National Medal of Arts: Chuck Close and Itzhak Perlman

Two of the disability community's best-known, mainstream artists received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in December, 2000. Chuck Close, painter, and Itzhak Perlman, violinist, were honored for "special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States."

I wonder how their disability identities affected their White House visit. Did they talk to each other? Did they high-five upon seeing each other? Was crip culture acknowledged? If they talked, was disability mentioned? Was their some frisson, some spark? Or, did they play the assimilated crip game and avoid each other like two magnets turned to repel rather than attract?

Neither produce work that explicitly represents the disability experience, although Chuck Close begrudgingly admitted that he is using brighter colors since his disability. But, both are acutely aware and forthcoming about their disability identity. They came to their public disability identities after they were successful in their fields. Chuck Close was already a well-known and successful artist when he became a wheelchair user. He has said that he dreaded the possibility that he might become a poster child because of his disibility. Itzhak Perlman has had a disability since he was four. Earlier in his career he would already be seated on stage when the curtain went up so that he wouldn't be seen crutching to his place of honor. He has abandoned that smoke screen and is now often seen with his crutches and has been working for disability access during the past decade.

I wasn't there, so I don't know if they had a chance to talk. It thrills me to think that maybe Chuck glanced at Itzhak and a look passed between them–a look that acknowledged how tough being a crip can be, and how wonderful success is.

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