Lennard Davis, The Disability Paradox: Ghettoisation of the Visual

In this extremely pertinent and thought-provoking essay, Davis looks at what he calls the paradox of disability in the visual arts. His main point is that if disabled artists deal with disability in their work, it will be seen as narrow or lacking universality, yet on the other hand, if the art does not deal with disability, the artist’s disability will become irrelevant. He cites a number of examples – the most prominent being Chuck Close, who is known as an artist, although his work is not regarded as ‘disabled art’ and is not ‘analysed for having been made by a
paraplegic’. (He also mentions a couple of disabled artists, Riva Lehrer and Sunny Taylor, who I’ll look at later along with Close). Similarly, Beethoven’s music is not regarded as ‘deaf music’, although it is well known that he became deaf. “It seems that the better known (hence more universal) the work of disabled artists becomes, the less disability will factor into the recognition value of the work.” The same can be said to be true for performing artists such as Ray Charles or Ian Dury.

Davis cites the example of Marc Quinn‘s statue of Alison Lapper pregnant as an example of disability art which was not created by a disabled person. Lapper herself is an artist who is described variously as a ‘British artist’ or a ‘woman born without arms’; her transformation to disabled object is demonstrative of the art world’s attitude to disability as subject matter seen from the outside, as grotesque (the ‘freak show’ position I mentioned earlier). Davis seems to overlook the fact that Lapper was brought to wider acclaim by being made Quinn’s subject matter, and would probably otherwise have remained relatively unknown outside the disability circle had it not been for the statue and the controversy it sparked.

As Davis points out, the statue only makes sense in a world where ‘disability is on the margins’.

The lived disabled experience, Davis argues, is not a subject worthy of high art, but instead merely “…relegated in the popular mind to issues around rehabilitation and coping.” He says that had Manet chosen to depict a naked pregnant disabled woman surrounded by 3 blind men in his celebrated Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, it is doubtful that the painting would have transcended its initial sphere of controversy to enter the realm of high art. I get Davis’ point, but once again he does not seem to be able to offer any solution, even a concrete example of an artist or art work that he considers to be even approaching bridging the gap or reconciling the paradox.

Turning to the representation of disability in filmic narratives, Davis asserts that disability is “framed as a metaphor for a challenge that needs to be overcome” rather than being explored in its daily lived complexity. The further ghettoisation occurs when disabled parts are played by non-disabled persons, and supporting roles are always neutral and non-disabled. This he puts down to the “legacy of eugenics and the current hegemony of ableism“; a film which tackles disability must focus solely on disability, otherwise the narrative will be interrupted. Similarly, a disabled character appearing in a narrative would need to have the disability explained in some way, or the disability would detract from the perceived ‘normalcy’ of the story and become a distraction: “This is because disability is inevitably part of a signifying system. Disability can’t just be; it has to mean something. It has to signify.” That is to say that disability cannot simply be about itself, it has to contain its own narrative or sub-plot: “It must be a character trait, a metaphor, and fit into a plot point, or be a ‘reveal’ to some other character who hasn’t seen it, or to the main character who discovers new things about himself or herself in the process of triumphing over the disability.” Functioning body parts need no explanation or interpretation; disability in film is allegorical and indicates society’s general attitude to impairments. Davis claims that this projection of fantasy onto the Other is similar to the Orientalist projection of the West onto the East (Said); by analysing the product of this fantasy, we learn more about those doing the projecting than the subjects they have created.

Davis notes that a common difference between the non-disabled and disabled character is their freedom of choice: “a central concept in such films [as Million Dollar Baby] is that the disabled person is a person without a choice… (except, of course, the choice to end one’s life)” and that this is a rather pessimistic outlook. I have taken this on board, and will try to include the idea of choice in my project work, since choice is understood to embody or signify the concepts of freedom and independence, as well as maturity of intellect and cognitive ability amongst other things.

Davis infers that an essential part of the magic of the film industry is the actor’s ability to transform, and so the audience is relieved to know that Hilary Swank is not really quadriplegic, and Sam Worthington (Avatar) has the use of both his legs – in this sense disability is a trope, and the movie is ‘just a movie’. If the actor were in reality disabled, he would serve as a grim reminder that this kind of transformation is not always possible: “A disabled actor, in the system of signs and meanings that make films make sense, signifies the crushing weight of fate and resignation rather than the magic and play involved in transformation.”

Actually here Davis cites Avatar as one example of a film that attempts to resolve the ‘disability paradox’ – that disability is the theme of the film without the central character being disabled, since not only does he spend the larger part of the film in his transformed (non-disabled) state as a superhuman blue-skinned avatar, but also the actor’s disability in the film is itself a fiction created with the clever use of CGI.

So Davis concludes that a work of art can never be great if it is not universal, and a work of art that is made by or about a disabled artist that focuses on disability will in its specificity never be universal. If it does achieve universality, it will then cease to be seen as disability art and the artist will no longer be regarded as a disabled person. In film, the opposite is true, since the portrayal of disability is always universal, signifying the overcoming of a challenge, and if a film were to focus on the subjective experience of living with disability, it would become a film about disability (rehabilitation or coping). “The transformation of the normal actor into the disabled character is part of the transubstantiation required for disability to appear as filmic and theatrical.”

In the final part, Davis finally addresses my main question – what is to be done? “The first step is to reveal the paradox as it operates.” He seems to think that, in a similar way to the premise of psychoanalysis, putting the problem into words will help, and ultimately remove the symptoms. Revealing how social constructions are marginalising certain people or groups of people can assist in breaking those conventions, much as we have seen the disappearance of blackface Minstrels or Jolson, we may hope in the future to see such performances as Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man as pastiche and farce, “remnants of a time in the past when ableism flourished and disability was a disempowered object of cultural and ideological fantasy.”

Davis was able to offer some sort of solution for the disability paradox in film, but unable to offer any solutions as to the other visual arts. Perhaps this is because the paradox is differently formed and much more difficult to address? Anyway, there was plenty of food for thought in this small article, and I think that Davis is one of the more accessible and intelligent writers on issues concerning disability.


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