Guest Post: Feminism, Disability, and John Currin

Jennifer Bartlett contributes her second guest post, an interview with artist Sunuara Taylor. Note: All the art works included are by Sunny. Without further adieu:
JB: I’ve been exploring the idea of disability as a strength rather than the societal perception of the disabled body as ‘weak.’ My idea derives from the concept that people with disabilities accomplish many of the same things that nondisabled people do with a so-called “compromised” body. I wonder what you think of this?
ST: Well firstly I’d like to touch on the word disabled. I like the definitions of the words disability and impairment that exist within the Social Model of Disability. Under this model, the word disabled is used to describe the disabling environment and culture that different bodies live in (for example stairs and negative stereotypes disable me). Impairment is used to describe one’s body, one’s diagnosis (which is in itself arguably a cultural creation). When I hear or say ‘disabled people’ I think of people who are oppressed not by their bodies (or not only by their bodies), but by a discriminating and inaccessible world. Thus, when I answer these questions, I’ll be using the word impairment for when I’m talking about one’s individual experience in their specific body and disabled when I am talking more broadly about the experience of living in a body that is disabled by society. Of course, sometimes they are too entangled to separate!
One of my favorite quotes and in fact definitions of impairment/disability comes from the disabled dancer/artist Neil Marcus. Marcus says, “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’…disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.” What I love about Marcus’ quote is his focus on the creativity and ingenuity that is needed when living in a body that doesn’t work/move in a normalized way and that is discriminated against. I am under the impression that being forced to think creatively and ingeniously makes one a stronger and often more interesting individual, but I hesitate to say outright that having an impairment is a strength in and of itself -but I also would NOT say it’s a weakness. I would say the strength comes from a potential creativity that disabled people are forced to deal with out of necessity.
deadcalvesJB: What do you think of the liberal use in the media of words such as wheelchair bound, afflicted with disability, and suffering from disability? Are these terms problematic?
ST: I cringe at these terms! And also the use of words like handicapped, special, and metaphoric language that co-opts and stereotypes words like blind, crippled and paralyzed (i.e. the nation was crippled by the financial meltdown, or blind to the corporate takeover). I’m annoyed, but rarely surprised. Even the most progressive journalists like Amy Goodman use these terms on a regular bases.
Simi Linton, in her groundbreaking book Claiming Disability, has a chapter on why each of these terms are patronizing, stereotyping and generally misinformed.
They are all either loaded with intensely negative history or are biased towards negativity -we are suffering, bound, confined, afflicted -but in actuality wheelchairs are liberating and most of the suffering that comes from being disabled comes from dealing with a discriminating and stereotyping world.
I use the word disabled for its political meaning. Many of us in the disabled community use the word crippled, ‘crip’ or gimp as a reclaiming of names similar to how the gay community has reclaimed the word queer.
More interview, paintings, and bios after the jump.


JB: I have found that most corners of feminism exclude the issue of disability? Do you agree? If so, what is your prediction as to the reason for this exclusion? Where have you seen feminism and disability intersect in a positive way?
ST: I think that is a very fair and accurate statement. I think generally feminists have the same problem most other people do- they have a hard time seeing disability as anything other then a personal struggle. Until disability is really seen as a civil rights issue the problems disabled people face collectively will not be taken seriously. People have a really hard time believing disabled people when they try to explain how much of what is perceived about disability is simply wrong. When I say that most of the suffering I experience around being disabled is cultural or that I don’t mind being in my body, people think I’m over-compensating or that I have a chip on my shoulder. Philosophers like the utilitarian Peter Singer don’t help the situation by continuously putting us in a defensive position where we have to prove our quality of life.
Disabled people are the world’s largest minority and a huge percentage of us are women. Disability intersects with women’s rights in so many ways: economics, abuse, access to jobs, poverty, care work, etc, etc… but yet we are rarely included in the feminist dialog in an empowered way. In fact, a lot of the discussion that happens focuses on disability as a burden (in discussions about care work and also about abortion). This conversation is very important and also often very accurate. However, there is a lot of information and experience that is left out when a conversation about the politics of disablement is left out too. For example, the conversation around disabled fetuses changes if one considers the deep cultural biases against disabled people that exist and that say a disabled baby’s quality of life will be bad. I’m very pro-choice, but also think a critical conversation about why disabled babies are considered so negative and burdensome needs to happen.
I think a place where I see the potential for very positive growth in this intersection of feminism and disability is in the concepts of value and worth. What are people valued for? Their work value? Their value as mothers and caregivers? Their sex appeal? Disability studies has done a lot to reframe what is valuable in a person… generally speaking, we aren’t the best homogeneous work force, our bodies redefine what society claims as attractive and sexy, and disabled mothers and fathers often don’t fit into the historically defined rolls of caregiver and provider. So how do we define value or place worth? How can these troublesome and loaded categories of work, motherhood and sex appeal be reframed and integrated into a more just and equal society? I think disability studies has done a lot of thinking in these areas that could potentially be really invigorating for feminism.
JB: You have lived in both New York and the Bay Area. To me, these places diverge greatly in accessibility and the overall treatment of people with disabilities. Could you explain some of your experiences in each place? Do you find one more welcoming than the other?
S: Public transit sucks for people in wheelchairs in NY. Imagine trying to live in Brooklyn without riding the subway. I think cities in general are often better for disabled people who can’t drive simply because they are more dense and “walkable.” I would live in NYC in a heartbeat if it would get its act together regarding attitude and access. In NY there seems to be little sense of disability as a civil rights issue. Woodstock, NY, America’s hippie progressive treasure, should win a hypocrisy award for unabashed disability discrimination. In the Bay Area literally a store owner will be shame faced if her store is not accessible. Of course, it happens that things aren’t, but it’s just so different here… it is simply on people’s radar. Also, because it’s accessible disabled people aren’t trapped at home -we’re out, shopping, working, dating, protesting. I don’t ever have a day here where I don’t see at least a few disabled people out and about. We are a valued part of the population here -relatively speaking.
JB: Do you think that people with disabilities are slowly becoming more mainstream in popular culture?
ST: Yes I do actually. It seems especially in the UK. I think there is a very different level of disability visibility over there. In terms of the US, I still think we are incredibly marginal and almost always stereotyped, but I do think we are slowly becoming mainstreamed in a certain way. I don’t know how progressive or positive these representations are though and the discussions around disability in the news and such are still dripping with condescending “over-coming” narratives. I think it is still more common to see people with spinal cord injuries represented then other sorts of disabilities. Perhaps this is because of the number of soldiers returning with injuries, but also because I think -and I may be getting into messy territory here -that people with spinal cord injuries are often still proportioned like able-bodied people. They can look more “normal” say than someone who has a congenital disability.
JB: There has been some discussion that the disability movement is weakened by the fact that disability is so far ranging. However, what I find people with disabilities have in common is societal problems: exclusion, unemployment, and so on. Most people with disabilities will experience the same type of prejudice at some time in their life. Would you agree that it is a specific architectural and societal prejudice that can tie us together as a movement? I wonder if its a misconception that any ‘group’ is tied together by a common physical condition (race, sexuality, gender), rather than a common outside perception?
ST: I couldn’t agree more. I also personally find our physical and mental diversity to be pretty thrilling. We will never be an easy population to standardize, which I think is pretty revolutionary.
JB: As a last note, how do you read John Currin’s painting, “The Cripple?”
ST: Currin’s work annoys me deeply, and I wish it didn’t as supposedly that is one of his goals! The Cripple doesn’t really bother me more than any of his other work. I find his irony very shallow and his self-conscious (and thus acceptable) sexism troublesome and uninterestingly adolescent.
Jennifer Bartlett’s articles have appeared in Feministing, Delirious Hem, Harvard Review, and others. Her first collection of poetry was Derivative of the Moving Image (UNM Press 2007) and her second is forthcoming from Chax in 2011. Individual poems have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Ratapallax, and New American Writing, Bartlett is a recipient of a 2005 NYFA Poetry Fellowship and a recent Fund for Poetry grant. She had cerebral palsy since birth.
Sunaura Taylor is an artist, writer and activist living in Oakland, CA. She is disabled due to U.S military pollution, a legacy that has affected all aspects of her work. Her artworks have been exhibited at venues across the country, including the CUE Art Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution and the Berkeley Art Museum. She is the recipient of a Sacatar Foundation Fellowship, winner of VSA’s Driving Force award, an Eisner Award, a Wynn Newhouse Award, and most recently a Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2008). She has been nominated for numerous awards including a McColl Center residency and a Dedalus Foundation Award. Her published work includes The Right Not to Work:Disability and Capitalism (Monthly Review, 2004), Military Waste In Our Drinking Water (With Astra Taylor, 2006- nominated for a Project
Censored Award 2007) and Is It Possible to Be a Conscientious Meat Eater? (Alternet, February 18th, 2009 with Alexander Taylor). Taylor recently worked with philosopher Judith Butler, on Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life (Zeitgeist 2008). She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in the department of Art Practice with her MFA in May, 2008. Her work can be viewed at www.sunaurataylor.org.

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13 Comments

  1. Essay Chess
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Would it be possible to have a warning about the pictures in the title? They’re quite disturbing, and while perhaps this may be an unwillingness to confront the horrific nature of the meat industry, I still think readers should have the option to not be confronted by these images.

  2. Ravencomeslaughing
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m still trying to figure out what photos of animals we use for food have to do with an article on disability and feminism and language. If that first picture is by the artist, that makes sense. But are the photos by her as well? They don’t seem to fit.

  3. decleyre!
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to point out that his name is spelled Currin, not Curran. And I couldn’t agree more with this: “I find his irony very shallow and his self-conscious (and thus acceptable) sexism troublesome and uninterestingly adolescent.”

  4. decleyre!
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    All those paintings are hers.

  5. OuyangDan
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the pictures are a bit…disturbing, and the ones that aren’t clear (too small for me to make out exactly what is going on) don’t have descriptions, either on them/in a caption, or when I mouse over them. Ironic that in a post about disability that the pictures used are inaccessible.

  6. OuyangDan
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the pictures are a bit…disturbing, and I am not sure what they have to do with the OP. The ones that are too small for me to make out what exactly is going on also don’t have descriptions, either on them or in a caption, or even when I mouse over them (like in the alt. text or picture title). Ironic that in a post about disability that the pictures are completely inaccessible to those with visual impairments or who would use screen readers.

  7. Shanna213
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Yes, for the love of God. A little warning about the pictures would have been nice.

  8. lauredhel
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Too accessible to some, inaccessible to others: the only image I can see on this whole page with a useful alt tag is an ad image.
    On an article about disability.

  9. Allegra
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    All of the art in this post is by the woman interviewed, Sunaura Taylor.
    http://www.sunaurataylor.org/portfolio/

  10. katemoore
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    As far as the use of those terms in the media, I’d attribute it to ignorance more than anything. People try to save space, or don’t know any better, write them, and are totally baffled when people are (rightly, if you ask me) offended. I do my small part, but it’s really, REALLY small.

  11. artdyke
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Spelling error: It’s John Currin, not John Curran.

  12. artdyke
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Actually I find that idea appalling, the idea that we have some kind of right to not know or be confronted by horrifying truths. Chilling even.

  13. kisekileia
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’…disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”
    Speaking as a disabled person, I have no tolerance for this kind of bullshit. Describing disability as an “ingenious way to live” implies that disability is a choice, which is repugnant and denies the lived reality of almost all disabled people. I feel that the social model of disability also denies the ways in which having disabilities can create obstacles in life regardless of accommodations, along with ignoring that disability is by definition the inability to do certain things that other people can. In fact, I would argue that there is a deeply ableist undercurrent to the reluctance among parts of the disability activist community to acknowledge that disabilities are undesirable traits that cause problems rather than just different ways of being: Only if one assumes that having intrinsic difficulties makes one inferior does the desire to deny that disability is objectively disabling make any sense.

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