Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What If...

What if you had to live your life with a sign floating above your head? This sign/diagnosis/label appears and disappears at different intervals, but it is always there and everyone knows it. This label constructs many parts of your life for you, as well as guides the way people see, support, and make meaning from seeing and supporting you and what you do.

What if you were an artist and all the art you made was also viewed through this lens of diagnosis?

How could you escape this signage?

As an artist, one hopes. Simply being an artist. Without any other adjectives or nouns. This freedom would come from stepping away from the matrix of labels and diagnoses into a new world where biography and history are confronted and understood, in order to create a world without labels and definitions based on made-up science.

The history of the way people labeled "developmentally disabled" (DD) have been treated in the United States is a horrible one, filled with creepy prejudices and assumptions, including the reification of what "intelligence" (or IQ) is. When you construct a narrative about someone missing "intelligence," you are automatically assuming that "intelligence" is an actual THING everyone else who is not diagnosed possesses in spades. People with "DD" are lacking "intelligence" from the very definition of their diagnoses, but that's way too dismissive and arrogant and just plain sad of course. Still the official, mainstream cycle of diagnosing and "helping" continues, while the pseudo-scientific names of these diagnoses constantly get coopted as offensive terms. "Idiot," "moron," "feebleminded," and "mental retardation" at one time or another were used as therapeutically correct terms of a "condition." The names change; the attitudes and responses really don't.

As well, the history of the way people with DD have been supported is built on grouping people with "it" together so they can be "helped." Institutionalization is always at the core of this kind of "help." A building with services attached and "professionally trained staff" there to teach and train people with "it" to learn and grow is the model. Sometimes the only model people can imagine.

This model does not work for many people however. For many artists especially.

Imagine being in a place where a majority of the people helping and collaborating with you are paid to be there, with their own set of objectives and rules. Imagine where you fit on the scale of importance. "Help" and "training" become ways of constructing the day's activities. The other main activity is keeping the thing going just the way it is.

What if art somehow allowed all of us to escape that sad narrative of "help"?

That's the first step of 2 + 2 = 5: understanding the context, and understanding that many times 2 + 2 = 4 does not suffice.

Stay tuned.