Reviewed by Emmeline Burdett (University College London)
Published on H-Disability (June, 2012)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison
Tobin Siebers’s book Disability Aesthetics advances the idea that disability is fundamental to modern art. In a recent interview in Disability Studies Quarterly, Siebers stated that “no object has a greater capacity to be accepted at the present moment as an aesthetic representation than the disabled body.” These are ideas that Siebers has been developing for some time. In 2001, he published an article in the journal American Literary History in which he suggests that theories of the body, and of social constructionism, have failed to take account of both the fact of the disabled body and of the reality of impairment. To do so, Siebers argues, would not be merely an interesting philosophical exercise, but would in fact have profound implications for impaired people, for disability studies as an academic discipline, and for society as a whole. If bodies were no longer labeled as “defective,” it would, says Siebers, simply be “impossible to view our society in the same light,” such would be the impact of this new way of thinking on, for example, how access bears on voting rights and why economic theories cast disabled people exclusively as burdens. Siebers’s new book develops this argument, defining aesthetics as “the sensations that some bodies feel in the presence of other bodies” (p. 1).
Chapter 1 (“Introducing Disability Aesthetics”) offers a general introduction to the topic and an overview of what to expect from the book as a whole. Siebers envisages his book as “a first attempt to theorize the representation of disability in modern art” (p. 2). Here, Siebers elucidates his general argument, namely, that “acceptance of disability enriches and complicates notions of the aesthetic, while the rejection of disability limits definitions of artistic ideas and objects” (p. 3). This enrichment is particularly prevalent in modern art, because modern artists display such evident interest in questions of what exactly a human being is, and frequently use disability to explore this issue. Traditionally, in the history of art, disability has rarely been acknowledged. Siebers gives the example of the famous Venus de Milo statue, which is missing her arms but was not traditionally considered to be a representation of an amputee. In his version of the statue, however, Rene Magritte colored his Venus’s arm-stumps with red pigment, clearly suggesting that her arms had only recently been amputated.
In chapter 2 (“The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification”), Siebers considers the problem of discriminatory treatment of those considered to be physically or mentally inferior. He tells us that “disqualification is produced by naturalizing inferiority as the justification for unequal treatment, violence and oppression” (p. 24). The first example he gives is that of the appeals and advertisements put out by The Smile Train, a charity that funds and carries out surgery for children in the developing world who have cleft lips or palates. The problem that Siebers identifies here is certainly not the sharing of medical knowledge among the world’s people; rather, it is the way in which the charity’s appeals “enfreak” the children. They are portrayed as mere physical embodiments of facial disfigurements, not fully paid-up members of the human race.
In this chapter, Siebers discusses three further examples of the portrayal in art of persons who differ from the norm. First, he contrasts the art favored by the Nazis (as evidenced in their Great German Art Exhibition of 1937), with modern artists (Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and others) relegated to the Degenerate Art exhibition of the same year. Art favored by the Nazis (such as the sculptures Comradeship by Josef Thorak (1937) and Readiness by Arno Breker (1937), and the painting The Sower by Oskar Martin-Amorbach (1937)--all of which seem to have been produced especially for the exhibition) present a kitsch and unappealing vision of a new type of human being, “whose embodiment of beauty and health results in an almost obscene regularity of features and body parts” (p. 33). The reason for this Nazi desire to create a new, impossibly healthy kind of human being for their exhibition was a direct result of Adolf Hitler’s ideas concerning the supposed “evils” of modern art. He accused the artists included in the Degenerate Art exhibition of portraying “‘deformed cripples and cretins, women who inspire only disgust, men who are more like wild beasts, children who, if they were alive, would be regarded as God’s curse!’” (p. 29). I found this to be a particularly fascinating part of Siebers’s book: it is often thought that the Degenerate Art pictures were intended solely to portray supposed Jewish biological inferiority, and to warn spectators of the degeneration that would surely follow if different races were permitted to intermingle. As Siebers clearly shows, they had an additional aim, one that involved the promotion of a certain type of body as the norm.
Second, he examines the 2004 statue Alison Lapper Pregnant by Marc Quinn, which aroused controversy when it took its place on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square; and third, he analyzes the publication, in 2008, by the magazine Newsweek of a selection of “historic medical photographs” from Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which opened in 1849. Siebers describes the latter as having been published “apparently for the distinct purpose of presenting disabled people as objects of visual pleasure” (p. 44). The baseline in medicine, writes Siebers, is perfect health, and this is presumably the thinking behind the classification of such disparate photographs under the category of “medical oddities.” In some ways, the Newsweek selection can be compared to the works on display in the Great German Art Exhibition: as the latter only portrayed hyper-healthy bodies, the former, rather depressingly, cast people of restricted growth, very tall people, and a young boy wearing a leg brace as “oddities.” The statue of Lapper shone a light on somewhat different, but still problematic, attitudes to impairment among those who saw it. As Siebers shows, many commentators fixated on the details of Lapper’s impairment, even though it was not clear that she had had any involvement in the statue’s production beyond posing for it.
Chapter 3, “What Can Disability Studies Learn from the Culture Wars?” examines culture in relationship to disability. “Culture” is broadly defined, encompassing performance artists and modern artists whose works bring the spectator face to face with the more unpleasant aspects of life, whether it be a performance artist who “confront[s] the audience with a spectacle of errant body fluids: spermatozoaic alfalfa sprouts and excremental chocolate ooze over her body,” or a day-glow crucifix in a vat of urine, which, Siebers insists, captures “the startling contradiction of Christianity’s all-too-human son of God defiled by a mortal body and its waste products.” If it is revolting, it must be culture. Siebers’s justification for this is that the works of his chosen artists “represent flash points in the culture wars not only because they challenge how aesthetic culture should be defined but also because they attack the body images used to determine who has the right to live in society. People with disabilities elicit feelings of discomfort, confusion and resentment because their bodies refuse cure, defy normalization, and threaten to contaminate the rest of society” (p. 61).
This chapter also shows how these ideas work in more everyday contexts. Siebers cites the concept of an “eyesore,” as well as the so-called ugly laws, such as that previously in operation in Chicago: “‘No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view’” (p. 71). He then shows how this attitude has carried on into the construction of the built environment, with efforts being made to “prettify” or otherwise disguise such things as wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces. This section of the book is illustrated with various photographs taken at the author’s workplace of the University of Michigan, showing that what are supposed to be accessible parking spaces have become a veritable magnet for, variously, delivery vehicles, grass clippings, and rubbish bags.
In chapter 4, Siebers considers art vandalism, and argues that “the act of vandalism changes the referential function of the artwork, creating a new image in its own right....The act of vandalism is an act of creation because a new image comes to life.... If a new image is created, it is potentially the case that a new referent also emerges” (p. 83). In applying this theory to such vandalized works as Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498-99), struck fifteen times with a claw hammer in 1972, and Peter Paul Rubens’s Portrait of Archduke Albrecht (c. 1609-10 ), damaged by an acid attack in 1982, Siebers is not calling for those who vandalized them to be hailed as innovative modern artists, but rather suggests that the artworks changed by their actions subsequently appear to belong to a more recent stage in aesthetic history, in the sense that they disclose new forms of beauty that are not dependent on perfect or idealized body forms. I must admit that I was somewhat unhappy about this argument. After all, a work of art has usually been produced by someone who labored long and hard on it, and the vandal’s actions have destroyed this. If the artwork in question is, say, four hundred years old, then what has been ruined is also a historical document--something that provides us with a link to the past. As Siebers rightly recognizes, however, once an artwork is complete and on display, it is essentially in the public domain, and spectators are free to let their thoughts about it go where they will. Thus it is instructive to consider the ways in which the public perception of damaged artworks may differ from that given to artworks depicting damaged people. Siebers gives as an example Pieter Brueghel’s The Mendicants (1568), who “are static emblems of human difference, safely on display in a freak show, and we need not worry that they will cross the boundary between art and reality” (p. 91). By contrast, a vandalized image invokes the idea of disability: “The presence of injury arouses our concern for the object and triples the sense of immediacy projected by it” (p. 92).
Chapter 5, “Trauma Art,” recommends strongly that trauma studies and disability studies be much more closely intertwined--trauma recognized as part of disability and disability acknowledged as a key concept in trauma. Art depicting violence and its aftermath, or human beings in actual or potential peril, is, writes Siebers, particularly relevant to modern life. “The disabled body is at once a symbol of the trauma of modern life and a call to discover a more inclusive and realistic conception of culture, one that recognizes the fragility as well as the violence of human existence” (p. 103). Siebers gives the example of Andy Warhol’s depictions of trauma and violence to argue that Warhol used his images to reflect back at his viewers the harsh realities of American society. By contrast, the “Tank Hero” of Tiananmen Square has been used by others to convey whatever message they wish. Westerners have interpreted him as a lone figure, bravely confronting a brutally oppressive regime. In the aftermath of his action, the Chinese authorities portrayed him differently depending on whether their intended audience was domestic (“Beware the power of the Chinese army”) or foreign (“Marvel at the restraint of the Chinese army”).
In chapter 6, “Words Stare Like a Glass Eye: Disability in Literary and Visual Studies,” Siebers observes that, in recent years, the practice of reading has declined somewhat, with many people preferring other forms of entertainment. Instead, people talk of “reading” other things, such as paintings and cultures. Siebers tells us that this is due to the discipline of cultural studies, which “has actually established the prototype for applying the methods of literary reading to extraliterary phenomena” (p. 122). As far as Siebers’s chosen topic of Disability Aesthetics is concerned, this concept is important because it helps to pathologize and identify impaired individuals: “Healthy bodies in art do not have details. They are unmarked. Details appear as pathology in aesthetics because they discover the reliance of images on the difference of the disabled body. For ever since Odysseus’s scar, wounds and images have been closely allied” (p. 125). Siebers elucidates his meaning by discussing the work of the art theorist Michael Fried and the philosopher Roland Barthes. Fried’s work on “absorption” in both literary and visual works of art makes, in Siebers’s words, “a theoretical claim for a different mode of absorption, one that identifies the power of disabilities and impairments to rivet the attention of beholders” (p. 127). A similar point was made in Barthes’s work on photography, Camera Lucida (1980). Barthes wrote about the “wounding point” of a photograph: the “sensitive point that shoots out of the photograph, and ... pierces him to the heart” (p. 128). Such “wounding” is not always, but often, “caused” by the sight of a bodily imperfection or impairment. Siebers tells us that “specific environments and situations ... determine the visibility of a disability and ... its capacity to serve as an image of difference.... Every disability is technically invisible until it becomes visible under the pressure of social convention, which means that the appearance of disability is often linked to violence and prejudice” (p. 129). This is certainly the case in No Face (1996), a distressing short story discussed by Siebers. In it, a severely disfigured boy named Ysrael is persecuted by the children and adults in his community, the children being morbidly fixated with getting opportunities to see his disfigured face (usually hidden under a thin cotton mask). Such reactions are expedited by the universal perception that Ysrael is slightly less sentient than a piece of wood. As Siebers writes, “These reactions, not physical characteristics, transform Ysrael into a freak.... They [the other children] set out to find someone who is different from them and they succeed in their mission. Under their gaze, Ysrael metamophoses from human child into the creation called No Face” (p. 131). One might well relate this back to Smile Train, and its arresting photographs of the physical embodiments of cleft lips and palates, more properly known as “children.”
Siebers concludes that “the figure of disability checks out of the asylum, the sick house, and the hospital to take up residence in the art gallery, the museum, and the public square. Disability is now and will be in the future an aesthetic value in itself” (p. 139). In many ways, this statement echoes those made by the pioneers of disability studies as an academic subject. Aside from some infelicitous use of “disability” and “impairment” as synonyms, Siebers’s book is a compelling and thought-provoking addition to the topics of disability theory and disability studies.
. Mike Levin, “The Art of Disability: An Interview with Tobin Siebers by Mike Levin,” Disability Studies Quarterly 30, no. 2 (2010), http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1263/1272.
. Tobin Siebers, “In Theory: From Social Constructionism to Realism of the Body,” American Literary History 13, no. 4 (2001): 737-754.
. Tobin Siebers, “Disability and the Theory of Complex Embodiment--For Identity Politics in a New Register,” in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, 2006), 173-183.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Emmeline Burdett. Review of Siebers, Tobin, Disability Aesthetics.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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