Interpreting Disability and Art: Stereotypes of Aesthetics
By Jyothsna Phanija
A Poem: Venus has no wings
Venus has no wings.
She cannot see.
Cannot see the faces of those who can see.
Faces are different from expressions; she will not know that,
Until someone hurts her little memory.
Between abilities and disabilities, life is inspissated.
Away from home, the world is a practical test
of remembering conversations grasped from silent films.
Away from home, life is a laboratory to experiment with old knowledge
of people, things, places, smells, voices, trends, previous findings.
Away from home, she is someone else invisible to her.
She talks with silences, signs her realities at the top of the page.
Disease is a better word than reality, she erases.
Identity struggles, oppression, equality, physical differences, social acceptances.
All are fanciful words
She finds fancy nowhere except in her books.
In tricky combinations.
To kill all the other senses, she cuts her fingers, refills them with words.
To make her name spell properly, to erase several taglines, she lives in ice, making charcoal.
Venus has no wings as they got stuck in her eyes.
She tries to bring them out, spread them across her face, then, no one can see their contents.
Disability and Art
Stereotypes assigned to disability art are complex and multiple in many contexts. They include writings that are often labeled as inspirational which overemphasize disability,writings that make disability a sensation, and, sometimes, thereby reducing the standards of the particular art form. In the Indian context, where basic standards of living, subsidies, monthly pensions, primary education and employment are seen as pre-requisites for the well being of the disabled, promoting art among the disabled just for experiencing the pleasure of it is not very visible. Art is often associated with the aspects of welfare measures; it is difficult to distinguish it from the charity model.
A music performance by a visually challenged person, a dance performance by a hearing and speech impaired person, or any other related performances by the disabled that seek an immediate response from the audience are termed as inspirational. The live performances impair the memory of the audiences; the focus is on how a disabled performer has managed the disability and performed though the disability and the performing ability may not be related at all. In other cases where a performance may be by a one-legged dancer or a painting may be made by a single-handed artist, here the focus on the damaged part of the body is direct and the focus on the disability becomes intensified. In both the contexts, the aesthetic aspect of the art becomes subverted. The artist with a disability tries to be identified with the art that he/she is capable of producing, but the disability may have overshadows the art form. What the artist thinks of himself/herself and their art and what others think of their art differs radically, perplexing the identity of the disabled artist. In order to prove that one is an artist first, one has to demonstrate the victimization that one has faced as a disabled person.
Commercializing of disability art has its own way of promoting negative stereotypes about the abilities of a disabled artist. Certain publicity activities objectify the disabled artist. A popular news channel in Telugu came up with the idea of introducing disabled female anchors in their channel. They took greater interest in keeping the disability of the anchor away from the public view, and introduced them in film-related news reading. After a few months, they started sensationalizing the particular show where the disabled anchors work. After generating public interest, the news channel disclosed how the anchor is a disabled person. In the whole incident, the focus was on generating considerable interest among the public so as to gain commercial success. Added to this, the channel advertised its concern over the marginalized group, stressing their initiative of introducing women with disabilities in an otherwise highly competitive industry. The kind of precautions the channel took to keep the disability of the anchor hidden so as to belatedly reveal her disability and sensationalize the whole story reflects their self-serving nature for which they commodified the woman’s disability.
Physical disfigurement caused by the disability is seen as a hindrance to the aesthetic experience of art created or performed by disabled people. At the same time, projecting the aspect of physical disfigurement to generate public interest is strategically used by some charitable organizations. Not having the visible physical disfigurement, although the individual has a disability, works another way in victimizing the disabled individual as an icon of charm. In most of the incidents, the disabled individual is unaware of the victimization as such individual is allured to take the surprising observations of the able-bodied as appreciation. When disabled people realize that their disability is being projected or objectified to attract a certain kind of attention, then it begs the question, “art for whose sake?”
Writing, I think, as an art form, offers a more comfortable place through which a disabled artist can draw attention to their art itself rather than their disability. In writing, a disabled writer has the privilege to write about their disability in the way that challenges the way in which non-disabled people write about disability. Personally, I feel writing offers me a far more comfortable space where I can be free from multiple labels, when compared to music, where I feel like my performance is reduced to a focus on a disabled person’s determination to sing. Having the experience of associating with both the fields of writing and music, I feel that standards are set differently in both and in both cases, standards are set against disabled artists. In the last two years, publications of anthologies of short stories and poetry by disabled people, in Telugu have appeared frequently. In these anthologies, there seems to be a dominance of non-disabled writers writing about disability and fewer disabled writers are anthologized. Such anthologies are also criticized for having compromised on the literary merit of the work as the pieces ar either written by disabled writers or they focus on the theme of disability. Such differences leave the disabled artist in a confined or restrictive role, identified only by their disabilities.
Intentionally or unintentionally, as artists with disabilities, we become part of promotion of such stereotypical disability aesthetics, although we do our best to minimize their intensity. In this context, certain ideas can promote a better view of art and disability and this may include negating the idea that a disabled artist’s art is a “gift”or a “blessing” and instead promoting the idea that the art is a form of expression of the voice of the disabled person. Another way would include identifying the disability of an artist rather than hiding it so that the disability can act as an identity of the artist and also enable a kind of equality in terms of interpretation among non-disabled viewers. Identifying the underlying labels towards the disabled performances would provide a firm identity for the disabled artist, and equality of interpretation among the non-disabled viewers.
Jyothsna Phanija is Assistant Professor of English at ARSD college, University of Delhi. Her poetry has recently appeared in Page & Spine, Literary Orphans, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, Poetry Pacific, East Coast Literary Review, Wordgathering, Message in a Bottle Poetry Magazine, and IthacaLit among others. She blogs at phanija.wordpress.com
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.