After London 2012

Where next for disability arts?

Unlimited”, a major disability arts festival, is currently being held at London’s Southbank Centre to coincide with the Paralympics. Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online, talks to Russell Parton about what impact London 2012 might have on the community.

What was the climate like for disability arts in the 1990s?

I began working for the London Disability Arts Forum in 1994, when disability arts was very much linked with cabaret. The scene was buzzing with various disability arts agencies around the country, creating a forum that allowed disabled people to develop their artistic practice and to share their art and their voice. The movement was loud and proud: a fledgling deaf arts community campaigned to make BSL a recognised language, while the blind and visually impaired community campaigned for audio description. An emerging consciousness of the social model of disability created an atmosphere in which disabled people realised the barriers to inclusion were largely created by society, rather than their impairments.

Is there more of a level playing field with mainstream arts now?

I wouldn't say there's a level playing field but certainly more mainstream arts organisations such as the Live Arts Development Agency, ArtsAdmin, Improbable Theatre, Fuel, Arts Catalyst and festivals like Greenwich and Docklands International Festival have done a lot to use disabled artists and to think about disabled audiences.

What brought about these changes? 

They came about as a result of disabled people campaigning, advocating for disability rights, going on to boards and convincing arts bodies that disabled artists can make exciting work that challenges and entertains. For years, the Arts Council resisted making access a condition of funding. Their reason was that they couldn't impose something that they couldn't fund. So when the new arts lottery funding came into place in the 1990s, Paddy Masefield (who then served on the Arts Council lottery panel) insisted the decision be overturned. He argued that it made sense to plan access as an integral part of any new building development for current and future generations.
 

What are the major challenges disability artists face in putting their art across?

I think there is still a sense in which disability arts are seen as a participatory arts product rather than a professional arts practice, though organisations like DaDaFest in Liverpool have done a lot to disperse the myth that a disabled person taking part in the arts is doing so for therapeutic reasons and not because they have something unique, exciting and challenging to say. However, television is rife with freak-show viewing that dresses itself up as educational, documentary-style programming. It makes disabled people more visible as a constituent part of society but reinforces stereotypes rather than raising awareness of impairment as something that is an ordinary part of human experience.

What effect do you think London 2012 will have on disability arts in the UK?

It's hard to say what the legacy of the London 2012 will be in terms of the daily run-of-the-mill effect on disabled people’s lives. In the 1990s, the disability arts movement was so dedicated to opposing the charity model of disability. We challenged the charity model largely because the support it gave was minimal and the messages were patronising. But while we had a tick-box culture, there was at least a sense that the mainstream press wanted to pay lip service to our culture.

For a few disabled artists – especially those who were awarded Unlimited commissions – there is tremendous potential for the development of new work but it's a strange dichotomy that companies like Graeae, Heart n Soul and many of the Unlimited artists find themselves in. There is an element in which, to get mainstream acceptance, they have to pretend they have nothing to do with disability; there is a sense in which disability art is only acceptable if it contains and restricts the amount it says about impairment to a level acceptable by a mainstream audience – and says absolutely nothing at all about disability.
 

The South Bank’s “Unlimited” season runs until 9 September.

Russell Parton is a freelance arts writer. Follow him on Twitter @russparton

The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London (Photograph: Getty Images)
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.