Disability Dance and Philosophy: Liminal Spaces. by Charlotte Waelde

Disability Arts is a movement that has been around since the mid 1970s although the exact starting date seems unclear. When it comes to describing what the movement is, Allan Sutherland opines that disability art is ‘art made by disabled people which reflects the experience of disability'. Sutherland also suggests that without disability politics, disability art may not be what it is now:

"I don’t think disability arts would have happened without disability politics coming first… Our politics teach us that we are oppressed, not inferior… Our politics have given us self-esteem. They have taught us, not simply to value ourselves, but to value ourselves as disabled people." (Sutherland, 1989: 159).

Something of the political flavor of the movement can be gleaned from a blog post that Melvyn Bragg wrote in 2007. In narrating the outcomes of a debate held at the Tate with the motion that ‘Disability and deaf arts ought to be dead and buried, ie that we are all in the mainstream now’ Bragg noted the passion elicited in favour of Disability Arts, going so far as to quote the view of one of the speakers that Disability Arts could be seen as ‘the last remaining avant-garde movement’ comparable to the early days of feminism and the black arts. More recently, Dadafest, as part of its Congress in 2014, held a debate with the motion ‘This congress proposes that Disability Arts is a form of human rights activism and as such only disabled people should be its leaders.’ The motion was ultimately carried by 31 votes to 26 – a surprisingly close result perhaps.

Where, then, do our dance collaborators stand in relationship to Disability Arts and the Disability Arts movement: does their work sit within this philosophical tradition? Their work is certainly about disability: Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch and Guide Gods by Claire Cunningham are excellent examples. But we have asked our dance collaborators questions around Disability Arts and the response has been muted. The central focus of their efforts is the same: it is that they all want to make great dance and to be considered great dancers. In other words, they wish to be viewed and evaluated as dance artists equal to other professional dance artists. Their approach is, in essence, apolitical.

Such a response would seem at odds with the philosophy of the Disability Arts movement. In keeping with the politicised nature of the movement, Paul Darke argues that,

"Disability art philosophy is based upon legitimising the experience of disabled people as equal within art and all other cultural practices’ … it is ‘part of a process of re-presenting a more accurate picture of society, life, disability and impairment and art itself. Disability Art is a challenge to, an undermining of (as a minimum), traditional aesthetic and social values." (Darke, 2003:130)

While, as we have argued extensively elsewhere, disabled dance certainly challenges traditional aesthetic values, it is difficult to claim that it also seeks to undermine them in the sense of making traditional aesthetics less powerful or less likely to succeed on their own terms. But if then the philosophy underlying Disability Art is found wanting when it comes disabled dance, what should we replace it with, and indeed, why should we be concerned with finding philosophical foundations for the work that our collaborators do?

Thinking about the ‘why’ question first. This goes to the heart of what philosophy is about: it is a quest to find rational arguments to help us to deepen our understanding and knowledge of the world around us and to give us a way of making sense of the world. When we sit within a particular philosophical tradition, it can act both as a guiding principle for our actions, and enable outsiders to better understand what drives and shapes our actions. The brief discussion on the philosophy underpinning the Disability Arts noted above illustrates this point: an artist working within the movement follows an established tradition while at the same time her audience has an intellectual framework to better understand the work.

A quest for a philosophy should not, however, be a sop for an intellectual inferiority complex, reminiscent of the fears of Duchamp who, Copeland reports,

"seemed to suffer from an intellectual inferiority complex – or at least a fear that the visual arts were perceived as less ‘mentally demanding’ than the verbal arts. In a remarkable burst of candor, he once admitted, ‘the painter was considered stupid, but the poet and writer were intelligent. I wanted to be intelligent." (Copeland, 2004: 226).

Neither should a quest for a philosophy be used to shield a work against aesthetic judgment. As Boyce has noted, there is a mutual dependence between the artistic and philosophical attainment of a work:

"it is in virtue of what the work achieves as art that it achieves something philosophically important. It is in virtue of what it achieves philosophically that the work succeeds as art." (Boyce, 2013: 265)

A philosophy of disabled dance then can help us to deepen our understanding and knowledge both of the dance and of the philosophy of the dance. A starting point in thinking about what shape that might take, may be to consider the advice offered in the introduction to the collection, ‘Thinking through dance: the philosophy of dance performance and practices’, edited by Jenny Bunker, Anna Pakes and Bonnie Rowell (Dance Books Ltd: Hampshire. 2013). In it they tell us that dance as an art form poses unique philosophical questions. These include issues and observations relating to the importance of the human body in dance; of the need to understand the dynamics of agency, the dancer experience and audience understanding; of the collaborative nature of the dance and the individuality of the body; and of the meaning generated in different dance activities – among others. These questions, we are told, become particularly acute as dance enters the academy and starts to test ‘traditional assumptions about knowledge’ and institutional conventions.

These are all pertinent to disabled dance. But disabled dance raises much deeper enquiries. It also requires us to interrogate ideas around disablism, essentialism, exclusion, voyeurism, otherness, invisibility – among others – and challenges us to find insightful meaning around which the dance, dancers and audiences can coalesce.

We will be exploring these questions in the edited collection to be published later this year as part of our InVisible Difference project and through which we aim to make significant advances in our understanding of the philosophy of disabled dance. Having deepened and broadened our knowledge about the legal frameworks that support the disabled dancer in her efforts, this philosophical enquiry will form yet another part of the mosaic of our understanding about disabled dance and which, cumulatively, will contribute to moving ‘Beyond the Tipping Point’.

(For details of our symposium on 6-7 November 2015 called ‘Beyond the Tipping Point? Dance, Disability and Law’ click here).

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