How have the experiences of disability and disablement historically been portrayed in the visual arts? How are the experiences of disability and disablement portrayed today?

A nest of other questions sits under these two big questions:

  • What are their thematic concerns and tropes? eg sentimentality, horror, freakery, grace, saintliness, etc
  • How do they reflect and / or construct socio-cultural attitudes to disability and disablement? and how do we know, ie what do the artists themselves say or write about their work(s)?
  • How do professional artists and art makers who have a disability or disabling condition arising from chronic illness ‘talk back’ to society about their experiences of disability? Do they declare their own disability? How is it relevant, if at all, and why?
  • Why do these and other associated questions matter?

I ‘get’ that most people find images of disablement confronting, and that they tend to default to either sentimentalising or demonising those images. I want to create (through drawing and ‘revising/ reworking’ photographic images) respectful, dignified images in response to the ‘posing model’ with disability. I am not animated by the need to confront the viewer.

In any case, many people seem to let themselves be confronted by respectful, dignified images of disability. alisonlapperpregnantTake the example of Marc Quinn’s stunningly splendid white marble sculpture, ‘Alison Lapper* Pregnant’, displayed on a plinth in Trafalgar Square during 2005-2007. This gave rise to controversy at the time: ‘The new statue was bound to make a vivid impression in Trafalgar Square, a place as redolent of past military glory as any in London. For one thing, it depicts someone who is not male, not wearing a uniform and not dead’ (Sarah Lyall. October 10, 2005).

*Alison Lapper was born without arms and with shortened legs …Lapper uses photography, digital imaging and painting to, as she says, question physical normality and beauty, using herself as a subject. She paints with her mouth. One particular influence is the sculpture Venus de Milo, due to the physical similarities between the idealized classical female statue and Lapper’s own body. (Wikipedia)

disability in art