Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vonnegut's Ballerinas



Kurt Vonnegut wrote the short story "Harrison Bergeron" in 1961, but 51 years later it still has a sting. It's a cautionary tale about trying to make everyone "equal," and the story goes:

Harrison Bergeron is a handsome 7-foot-tall teenager who in the year 2081 is in prison because he is not handicapped enough. The dystopia of the story is one in which the federal government makes everyone "equal" by "handicapping" them. The chief administrator of this program is the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. The story is framed by Bergeron's parents, who are sitting and watching a ballet on TV in their home. Both are "handicapped" in different ways. Since Harrison's mother has average intelligence, she is not "handicapped," but Harrison's father, who is above normal, is: he has a little device in his brain that sends out electrical shocks if he thinks too much. Plus the father has a 48-pound bag of buckshot strapped to him to physically make him equal. On TV, the ballerinas are also handicapped in the same manner. They also have to wear masks, the uglier the mask, the more beautiful the ballerina. In the middle of their dance, Harrison escapes from his bondage, strips away all the impediments bestowed upon him by the Handicapper General on live TV, and proclaims himself emperor, taking one of the ballerinas as his empress. In the end, Harrison is shot by Diana Moon Glampers, right on TV, right between the eyes. And the story ends with Harrison's mom and dad seeing the execution, but then forgetting about it a few seconds later.

I haven't read Vonnegut in many years. The desire to revisit this story came to me as I was thinking about artists with disabilities, what "outsider art" means, and all the whole weird, unnecessary routes we take to describe how we value art and artists, as well as how we construct "disability."

Reading the story again I see that often good intentions, like ensuring that everyone is equal, and that "handicaps" don't "matter," can be an unproductive experiment, because in altering the playing field to make everyone the same, you also lose the main reason you are playing.

Viewing and consuming visual art, without judgment, without the construct of geniuses and amateurs, is a boring, sad endeavor: "Everything is beautiful in its own way," Ray Stevens once sang, and boy is that really not a great song. What Vonnegut's story seems to be getting at is the absurdity of even wanting to create a Utopia based on making everyone the same.

Schools and programs often try to do this when dealing with "disabilities." They try to create a fake level playing field through programs like Everybody Counts where kids are told to put on blindfolds to pretend to be blind, a pretty explicit example, but also through "political correctness" often dictating that "We are all the same." We aren't. And by pretending to be, or by trying to enforce some kind of equality based on "disabling" yourself, you lose the essence of what "disability" and "ability" mean.

In looking at art created by people with developmental disabilities, this means that there are geniuses and amateurs within that demographic (of course). In other words, not every person with a developmental disability who makes art is an "artist." Not every person with a developmental disability has a keen, instinctive visual instinct, or even an urge to create. 

Setting up "arts programs," then, for people with developmental disabilities, and setting up an art studio are two very different situations. If you don't make this initial distinction, this "discrimination," then you start "handicapping" the actual "artists" in any program by enforcing the program's vision: everyone is equal here.

Not true.

Sometimes art can be used as the great equalizer, but art never equalizes: it discriminates because it needs to. Without discrimination, pictures, sculptures, and other works of art lose their meaning, and all you end up with is a wall full of smudges, a free-for-all. Art constantly creates and re-creates its own rules, aesthetics, judgments, and definitions through constructing "inspiration" and valuing it. Once you try to eliminate those albeit made-up distinctions, art becomes anything you want it to be. At the end of the day, that is a very depressing notion to me.

Look at Vonnegut's ballerinas in "Harrison Bergeron." All of them masked and weighted down, dancing but not dancing, trying to make sure they are all doing the same thing in the same way. They don't want to end up hurting anyone's feelings.