Ethics of Revealing Details about Artists’ Disabilities is Topic of Expert Panel
Art empowers people with disabilities to express themselves in ways that otherwise might not be possible, but how important are their disabilities to their art’s value?
The question was the topic of a panel discussion on commerce for artists with developmental disabilities and mental illness as part of Project Onward’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” exhibit, which ran through Nov. 1.
Exhibitions of work by artists with disabilities provides an avenue for others to think about the artists’ unique perspectives. The “When I Paint My Masterpiece” exhibit included work by Little City artists Andrea Bell, Tarik Echols, Harold Jeffries, Angelo LaPietra, Wayne Mazurek, Don Nelson and Luke Tauber.
When considering “How can you involve people who have historically been marginalized, and how can they be brought into the conversation,” art can provide a means for both, said Randy Vick, a professor of art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who spoke on “Privacy, Disability and Fame: Ethics in the Gallery and Studio” as part of the panel discussion at Project Onward, a studio in the Bridgeport area of Chicago featuring art by people with disabilities.
Project Onward holds exhibitions in part to allow artists with disabilities to connect with others and become the expert of their work, while the studio also encourages interaction among the artists themselves. “It’s a unique opportunity for people with disabilities who have been sequestered from life to come into contact with each other,” said Rob Lentz, executive director.
But ethical issues also can arise when an artist’s disability becomes a focal point, Vick said. Deciding how much to disclose about an artist’s disability becomes a balancing act, because the information could help to explain the artwork. “You are really trying to balance protection of individuals’ privacy with opportunity, which is opening up that system,” Vick said.
Balancing Privacy with Voice
“On the one hand, the downside of privacy is perhaps silencing people and taking away their voice. But within that context, the upside is a possibility of exploitation. That’s kind of the tension between the two.”
Vick drew from historical examples of artists with disabilities and how some experts in the field chose to protect their identities, while others did not. The late Chicago artist Charles Steffen, whose work has been exhibited throughout the world, studied art at Illinois Institute of Technology before suffering a breakdown and being treated with electroshock therapy, which became part of public knowledge about the artist and was publicized with his work. “That’s not the sort of thing that’s typically put up on the wall beside artwork,” Vick said. “The question is, what is private information and what is public information.”
Vick favors privacy about health issues, suggesting revealing the details of the artist’s condition and treatment is exploitative because the art could be appreciated without the information.
The debate about balancing privacy and fame isn’t restricted to artists with disabilities. Certainly, authors and actors seeking publicity also risk placing themselves in the public light, but Vick pointed to the confidentiality agreements governing health care. The closed system of the medical model is often in contrast with the art world of fame, particularly when the publicity or promotion of artists and their work has another purpose, including financial gain.
From Process to Earnings
Vick’s talk was part of a larger panel discussion on commerce for artists with developmental disabilities and mental illness presented in partnership with Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. At Creatively Empowered Women, a group that works with women refugees from Bosnia and immigrants from South Asia, using art as therapy to help them overcome the effects of violence and traumatic stress, the women’s disabilities aren’t the central focus of their work, said Savneet Talwar, an associate professor of art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who leads the program and also spoke on the panel.
While the women’s sewing, knitting and crocheting starts as therapy, the organization also helps them earn money from their work. “We don’t tell them what to make,” she said, but the women will adapt their work to meet the demand. The labor involved is still therapeutic, she said. “Work is power. Work makes people feel valued,” she said. When products produced at the studio are sold, 70 percent of the proceeds go to the artist and 30 percent goes to the studio, which provides materials to the participants.
Project Onward artists have provided portrait-drawing at public events as a way to generate revenue while sharing their talent, Lentz said. Project Onward exists in part to help artists with disabilities make their work available to the public. “Many of our artists are extremely intelligent, but wouldn’t be able to have an independent art career,” Lentz said. The studio advocates for the artists, helps them participate in art shows and manages the back end operations.