The Personal is Still/Always/Forever Political!

THE PERSONAL IS STILL/ALWAYS/FOREVER POLITICAL! (Dis)ability, Camaraderie, and Self-Identification

Invisible (dis)ability [1] exists in the art community and in all communities. Yet though the art world has a long-standing reputation as a progressive, inclusive body that is welcoming to various affinity groups, many artists do not feel comfortable identifying as (dis)abled. Additionally, most institutions do not publicly recognize (dis)abled artists by supporting them through (dis)ability-focused exhibitions. With this in mind, this essay traces a short history of (dis)ability studies and points out a few of the struggles of (dis)abled artists. It also explores practices within the (dis)ability community typically experienced only in the private sphere, but which most certainly occur in both private and public spaces.

Despite the enlightened values of diversity and inclusivity espoused by many in the arts and the unquestionable progress made in art museum standards and practices over the past few decades, museums nonetheless remain a closed system to certain vulnerable groups. Since the 1990s, mainstream institutions have largely avoided exhibitions based on group identity [2] and thus, there has never been and will likely never be a major museum exhibition dedicated to (dis)abled artists.

Although it is certainly problematic to group together certain artists solely based on a shared identity, the exhibitions that have done so have forcibly revealed subtle forms of discrimination. [3] Evolving from criticism and identity politics, exhibition designers and curators in the 1980s and 1990s began to realize they had invoked essentialism by lumping such artists together when they had actually sought to dismantle it. (Dis)abled artists, though, have never been given the opportunity to struggle through this process of reshaping the public consciousness and the museum environment through trial and error.

A Call to Action

As (dis)abled artists ourselves, Hexus Collective seeks to use this essay as a public call for other Denver artists—especially other (dis)abled Denver artists—to take action in our community by sharing knowledge about themselves through their writings and artwork in an effort to connect with and educate our/their audiences. Grounded in the belief that we must reveal our bodyminds [4] because the personal is political, we seek to dismantle the binary that divides public and private space, art and life, and body and mind. We declare that our art and writing practices must upset, complicate, and even torment not only the public’s view of art, but also the institutions in which art resides.

The Rise of Disability Studies

In recent years, the topic of (dis)ability has gained special attention and recognition in postmodern and contemporary art history and theory. [5] Particularly in the past thirty years, it has emerged in histories and theories of photography, feminist theory, queer theory, aesthetics, and surrealism, among others. However, discussions of (dis)abled artists and subjects are still a relatively new. Joining critical disability theories with art history invigorates this conversation and reveals its ever-increasing presence in postmodern and contemporary art. 

With this being said, however, (dis)abled bodyminds remain largely invisible in political, social, economic, and historical spheres. In fact, it was not until 1990 that the United States government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the pre-eminent civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on (dis)ability. Shortly after the ADA passed, disability studies (a social, cultural, and political rather than medical field of scholarship) became a topic of study at Syracuse University for the first time in history. 

As art historian Ann Millett-Gallant shows in The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (2010), medical models view (dis)ability and the (dis)abled body as a set of medical “problems” that need to be fixed, cured, and eliminated while subsequently eliminating (dis)abled people from the population. [6] Where medical scholarship looks at (dis)ability as a mutation or abnormality of the body, disability studies looks at (dis)ability as a social construction—similar to the argument made in gender, race, sexuality, ethnic, and class studies. Disability studies, therefore, aims to establish a social model for (dis)abled people as an oppressed group while forging alliances with theories and positions of other socially-marginalized groups.

What (Dis)abled Artists Can Do to Make a Change

Because of the lack of institutional support, the few (dis)abled artists who identify as such are finding themselves overwhelmed with the amount of work necessary to make their voices heard. [7] As a result, we have found that a juxtaposition of theory and art history has helped us introduce a (dis)ability dialogue into the artworld. Art and writing have become two modes of independent practice necessary for (dis)abled artists who can share insight using their own words while also confronting the public using their bodies and minds. 

As feminist and queer theorist Alison Kafer explains in Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013), both disability studies and disability movements have been slow to recognize potential linkages among people who have a chronic illness, use a wheelchair, hear voices, have depression, or live with compromised immune systems. [8] Accordingly, disability studies tends to focus more “on visible physical impairments and sensory impairments” rather than invisible impairments. [9] In other words, disability studies highlights what is seen in public rather than in private. Because of this, it is more difficult for people with invisible (dis)abilities to identify as (dis)abled. However, that which is private, invisible, and personal must become regarded as public, political, and communal. In alignment with other critical identity-based movements, this mandate is used by many political movements, as well as by artists, as a refusal to remain hidden, silent, or conform to normative ideas.

Giving Support and Publicly Identifying as (Dis)abled

Because (dis)abled people often rely on other people for support and care, the ability to be vulnerable and ask for help is crucial for survival. In the arts community, this might look different than providing one another with the obvious or most common means of physical or mental support. Support can be as simple as attending a fellow artist’s exhibition, buying their work, or donating to their Go Fund Me campaign. It could also be publicly acknowledging one’s own (dis)ability so that other (dis)abled artists feel comfortable mirroring such an acknowledgement. As more artists identify as (dis)abled and speak or make artwork about their experiences, the public will undoubtedly become more aware of what (dis)ability actually looks and feels like.

Using public, written, verbal, and artistic communication, we can ease society into an important, but difficult and often ignored conversation, while teaching our art community about empathy. [10] By embracing empathy, able bodyminds cannot only become allies to the (dis)abled but can also better relate to their experiences. In addition, if the number of people who identify as (dis)abled increases, society will be forced to recognize that a substantial percentage of people experience (dis)ability, and (dis)ability will become mainstream.

Concerning invisible (dis)ability specifically, which can be a range of mental and physical illnesses, artists who identify as such can use their public platforms to teach able-bodied people how to refrain from illegitimating people with invisible (dis)abilities simply because they “don’t look sick.” Hexus Collective is especially concerned with this latter point because we experience invisible (dis)abilities and know that a person’s appearance does not necessarily reveal their actual experiences. In addition, because invisible (dis)ability is new to disability studies and absent from art history, the majority of the able-bodied, art public is not aware invisble (dis)ability exists.

 

Why Denver

Denver is an ideal testing ground for a radical reorganization of art world politics and practices precisely because it is already a warm-hearted, welcoming, and empathetic community. Many of us have known one another for decades. We’ve attended school together, worked together at local galleries and museums, and exhibited together in countless exhibitions, DIY or otherwise. We already know how to support and care for each other. If we can expand our circle of close-knit friends to include (dis)ability as a legitimate bodymind experience, support our (dis)abled friends and let them know it’s okay to self-identify as (dis)abled, work collectively to ensure (dis)abled artists are acknowledged by art institutions and public organizations, and value artwork centered on (dis)ability, a revolution will occur.

Notes

[1] (Dis)ability is a term that works to expand the spectrum of what it means to be “abled” or “disabled.” The parenthetical curve visibly brings ability and disability together into a single concept while alluding to the range of varying abilities, disabilities, impairments, or pain a certain person may experience at different times, on a specific day, or every day. The parenthetical curve also draws individual and community together into a distinct term. Invisible (dis)ability is that which goes unseen or unrecognized, including mental illnesses, such as Bipolar disorder and depression, and chronic illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis and Lyme disease.

[2] Past exhibitions based on group identity that have received critical backlash include Primitivism in 1984 and Magiciens de la Terre in 1989 at the Modern Museum of Art in New York City.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Bodymind” is a materialist feminist disability studies concept developed by Margaret Price. It is a concept that connects the body and the mind—two entities that have been made distinct and separate by traditional Western Cartesian philosophy and patriarchal society’s valuing of logic over emotion. It is a term indebted to phenomenological philosophy—a theory that heavily relies on the various experiences felt, sensed, and observed through and with the body.

[5] Some examples include Barbara Hillyer, Feminism and Disability (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), Jenny Morris, ed., Encounters with Strangers : Feminism and Disability (London: Women’s Press, 1996), David B. Morris, Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age (Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press, 1998), Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, eds., Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (NY: MLA New York, 2002), Susan Crutchfield and Marcy Epstein, eds., Points of Contact: Disability, Art, and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), Michael Davidson, Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), A.J. Withers, Disability Politics and Theory (Winnipeg: Fernwood Pub., 2012), Ann Millett-Gallant and Elizabeth Howie, eds., Disability and Art History (London; New York: Routledge, 2017), and Benjamin Fraser, Cognitive Disability Aesthetics: Visual Culture, Disability Representations, and the (In)visibility of Cognitive Difference (Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

[6] Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 7.

[7] For example, Hexus Collective and its members have found it difficult to find funding and support for their various projects focused on (dis)ability.

[8] Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 18.

[9] Ibid.

[10] For example, in December 2019, Hexus performed Shine Piece (After Yoko), a performance centered on physical (dis)ability and mental illness, and the importance of mutual care and dependency. Inspired by Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1965, this work activated the audience by inviting them to interact with the primary performer’s body. Rather than audience members taking objects from the performer as they did in Ono’s performance, they were asked to offer objects as part of a magickal ritual to symbolically heal the performer’s body and mind.