"The drawing that started this discussion. It is a working drawing that would go towards a completed work and so it isn't finished to the standard I would normally expect." -I.M.


I'm an artist and I discovered BENT following some experimental drawings I was doing for a sculpture. I had succeeded with the figure I was working on (above) to the point of not knowing where to put his right arm. Up? Extended? Folded? I ended up drawing it shortened and straight out: in effect, a stump. I then realised that without intending to do so I had turned this figure into an amputee.

I had no problem with this, but it made me question how other people would react to it, as a drawing or a sculpture. This made me look at some other drawings I had near me and I wondered what the public reaction would be had I also portrayed this attractive woman with only one arm, or that good looking guy with no legs. I began to question the whole concept of disabled people in art. An Internet search brought me to this Webzine and in particular to a January 2003 BENT/Disgaytalk forum titled Who Thinks We're Sexy? Do We?

Now, you have to understand that I've come to this as an able-bodied sculptor. Although I am gay this dilemma for me had nothing to do with sexuality: it's purely about aesthetics and what is and isn't appropriate in art, and, more importantly, what is and isn't acceptable to the viewing (and the buying) public.

All of this this is applicable to both gay and disabled art. One of the great paradoxes of life is that you can have a whole bookshelf of Agatha Christie novels without being suspected of murderous intent, but if you own just one gay novel your sexuality is automatically in doubt. The portrayal of a naked male figure by a male artist is immediately labelled as homoerotic and there is a similar effect on any male owning such a picture. So where does the world stand on artists and art portraying the disabled?

"Here is a completed drawing. You'll notice how the right arm is finished vaguely ( a standard art technique), whereas the execution of the right arm in the first drawing is complete, as if the subject were disabled." -I.M.

The world admires the sculpture of Venus de Milo without her arms, but what would be the reaction if the arms had been stumps? Would she be as famous as she is? Would she be so admired? Would countless reproductions have been made of her? And if not, why not? And would it be difficult for an artist to even exhibit a drawing of a disabled person in a mainstream gallery let alone sell it?

As I continued to think about these questions, I was inspired to return to my drawing of the figure with the stump or, rather, to try again. This time, I drew the figure's right arm as neither an accident nor an afterthought, but as an intentional stump. The result feels more convincing to me than the first attempt.

"Here is my second try at depicting a figure with a stump." -I.M.

As an artist, I find that the human form, whether male or female, abled or disabled, can be beautiful. (Note: I have to be honest here and say that until I read the "Who Thinks We're Sexy" debate I hadn't realised that disability could be a fetish— the innocence you feel at times like this can be quite humbling !!).

Since previous contributors have discussed the SMBD/Fetishist side of disability aesthetics, I would like to throw in another couple of questions. Firstly, and with consideration to "maimed beauty" (as discussed in the BENT/Disgaytalk forum), is the portrayal of disability in art (whether photography, painting, drawing, sculpture) something that ought to be reserved for niche books, isolated exhibits, the fetishist market? And secondly, can it become as acceptable as any other subject of art? My own conclusion to the second question is that it can, but not yet.

Negative public attitudes to being gay have not been changed overnightthough we are getting there—and so attitudes to the portrayal of the disabled will not be immediately acceptable to all. This, of course, is why we still need the niche books and exhibitions I guess, though this isolationist approach has its drawbacks.

I think part of the problem for the public at large is that as children we all suffered the endless chastisement: "it is rude to stare," which left us as adults feeling uncomfortable when looking at disability in any form. Moreover, we were not told that it is also rude to avert our gaze, so most people choose to look away from disability, not realising how insulting this can be. This negative attitude is then applied to viewing disability in general, so any portrayal of a disabled person, whether in art, advertising or whatever forum is automatically, for some people, a subject of contention.

People feel uncomfortable. They don't know how they are supposed to react, so their behaviour becomes clumsy. If it's a choice of feeling discomfort or avoiding the issue, most people will invariably choose the latter: they don't want to be put on the spot, and you can't blame them for that. Didn't all of us experience similar feelings before we came out?

It would be great if we could create and display art without the fact that the subject is gay or disabled being an issue. I welcome readers' thoughts on this.

Ian Marlow
Buckland Dinham
England, UK

Text and drawings ©2003 Ian Marlow.
Reproduction prohibited without premission of the artist.

 

Don't wait.
Let us know what you think of this BENT feature.

.

Ian Marlow writes: "I'm a professional sculptor in the UK. I have produced large and small sculptures in stone, mainly to private and municipal commissions. I've spent about three years exploring ceramics and have recently moved back into stone, using alabaster."

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2003