls, seems the safer option. I am outraged and disgusted by what government and society is doing to disabled people. What needs to be done for people to get mad enough to show this in their work?

Maybe it is not down to individual artists, but funding bodies that receive monies from the government that is doing much of the oppressing. Ultimately, the question is what will come first? Disabled artists fighting back, or pretty pictures in the rooms of assisted suicide?

Maybe I just feel lonely? On a personal level, I also find Disability Arts quite a lonely arena. There are plenty of artists who have mental health conditions across much of the spectrum and they all deserve their spaces, but there are spaces missing by those of us who reside in altered states, who have conditions even some disabled people are scared to share the space with.

I am talking about people who experience ongoing psychosis, with labels such as ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘psychotic depression’, those people who see the world in painfully unique ways. Can people be too mad to be involved in Disability Arts? How would you feel if your fellow disabled artist spoke to their voices or told you they were Jesus? Would you have stayed clear of Vincent Van Gogh at a networking event? Should mad artists only partake when other people feel comfortable around them?

Is it something more insidious? Do some disabled people feel they don’t want to be tarred by the same brush, that they want to be seen as normal-minded and to be around very mad people is not good for their image? I don’t know.

My condition impacts how I am as an artist, not only in the content of my work, but how my work is shared. Due to lack of concentration and thinking often being fragmented, non-linear and muddled, it is near impossible to fill out a funding form, so I never have. What the Disability Arts world sees of my work is me at my most well. Only my partner knows how I am most of the time. I create in my loneliness and it is due to luck that it goes beyond those walls. I wonder how many people in similar positions create brilliant work but are not part of the Disability Arts movement because of the clash of two sets of fears meeting to separate people?

Drawing of a boat with two people.

Ship of Fools cartoon © Dolly Sen

I know there are a few of us in Disability Arts including DAO’s editor Colin Hambrook and I am grateful for those fellow travellers. The only net that seems to be around to catch and display the art of people with psychosis is Outsider Art, but the style promoted is prescriptive and predictable, the position of artist subservient, and the work habitually pathologised and medicalised. There is very little room for critical work.

I do wonder if people collecting Outsider Art would still be interested if they were called patronising wankers by artists. I remember exhibiting at The Impact Art Fair, the art fair featuring work by under-represented artists, run by Creative Futures. I was told by one of the visitors to the fair my work was too clever to be Outsider Art. I couldn’t believe it!

I had a friend suggest we set up ‘Out Cider Art’ or ‘Outsider Outsider Art’. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of time for organisations like Creative Futures and Outside In. They are at least trying to take the art of mad artists more seriously, but are they doing enough to confront the horrors of psychiatry or providing political challenge to the state. They are doing little to protest what is driving people mad. Going back to what I said about intersectionality before, if Outsider Art was not run by middle class professionals, would that world feel the pain of poverty and persecution enough to include it in its domain?

I was lucky enough for Colin Hambrook to spot my work when I was part of Creative Routes and Mad Pride which championed the maddest of the mad. If I hadn’t snuck into Disability Arts via Colin, I think I would have disappeared into the ether.

He offered a lifeboat in the form of blogging so I didn’t have to ride upon the ship of fools. I have been lucky in recent times too. I am honoured to be part of Vince Laws ‘A Very Queer Nazi Faust’, his theatre piece on disability benefit cuts. He is pushing the boat out to make political work about what disabled people have to endure. But this mad and wonderful man is still in the minority. When the ship of fools docks at the harbour of Disability Arts, do people hope the ship moves on or welcomes its passengers with open arms?

Is it time to rock the Disability Arts boat a little?