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.

Information about the speakers and papers on this panel will be posted shortly.



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