Disability Culture Watch

17 Nov

17 Nov

A Close Encounter on Friday the 13th

The scene: A rehearsal studio on 42nd Street near Broadway.The occasion: Rehearsal for Gimp, the thrilling dance you should all see http://www.thegimpproject.com/gimp/

The personnel: Lawrence Carter-Long, Simi Linton, Heidi Latsky and Catherine Long and a surprise encounter with ………

The moment:  As this crew is leaving the studio, heading for the elevator, we see a cluster of people outside one of the other studios. Holding forth in the midst of the circle is Jerry Lewis saying what a great show they are going to make, and how wonderful it will be. Jerry, in blue velour leisure suit, is surrounded by the composer Marvin Hamlisch, a woman in a mink coat and other theatrical types, all nodding agreement and smiling at him, saying what a wonderful thing this is. A sign on the door says: “Rehearsal for the Nutty Professor.”

The background: As many of you know, a group calling ourselves “The Trouble with Jerry” http://thetroublewithjerry.com/ organized last February to go to LA to protest the decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give Jerry Lewis their Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award during the February 22 Academy Awards ceremony (”the Oscars”). Lawrence and Simi flew to LA for the protest, where we joined up with a contingent of some of the most righteous crips the world has known. For more on this go to site above and to http://similinton.com/blog/?p=133

The dilemma: What do we do? It is a narrow hall, Jerry is surrounded by well-wishers, and he is grinning and blabbing away.

The action: Simi and Lawrence move in (nothing parts a crowd quicker than a loud-mouth crip in a power chair and a louder-mouthed gimp with a cane) and introduce ourselves.

The ensuing dialogue:

Simi: Mr. Lewis, we are fans of your work (he smiles), but want you to know that we both flew out to LA last spring to protest the award you received. (His smile quickly fades and he gets a snarly look on his face)

Jerry: (He barks) I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Simi: You know, the award, Los Angeles, … (S trying to say more, and quickly. Lawrence says something at this point too, but we can’t remember it exactly.)

Jerry: I don’t know what you are talking about and when I’m confused, I go home. And that’s the end of that.

Jerry: This is not going to enrich my life. In fact, it’s going to make it more problematic.

Simi: I bet it does.

Group is heading toward elevator.

Man (a producer-looking type) sneers at us and says: Are you allowed to be here?

Lawrence and Simi: Yes, we are rehearsing next door.

Producer-type: Rehearsing? Why are you rehearsing? (Looking us up and down)

Lawrence: I’m a dancer; I’m rehearsing.

Simi: (sarcastically) Why are we rehearsing?

Lawrence: (Shouting out to the group scurrying on to the elevator) Happy to talk about it. C’mon out, we’re all right here. (Gesturing that they should come back out, we could talk.)


PHEW!!! We were breathing pretty heavy by then.

Here are some of Lawrence’s thoughts: Poof! Down the rabbit hole he goes. Funny, he’ll curse us out in Vanity Fair but when confronted face-to-face he dashed away like a scared child…

What strikes me about the whole thing is how taken aback Lewis was. Totally non-plussed. He has spent the last 40 years insulating himself from us and didn’t have the balls to engage with us right there in front of him. It’s all bluster. The man is a bully and a coward.

29 Apr

Creativity Unleashed

I mentioned in the previous post (4/22/09) an art exhibit featuring four disabled artists at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea (NYC) (529 West 20 Street – Wheelchair accessible).

I attended a screening at the gallery of the film titled Make about these four artists, Ike Morgan, Royal Robertson, Judith Scott and Hawkins Bolden. Filmmakers Scott Ogden and Malcolm Hearn’s documentary lingers on each of the artists, and we get to see a range of their work over the course of the film. The focus is largely on the artists’ process and it is fascinating. Each has crafted a singular style. Check out the trailer on http://www.makedocumentary.com/ or, if you can, Make has one more screening at the Ricco/Maresca this Saturday evenings May 2 at 6:00pm – RSVP to info@riccomaresca.com. Make reservation immediately – they were turning people away last weekend. The exhibit runs through May 16.

Just some quick comments (time, not interest, limits me):

Three of the artists spent considerable time in institutions. Two of them discovered their art outside of the confines of the institution – spontaneously, creatively and with absolute commitment to the work. The film reveals a largely unexplored aspect of the consequences of confinement and isolation from the community. Denial of culture and of artistic expression are among the pernicious evils of institutionalization.

In the film Make the term “outsider” art is not used to describe these artists. I spoke with Scott Ogden who said that he thinks it is more interesting to not use it and to focus on the artists at work. I agree. Further, I mentioned to him that I appreciated that diagnosis was not overtly mentioned. There are particulars to each artist’s condition/impairments that emerge in the course of the film, but those are more descriptive of their cognitive and sensory processes than a reductive label.

22 Apr

Disability: Almost There

I am interested in how prevalent disability is in all manner of cultural formations, and, paradoxically, how invisible. As I watch a film or read a book, I can (or think I can) guess when the impaired character, theme or trope will emerge, and then how she, he or it will serve the plot or the mood. How, most likely, it will serve a metaphoric function. And it all bores me to tears and irritates. So, while these representations abound, they rarely increase the cultural authority of disabled people, nor deepen audience understanding of our lives and thoughts, or the social contingencies that shape our experience.

What passes for disability representation in the arts is instead mostly fantasy about us. {What I am reluctant to tackle right now is the issue of authorship of these products. It is too simple to “blame” the fantastical representations on non-disabled writers who imagine disability experience. There are also people with impairments who write about their personal experience, with little or no reference to the larger disability community, nor to social determinants of experience. While that may be effective for certain types of artistic productions, if the work intimates that this experience is universal or inevitable, or that the impairment itself determines experience, then I ……………… struggle with it both artistically and politically. So, back to this at another point.)

The thing that got me going on all this: This past Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section of the NY Times is chock full of disability references. A significant portion of the articles are about disabled people or representation of disability in various art forms. Here is a sampling and a few comments:

The cover article that caught my attention is titled: “Still Dancing in Her Dreams”, dateline Beijing, about a young woman, “a 26-year-old dancer named Liu Yan (who) was supposed to give the performance of her life at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.” (NY Times, April 19, 2009, p. 1). She sustained a spinal cord injury during rehearsal, and is now paraplegic and a wheelchair user.

The focus of the article is on the loss, both Liu Yan’s personal loss, and the loss to China of an enormously talented dancer. One of China’s leading choreographers, Zhao Ming, said that she was one of the most talented, with a “perfect waist and the most flexible legs. Dance is the art of beauty, and it requires the perfect figure.”

The degree to which such notions of perfection and beauty dominate discourse about dance, in China and elsewhere, are rarely the subject of critical inquiry. Instead, these are assumed truisms.

The articles tone can be summed up in the title: “Still Dancing in her Dreams.” And that might accurately capture Liu Yan’s mood, just 8-9 months post-injury. She comments: “Life is not that sweet and beautiful after an injury.”

The writer states that Ms. Liu has started talking about studying to be a television broadcaster. This may be a hint that she is beginning to imagine a pleasurable life following injury, but I don’t trust the reporter to tell us that. Maybe Ms. Liu doesn’t feel that, maybe she never will. No way to know.

The second article, “Mental Illness, The Musical, Aims for Truth” is about a new musical on Broadway titled “next to normal” (all lower case letters in title) whose central character is a woman with an unspecified mental illness. There are a number of comments in the article on the “uses” of mental illness in theatre to convey ideas beyond the condition itself – authenticity, creativity, intellectual depth. I don’t have the sense, though, that the writer is commenting on how the use of metaphors of disability is problematic.

The playwrights describe their deep concern that someone might approach them and say: “There’s something wrong with that portrayal.” Their wish to present an accurate, unromanticized view of people with depression and other emotional conditions is admirable. Yet the composer’s other comment: “We want to do right by those people” irked me.

In part, of course, it is the “those” in “those people” – the distancing, othering quality to the term. Also, it is a reminder that they consulted with psychiatrists but, it seems, did not collaborate with people with these conditions themselves.

The third NY Times piece of interest is a profile of the actor John Goodman which comments directly and indirectly on the ways that Goodman’s weight and alcoholism determine his personality traits.

Another article is about the upcoming film “The Soloist”, based on a true story about “Nathanial Ayers, the formerly homeless musician and schizophrenic” played by Jamie Foxx.

The final article with disability at its core is “Communicating Across Barriers Few Could Imagine” about an art exhibit featuring four artists with significant impairments at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Chelsea (529 West 20th Street – Wheelchair accessible according to the Gallery). Also at the Gallery are screenings of a film titled “Make” about these four artists, Ike Morgan, Royal Robertson, Judith Scott and Hawkins Bolden. “Make” will be shown Saturday evenings April 25 and May 2 at 6:00pm – RSVP to info@riccomaresca.com. The exhibit runs through May 16th.So here is a prime example, in one issue of the Arts and Leisure section, of the prominence of disability in cultural reporting, and yet, paradoxically, its opaqueness. In all of this coverage what is missing is the active voice of disabled artists. While some of the artists described here or portrayed in some of the work may have limited mechanisms to comment on their work or collaborate with writers on renderings of their experience, others could it seems. Also, we don’t have a sense that efforts have been made. For instance, it is psychiatrists that are consulted, not people with mental illness. Further, outside of disability studies, we never read cultural commentary about the phenomenon of disability representations in culture/arts. What disability studies has done is provide context, perspective, critical commentary, language etc. When are journalists/critics/filmmakers etc gonna wise up to the meaning of what they are doing??

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