Art imitating life

by Jackie Driver

Published: 13 Jul 2015

That iconic seven metre high model of pity towering over us in the city of London is hard to avoid. 

The artwork known as Charity by Damien Hirst - one of Britain's most controversial artists, features the ‘old school’ callipered child collecting for her own existence and aims to mark the end of an era of pity and ‘hand-i-capped’ existence for disabled people. It breaks open the charity box once and for all and puts the social model of disability firmly on the mainstream art roadmap.

In recognition that we got it so wrong for so long, shutting away and patronising disabled people instead of making the changes to society that make it an inclusive place for all, Hirst has carefully and strategically used his privileged position to say out loud that we got it wrong.

This comes in the wake of 2012’s Paralympic games held in London, another defining moment in the history of disabled people that challenged stereotypes of what it is to be disabled in the 21st Century.

Other powerful agents of change need to catch on.  The broadcasting industry is on the brink of making significant inroads to address the under representation of disabled people (amongst others) on and off screen, to be completed this autumn with legal guidance from the EHRC and Ofcom on redressing the imbalance.

The lingering legacy of the past era of course has far from disappeared, as our upcoming report on 'Is Britain Fairer,' will lay testimony to. One of its big themes is likely to be about life in Britain in 2015 for many disabled people and their opportunities to participate in our society.  The data shows concerns in a number of different areas including participation in the labour market and some aspects of care and support for people with significant levels of impairment. 

This kind of public show of accountability is an approach disability charity Scope took. They withdrew their 1960’s style collection boxes depicting disabled people including a young girl holding a teddy bear, in favour of promoting more positive images. Scope progressed from being part of the problem to now being part of the solution – a refreshing and welcome approach that others can and should take a lead from.

We are far from being able to give our society a pat on the back for doing so well with disability, given the long list of issues still to be tackled. However, will this public display invoke discourse about how to treat disabled people as valued, equal, contributing members of our communities and society, or will it be seen as another self-serving artistic folly?