Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Narrow Minded Beastliness

Yesterday, we went to the Royal Acadrmy in London to look at the exhibition of pictures by James Ensor. His pictures are very odd and interesting and one day soon I must go down to Ostend again and do a blog post about Ensor and his home town.

But for now I don't want to talk about Ensor and his paintings but about something that was happening at the exhibition when we visited. Normally, the Royal Academy is a rather sedate place so it was surprising to hear, as we went into the exhibition, a lot of incoherent howls and squeaks and shouts coming from the room containing the centrepiece of the show, which is this:

It is a painting by Ensor called Intrigue.

We went into the room containing the picture, where the hubbub continued. The end of the room where the painting hangs was full of people in wheelchairs and their companions. The people in the wheelchairs were not looking at the painting, partly because they were probably the most severely disabled people I have ever seen - in one case, very, very nearly unrecognisable as a person - and appeared to be lost in their own humming and yipping and growling realities, partly because they - or their carers - were being encouraged by a presumably well-meaning man with a singsong voice and a camera to crowd together, "closer, closer", for a group portrait in front of this strange work. He did try to engage them with the piece, "some things are smooth and some are not, some are bright and some are not", but not one of the wheelchair bound glanced in the picture's direction, or appeared capable of that kind of attention.

I knew I should admire the dedication of all the able-bodied who had brought about what must have been a real logistical miracle so that all those wheelchair-bound individuals could be gathered there but instead, being a narrow minded, conservative old bigot, I could not suppress doubts. Was the outing really of any significance to those it had apparently been designed for? Is it a dreadful thing to wonder if they were really capable of understanding any element of what was happening to
them yesterday morning? Was it possibly even a bit confusing and exhausting? Or was the aim perhaps simply to remind comfortable middle-class stuffy souls like me that exceptionally damaged human beings are born and some people have to carry the burden of their care and we ought to never forget that?

Either way, the choice of artwork provided for the outing seemed either absolutely apposite or in very very poor taste..

10 comments:

  1. Fifty years ago, I once worked with the severely disabled, when it was not politically incorrect to use that term, and I often wondered about their awareness and comfort levels, especially when they were subjected to being placed in new and unfamiliar environments. I suspect the scene you witnessed was orchestrated by well meaning but foolish (and dare I say selfish) care givers. I don't know the truth of the matter, of course, but those are my thoughts. Thank for sharing such a provocative incident.

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    1. I am slowly stumbling toward the conclusion that being well-meaning is not always the same as doing any good. I feel perhaps it did me good to see that such people exist & someone cares for them, an all-consuming task for which they should be saluted. One of the wheelchair users was so extraordinary looking I cannot quite rid my mind of the image - I'm afraid I recoiled then & do each time I remember; there was nothing remotely the shape you'd expect about the head or the features nor was their placement regular or expectable. The skin was an odd mottled leathery colour and texture and the mouth, a ragged set of teeth splayed around a hole from which strange bleats & shrieks spattered.

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    2. When I was with such people, I admit to wrestling with an ethical question: when does a person cease being a person, and when does quality of life be so elusive that euthanasia ought to be considered.
      Yes, that is a horrible question.

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    3. One of my dearest friends is what I guess could be called a "cradle Catholic"; that is, she has an enviably strong and unquestioning faith that really sustains her through all that life can throw. I was surprised then a few years ago when she expressed the view that it was cruel to keep the severely disabled alive; her argument is that they are so lonely. Seeing that one astonishingly disabled creature the other day, I almost succumbed to that view. But I still can't quite accept the idea of taking life. I'm not certain if that might not be moral cowardice. Also would I feel the same if I was confronted with the situation all day every day? But, if you start, where do you stop?

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    4. Try reading the history of the Third Reich for your answer

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    5. While we routinely abort foetuses screened for Down's, I'm not sure we can absolve ourselves entirely of eugenic tendencies

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    6. That does not mean that if parents choose to continue with such a pregnancy their choice or their child's existence should be questioned.

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    7. Anything can be questioned, but the answer is almost certainly the hopelessly idealistic one of greater care for each other and our various burdens so that someone who has a heavy load of care does not feel isolated but supported and able to share their load. But I fear that is a dream - & I'm as much at fault as anyone

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  2. As a child, I had a neighbour who had a severely disabled son who seemed to do nothing except shout every 10 seconds or so. He was, to use the common parlance of the time, a 'vegetable', but the mother was a staunch Catholic and felt that she had been ordained to care for him, so refused to place him in a home.

    As laudible as that decision may have been, I watched her age prematurely and saw how the rest of the family's lives were affected.

    As you say, it's a dilemma and there is no easy answer. I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have made the same choice.

    The art gallery visit does sound rather pointless. But perhaps the carers just pick places they'd like to visit, to help keep them sane.

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    1. I was barely adequately patient enough with small children who didn't shout every ten minutes - in fact they might be able to make a good argument that I wasn't. Either way I would have behaved dreadfully badly in circumstances where the challenges were any greater. I'm ashamed just thinking about the possibility, actually.

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