Relational ethics, relational aesthetics


How does Critical Disability Studies meet socially engaged, participatory and collaborative art practices in the work of artists with learning disabilities?

by Anne-Marie Atkinson, Manchester Metropolitan University


In this paper, I attempt to outline art practice by people with learning disabilities as the meeting site of critical disability studies (CDS) and socially engaged and collaborative art practices, drawing on Kester (2011). These are contexts that are underpinning my PhD project, which asks how ‘learning disabled artists’ are moving into the contemporary art field.

I first started working with people with learning disabilities in 2013, teaching a photography class. This encounter became a defining moment for me. I began to wonder about the conventions and justifications the art world employs to include some types of people while excluding others – such as people with learning disabilities – even if their art practice is innovative and stimulating. The journey I took from that moment provided the foundations for my PhD project.

Advocating for artists with learning disabilities

There are a number of arts organisations in the UK who specialise in working with people with learning disabilities. Some of these organisations are re-articulating the central aim of their work from therapeutic or recreational to creative excellence. This includes my community partner Venture Arts (Manchester), and Pyramid of Arts (Leeds) where I am a trustee, among several others. These organisations advocate for artists with learning disabilities to be included within the contemporary art world through mechanisms such as presenting their artwork in mainstream cultural spaces, increasing their funding share from arts and culture sources, and attaining prestigious commissions and residencies for the artists they support. One aim of my research is to suggest ways to centre the experiences of ‘learning disabled artists’ themselves, as the organisations that support them relocate to a contemporary art context. I am interested in what it means to people with learning disabilities to be considered a professional artist, and how the inclusion of people with learning disabilities can change the meaning of what it is to be an artist.

I am looking at the visual arts because these practices are more often produced by a single creative, as opposed to theatre and performance arts that are more inherently collaborative. People with learning difficulties often live very managed and interdependent lives, so to consider their professionalisation as individual artists throws up more complex questions about autonomy and authorship. Grant Kester (2011) has traced the cultural trope of the solitary genius artist as emerging from Kant and reiterated throughout Modernism, when the artist identity moved from the collective guild or salon into a progressively individual state.

In this discourse, the liberating effects of distanciation and autonomy lead to innovative and pure insights, with the artist occupying a position sufficiently aside from quotidian life to be able to critique it through their own critical intellect. Too much contact with other people and their ideas are thought to run the risk of the artist’s mind being contaminated and stultified. Kester (2011, p.3) suggests that the idea of the sovereignty of the artist identity has now become an “epistemological templates for much contemporary criticism and curatorial practice”. It has become dogmatic and naturalised to the point that divergent practices, such as those of artists with learning disabilities who may receive different kinds of support or work collaboratively, are automatically dismissed.

Collaborative art as a framework

Socially engaged and collaborative art provide a framework through which we can understand and validate the work of artists with learning disabilities. These are practices that art historian Claire Bishop (2006) labelled as ‘the social turn’. Bishop uses this phrase to mean practices that involve artists (trained, recognised) working with people (non-artists), with participation and relationship-building forming a component of the work. Bishop has been largely critical of some modes of these art practices, suggesting that they favour an ethical process above an aesthetic outcome.

Grant Kester (2011) argues instead that collaborative art exists on a continuum. At one end of the continuum are artwork that are preconceived by an artist and allow a nominal level of interaction from the viewer, or include people in its realisation in a choreographed fashion. At the other end of the continuum lies an approach that is stimulated by an environment or context (usually external to the museum or art gallery), and proceeds from there, together with people, in a relational and responsive way. In the first approach the artist retains their authorial position.

In the second of these approaches the artwork arises at the intersection of the artist(s), their collaborators, and the context, and unfolds iteratively through a negotiated process. This approach has a greater concern for the ethics of engagement, and does not treat people as only actors (or ‘material’) in someone else’s piece. The possibility that participating ‘non-artists’ can be redefined as artists is opened up, as their creative contribution is respected and integral to the artwork. Thus, these practices trouble authorship, and instead suggest dispersed competencies, something familiar to learning disabled people and their allies.

Additionally, this kind of art may not be object-based, which presents a challenge to the commercial art market. This means it is a more potent political tool to articulate and make visible complex social, cultural, embodied, and temporal ideas and their relationalities, because it inherently rejects market economics. Far from being a weaker form of art, Kester (2011, p.28) suggests that these practices “[call] attention to exchange itself as creative praxis” and frame artistic interaction as different from everyday interaction, encouraging critical self-reflection. By denaturalising the idea of the sovereign artist, he suggests that a new form of art criticism could arise that better accounts for the aesthetic qualities of ethically informed, situated, relational, socially engaged and collaborative art practices.


To conclude, I suggest that socially engaged and collaborative art and critical disability studies find shared ground in the practice of artists with learning disabilities. People with learning disabilities disrupt the privileging of independence and autonomy and instead utilise interdependence, dispersed competencies, and relational contingency. This is evidenced in the creative processes undertaken in specialist art studios, where ‘non-learning disabled artists’ attempt to remove barriers and give appropriate, light-touch support to ‘learning disabled artists’ as they realise their creative vision. A productive middle space produces new forms of subjectivity, collectivity and creativity for all parties involved, which undoes ethico-epistemological oppositions like individual vs. collective; pure vs. compromised; and divided vs. coherent subjectivity.

Reference List

Bishop, C. (Ed.) (2006) Participation. London/Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press.

Kester, G. (2011) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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