February 17, 2009
Barring Hannah Wilke, Jo Spence and AIDS/activist art, I’m coming up dry when trying to think of contemporary art that deals with illness. I’m thinking especially of mental illness and developmental disability, here, but also chronic phsyical illness.
There’s certainly no dearth of writing about illness and the accompanying Puritanical stigma–I just finished a memior on bipolar disorder today–but this stuff seems completely absent from the visual arts. And most film I can think of (i.e. Rain Man) is just pure exploitation.
I can’t come up with any particular reasons why other than the body/mind horror most folks I know (me included) are engaged in: we just can’t bear to look at the institutionalized devastation of chronic illness, and when we do, the focus is always “oh how can the evil victim’s family cope with this horrible burden.” Another reason has to do with the way the issue may flatten out, visually, into documentary that shuns the creative intervention of art. Reason number three is that art produced by people with health issues is usually devalued as outsider/naive art or art therapy and is therefore outside the scope of the sheen of academia the art world likes to be able to apply to what it’s selling.
I’ve tried to address these issues visually before and come up with nothing but pictures of pill bottles or photocopies of treatment notes or insurance claims: the ephemera of illness. None of this stuff has worked out ot my satisfaction. I’ve also tried taking pictures of doctors, but they all came out blurry ’cause I hate doctors so much. There has to be a way to address this stuff, though. Short of doing a performance where I rent a booth and set up an “Ask an Autistic” sign, though, I don’t know what. There’s something about illness that says ‘relational aesthetics’ to me but that’s a whole ‘nother whole can of worms. It also says Identity Politics to me, but what we need more of is Identity Politics.
This has been on my mind lately and keeping me away from blogging both because of some nasty workplace treatment because of my health problems (if I don’t get all better magically I’ll get fired) and a wisdom tooth issue that means shooting pain up and down the right side of my face that I’m reluctant to do anything about because of my abject fear of surgery.
Any ideas or responses to this? Or can you think of other artists to look at I’ve missed?