The Paralympics: Art & Inspiration

[Picture description: The words: ‘You inspire me with your determination and I love you’. Below these words is a scratchy pen and ink rendering of two birds atop wild flowers, and the Paralympic symbol etched in a rough way, which leads down the page.]

The Olympics and the Paralympics are almost among us, and thus the lexicon of inspiration is at its nadir. Inspiration is defined as a process of mental stimulation, particularly as pertains to feeling something – as a result of a creative process. People with disabilities, or disabled people (the difference largely depending on what side of the Atlantic you reside) are constantly portrayed as objects of inspiration. If I hear the simple utterance ‘You’re an inspiration to me’ my instinct is to head to the nearest door.

In ‘We’re not here for your inspiration’, Stella Young guides readers through the complex issues of ‘inspiration porn’ perfectly. Young states: ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter what inspiration porn says to us as people with disabilities. It’s not actually about us. Disability is complex. You can’t sum it up in a cute picture with a heart-warming quote.’ Stella acutely highlights that ‘it’s not actually about us’ – demonstrating that it is quickly becoming about ‘us and them’ – thus divisively creating a binary of differences. The ‘us’ as in the disabled people, serve as objects of reassurance for ‘them’ – non disabled people. Again as Stella Young surmises: ’It’s [the us and them dichotomy] is there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective.’

Tracey Emin was one of a handful of British artists who were chosen to design the promotional posters for the Paralympics. In an attempt to avoid employing ‘macho, fascist ideology’ as quoted in channel 4’s ‘That Paralympic Blog’, instead Emin used a dis/ableist ideology. Inspiration is the face of her Paralympic posters, her words: ‘You inspire me with Your determination And I love you’. I suspect for most paralympians it’s about taking part, not overcoming the abstract, adverse conditions related to having a disability. Emin goes on to describe her process: ‘It’s a more emotional energy. So in the end I just decided to go down the celebratory route.’ It’s quite clear that Tracey Emin is employing an ‘against all odds’ rhetoric here. In some people’s minds, if the disabled person manages to overcome their adversity, in showing great ability, being more able, they are thus showing promise of their latent able bodies. This suggests that there’s no pride to be located within disabled identity, what’s more, the two birds within the image are supposed to symbolise freedom, but I ask, freedom from what? Ostensibly, the daily struggle of living with a disability. Sporting achievements should be celebrated, but not at the cost of negating one’s identity, disability is part of identity – denying the person’s disability is failing to see the person as a whole.

Failure falls on many levels here: the committee had a social responsibility to select an artist who represents the ethos of the paralympic team. Perhaps, even selecting an artist with a disability. I’m mindful to observe that Tracey Emin could indeed have a hidden disability, or at least doesn’t self identify as a disabled person. I will make a bold statement here, based on the evidence of Emin’s artwork, I don’t think she has given much thought to disability other than her own experience of it. As a result of this, the paralympians are represented through an ableist lens, a lens that makes disability the focus, rather than a celebration of sporting achievements. I finish today’s blog with one question, who does the Paralympic Games 2012 belong to? I hope that the cultural olympiad will recognise artistic talents, as well as sporting talents, that will be exhibited this summer.

Please note: I have used Person/People with Disabilities and Disabled person/people interchangeably to account for different transatlantic preference, I do not assign importance to one over the other.

UPDATED: Interesting post from disability and respresentationinspiration porn gawking

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3 thoughts on “The Paralympics: Art & Inspiration

  1. i definitely agree…i get especially frustrated when events for/by disabled people use inspiration porn rhetoric (whether designed by a person with or without a disability). i think there are many situations even within disability community where ableist inspirational rhetoric is centered…i’ve seen it myself pretty recently in a few cases. i mean, to me – it sucks when able-bodied people do it, but it sucks even more when disabled people are buying into it and/or feeding it to other disabled people. why wouldn’t the paralympic games use art made by disabled people? or at least make sure that the art they do use is affirming for disabled people? it’s frustrating. i think it comes from the idea that we should always be “determined” and be seeking to be as able-bodied as possible – that overcompensating is a good thing, that our self-worth is determined by how much we can overcompensate or “achieve,” or by how much we come close to maybe one day being a real able-bodied human being.

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