Thursday, June 16, 2011

Disability and Art: Art vs. Art Therapy

Continuing from last week's blog about disability and art based on the "ARTS: Disabilities, Possibilities and the Arts" documentary I watched recently.

The video, in my opinion, does a pretty good job of demonstrating the different ways in which art and disability interact. Unfortunately, this necessarily took us into the realm of art therapy. Artistic endeavors controlled or suggested by an outside source specifically as a means of "coping".

First of all, I have NOTHING against art being used as self-expression for people who have difficulty with it otherwise. Heck, Van Gogh channeled his depression, feelings of being ostracized and other possible issues into his work. But that wasn't all there was to it. For something to be "art", I believe it requires another, more universal quality, that not every painting done by someone with a disability is going to have--not every painting done by an "artist" will have it either.

This is pretty common philosophy when speaking of the definition of art, but it's not when speaking of this-or-that person with a disability who creates "art." You've seen the kind of thing I mean. The superficial paintings of flowers purchased in hospital giftshops, labeled for all to know this-or-that disadvantaged person with Cerebral Palsy or Asperger's painted them. I'm not arguing, necessarily, that none of these are art. What I'm arguing is that to immediately assume the fact that a disabled person did them makes them art does these people a disservice.

Here's what it says to me: it says this person should not be expected to meet the expectations or standards of others in the same field because of their limitations.

Art done as therapy has intrinsic value to the person who did it, to their therapists, to their families. If they have talent, it is valid to the art world. If they enjoy it, this is wonderful. If it gives their life meaning, fantastic.

But as much as I hate to take away the feeling of pride that must come when one of these creations is purchased--doesn't it do everyone with a disability who creates a disservice for us not to call out the patron who buys a piece of artwork and forever tells people who ask about it, "Yes, sweet isn't it? A person with Autism painted it, isn't that extraordinary?"

Shouldn't we be striving for people to say, "Oh, isn't it great? I especially love the way the colors work over here. The artist has had several successful shows in Paris. I also heard he has Autism. Do you think this is the reason for the sense of detachment of the work, or do you think it's the subject itself?"

And if you're wondering why I allow the mention of the Autism to stay in this hypothetical at all, stay tuned for next week: "Being an Artist with a Disability."