Critical Perspectives on Disability in Art and Visual Culture

Lynn M. Somers, Independent Scholar,, @lynn_somers

Critical disability studies over the last thirty years have examined systems of power that shape codes of representation within images, objects, collections, and by extension, prevailing historiographies that define the limits of acceptability among human bodies, or what Tobin Siebers calls the ideology of ability. Advancing a theory of complex embodiment, he writes that disability, as a critical social concept, “enlarges our vision of human variation and difference, and puts forward perspectives that test presuppositions dear to the history of aesthetics” (2010: 3). The materiality of art is invested in affective embodiment, and from the classical period onward, historical narratives are rife with bodies deemed beautiful, perfect, and proportionate to their built environments. Although in the 19th and 20th centuries bodily discourses began shifting toward fragmentation, prostheses, and pain, those representations were labeled degenerate by oppressive political institutions. Interdisciplinary and intersectional disability studies—for example, “crip time” (McRuer, 2018) and “misfitting” (Garland-Thomson, 2011)—posit disability as a cultural minority identity (in opposition to medical models centered on individual pathology). These analytics expand the ways artists and scholars approach embodiment as an elastic human continuum. Two volumes on art history and disability (Routledge, 2016, 2021) offer important global correctives to ideologies of agency that have devalued disparate, contingent, and nonconforming embodied subjectivities. This session welcomes transdisciplinary studies of art in all media that (re)figure disability and theoretical approaches that look to enact radical change, reparation, or reforms to sociopolitical and aesthetic constructions of disability at both historical and contemporary moments.

Speakers & Abstracts

‘Awkward as a Cow on a Crutch’: Canes and Crutches as Markers of Disability Aesthetics

Nathan J. Timpano (University of Miami, Florida)

Adopting Tobin Siebers’ groundbreaking theory of disability aesthetics, this paper examines one very specific facet of the differently abled body in the history of European art: the appearance of canes and crutches as markers of ‘otherness’. Interestingly, the inclusion of these apparatuses was not singularly used to denote corporeal infirmity in works of art, but variously represented a subject’s morality or purported psychological pathology. A number of important case studies are considered in this survey, including Studies of Beggars and Vagrants, after Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1465-1559), Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Beggars (also, The Cripples; 1568), Karel du Jardin’s Saint Paul Healing the Cripple at Lystra (1663), Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape (ca. 1811), Erich Heckel, Cripple by the Ocean (1916), Otto Dix’s War Cripples (1920; whereabouts unknown) and Metropolis (1927-28), and HAP Grieshaber’s Death and the Cripple (1966). Two works by American artists are additionally discussed, namely Kara Walker’s The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995) and John Currin’s The Cripple (1996).

The aim of this study is to explore the degree to which the metaphorical meanings assigned to canes and crutches in visual culture from the early Renaissance to the contemporary period were analogous to their non-positivistic connotations in Euro-American literature and linguistics (for example, the idiomatic phrase in the title of this paper). I argue, therefore, that the intersectionality of such derisive definitions of disability – whether visual or literary – is at the root of a semiotics of the ‘disabled’ body that relies on both words and images to convey its ‘otherness’ to the viewer.

Misfit Old Women in James Tissot’s Works

Shira Gottlieb (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel)

This paper examines nineteenth-century representations of elderly women in light of the concept of the     misfit, with particular attention to works by French painter Jacques-Joseph (James) Tissot (1836-1902). Tissot was famous for his depictions of fashionable and elegant young women whom he rendered in various social events. However, in some of his paintings, much less prominent are depictions of elderly women who are positioned side by side to the younger ones. Despite the apparent ‘impaired’ old body of the elderly women— marked by eyeglasses, white hair and bent position—which can be simply understood as markers of bodily disabilities, I argue that positioning them in such scenes next to young women highlights them as misfit to modern society. My argument is based on a close formalistic analysis of the works as well as on two theoretical frameworks: The first derives from Garland-Thomson’s interpretation of the concept of misfit which    considers how particularities of embodiment interact with their environment in ways that include its  temporal and spatial aspects. The second analyzes French nineteenth-century discourses on womanhood and femininity, which generally casts the elderly woman as a non-feminine relic. Main         issues that rise from my discussion are the temporalities of youth and social fitness, and the epistemic shift in representation of feminine old age from merely an ‘old woman’ toward a cultural  marker of misfit in modern painting.

Curatorial Reflections on Variance: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Disability

Conor Moynihan (RISD Museum & State University of New York)  

In this paper, I will discuss my exhibition Variance: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Disability, which will be on view at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art from January 29 through July 3, 2022. In forty works dating from the mid-1700s through today, this exhibition considers representations of the disabled and/or ill subject and foregrounds how body-mind variance shapes culture and informs technique, style, and form. Touching on topics from institutionalization and neurodiversity to Deaf gain and crip sex, this exhibition reflects on the ways disability has been stigmatized in art and visual culture but also centers the plurality and history of disability culture. Variance is primarily a permanent collection exhibition, and the process of developing this project involved exploring what in the existing collection speaks to disability culture and history but also strategic purchases to expand disability representation within the collection.

For this paper, I will discuss the stakes behind this project, considering why it is important to discuss art through the lens of critical disability studies, and the ways we have been working to make the exhibition and also the museum more accessible going forward. Ranging from artists like William Hogarth to Riva Lehrer, this exhibition aligns with the social model of disability and recognizes the value and history of disability culture while also digging into the sedimentation of negative representations of disability that perpetuates stigma today. As a case study, I will discuss what I learned in the process of developing this project and how I hope to continue afterwards with more work on accessibility and diversity within disability arts and culture going forward.

Disability, Art, Agency: Participation and the Revision of the Senses

Amanda Cachia (Independent Curator and Critic, Sydney, Australia)

This paper claims that work by contemporary artists who deploy variable disability topoi (deafness, blindness, sight, mobility) make audiences more sensitive to ways in which bodies take in information and process stimuli. Through this work, audiences can experience alternative s     sensory modes as a process of re-sensitization to stimuli than they currently diminish or neglect. This makes disability embodiment agential rather than passively waiting for supports to navigate the world as able-bodied people do. I apply the theoretical framework of disability materialism offered by disability studies scholars David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, along with the work of Surrealist and modernist exhibition designers and their exhibition design principles dedicated to expanding human fields of vision.

Sacha Polak’s Dirty God and the politics of authenticity

Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck, University of London)

Despite being a cinematic preoccupation from the 1920s onwards, disfigurement has been discussed only briefly by film scholars, and rarely in relation to its cultural or social impact. Facial difference is also under-researched within disability studies: a significant omission given the inclusion of disfigurement in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1995 UK Disability Discrimination Act – legal recognition of the fact that having an appearance at odds with conventional standards of attractiveness makes it likely that you will experience (often daily) prejudice and discrimination.

Dutch director Sacha Polak’s Dirty God (2019) is the first narrative film with a female lead whose scars are real, and arguably the first to tackle the pervasive assumption that scars (especially on the female body) are tragic or shameful. In interviews on the festival circuit and in the British press, first-time actor Vicky Knight talked openly about the revelation of seeing her scars on screen. Having been seriously burned in an arson attack when she was eight, Knight has endured verbal and physical abuse because of her appearance. Polak “saved my life,” she says, by enabling her to see her scarred body as beautiful: “a piece of art.”

Like any art form, film has the potential to be transformative, and both Knight and Polak have repeatedly spoken of their work in those terms. This paper uses Dirty God to think about what is at stake in the dismantling of disfigurement stereotypes and the reclamation of beauty – a goal shared by many disability rights campaigners. It begins by asking how narrative cinema has exploited the affective possibilities of prosthetic burns scars, then considers the film’s more immediate cultural context at a time when escalating cases of acid violence in London were making headlines around the world.

‘Critical Crips – On the Problem of Disability Exceptionalism’

Aaron Williamson (Fine Art, Oxford Brookes University)

Ten years ago in 2011, I was invited to edit an online journal on disability art for the Serpentine Gallery, London. In my introductory text for the ‘Parallel Lines’ journal, entitled ‘In the Ghetto’, I stated that I did not wish to address the value of disability as a lived experience but instead planned to focus on the question: ‘is it possible to discuss the quality of disability art?’ Outlining the prevalent model of disability art at that time, I described a cultural ghetto ‘in which the same small group of disability artists show work to their familiar audience – without achieving or inviting much extraneous [mainstream] critical debate or appreciation.’ Whereas disability art in the UK has seen a significant increase in public funding provision since that time, this paper poses the question of whether that development has been accompanied by any increased critical achievement in the wider ‘mainstream’ arts world? And if not, then why not?

For 15 years between 2005 – 2019, I collaborated with Katherine Araniello as ‘The Disabled Avant-Garde’ (Katherine died in 2019). Our premise through numerous short films, interventions, public performances, and exhibitions was to apply the ‘Boswell’s Dog Syndrome’ (1) to satirically disrupt the mainstream (the ‘not-yet-disabled’s), lowered expectations of the art and culture of disabled people (2). In this paper I will refer to that phenomenon as ‘exceptionalism’ and explore the ways that, rather than assisting and promoting disability art and culture, it is ultimately destructive to make an ‘exception’ for any art’s lack of critical yield. Furthermore, in the absence of very much critical accountability, the danger of forming a cultural ghetto is greatly increased. One can only ask: how can the achievements of the best disability art; convincing, formally innovative art find critical validation if there is no ‘bad’ disability art? It surely can’t all be ‘exceptional’?



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