The Mouth and Foot Painters Association
Some of you may have received charity Christmas card advertising packages lately. As you are no doubt aware, most charities don’t give a damn regarding the ‘image’ of disabled people, if it means more money can be raised. It is with this in mind that I would like to give my opinion on one such organisation – the Mouth and Foot Painters Association (MFPA).
Ironically, when the MFPA was set up in the middle part of this century, it’s founder Erich Stegmann held a view as to how his work should be shown. And it’s a view I can sympathise with. He thought that his disability (he had no arms) and method of painting (he used his mouth to hold a brush) were irrelevant as to how the works should be judged commercially. He felt he would rather not sell a painting if it was to be bought for charitable reasons. Because of this, whenever he painted in public, he would wear immaculate and expensive clothing to deter coin tossing.
As time passed he met more people who painted using their mouths and feet, slowly he built up a group whose main intention was to subsidise artists while they found their feet (?), or to help fund an education in art. Christy Brown, for example, was one of the many people benefiting from the organisation.
Unfortunately the old guard eventually moved on to that great inaccessible place up yonder, (well, I’m not sure if you can call a stairway to Heaven particularly accessible, perhaps they’ve got lifts like in the Kit-Kat advert.): anyway, the pioneers have gone and the newer lot don’t seem to have quite taken on board all the values of their predecessors. Therefore, it’s particularly interesting to bear in mind Erich Stegmann’s original beliefs when looking at the organisation today. For example, with every card printed a brief description of which method was used to paint the picture (foot or mouth) ensues and with all the advertising bumf comes some very manipulative literature. This states that the organisation is not a charity and then continues to speak in a manner that has a lot of people reaching (limbs no doubt being pulled by their heartstrings) for their cheque book and Kleenex. In a shaky “mouth written” style an artist describes the great difficulty with which a painting is executed. Apart from being irrelevant (I can paint with mouth, foot, stump and sometimes even a brush – especially if the paint is banana flavour.) and sometimes I use all the techniques at once and if I fall over it still doesn’t automatically make my work any better. At the end of the day art comes from a state of mind and understanding. It is a lack of this that may account for what I can only describe as the bland, immature and, and on the whole, amateur standard of much of their work. The more daring and competent pieces seem to be by those “earlier” artists.
What all this leads to is a conclusion by the public that disabled people are to be judged by using another yardstick, which results in maintaining the belief that disabled people are not to be taken seriously.
Although the artists in Britain may feel that they’re doing no wrong, I would argue that whilst they’re receiving an income in excess of £18,000 p.a. they are likely to become complacent as artists. Of course, it could be argued that it doesn’t make them so and their financial needs are such that they still have to struggle. Whatever they say, their income is still far and above the salary they would receive even if they had a good reputation. Most graphic artists only receive about £300 for a Christmas card design. The MFPA artists receive an income whether they create pictures or not – so as not to put them under any pressure. So their income should be seen as a kind of subsidy gained, to put it bluntly, because they work using their mouths or feet. It’s a case of ‘Isn’t it marvelous, aren’t they clever!”. A party trick which is seen as more important than the work itself. This must surely undermine any artistic integrity. If we had a welfare state that dealt with art and disability in an acceptable manner one could say that there was no need for bodies such as the MEPA. However, we don’t. What separates the MFPA and the charities involved with much of the disability arts world is a social and political conscience. What is obviously sacrosanct for the MFPA is to be able to be rolling in dough, thus allowing members of the group some social independence in the same way as the Independent Living Foundation has done. There are two main criticisms here 1) the group should use some of its resources to lobby government to deliver the rights to which disabled people are entitled but do not receive 2) it uses sentimental and emotive techniques which are abhorrent these days.
My assumption is that as the MPFA became big business, able-bodied advisers have moved in and artistic integrity and concern for social reform have been disregarded. Any disabled person working on a project regarding disability will recognise the pressure put upon them to reject their principles Add to this the incentive money may provide in a society that discriminates against disabled people financially and you have a recipe for compromise. However the MPFA perpetuate misconceptions about the disabled community, whilst actively promoting, indirectly or otherwise, the notion that disabled people can be paid to accept discrimination, isolation and patronisation (in the worst sense of the word). As far as the artist is concerned, it’s a case of I’m alright Jack (or Jill).
If you get sent a free package from the MFPA this is my advice. Firstly, throw away any cards you think are no good (or better still save them for people you don’t really like). Secondly, Tippex out any references to the MFPA and to any orifices with which the brush was held, and then, use as normal. If everybody did this it might just get the MFPA thinking. But then money speaks louder than……