Author: Ann Millett-Gallant, Elizabeth Howie, eds. Reviewer: Emmeline Burdett
Ann Millett-Gallant, Elizabeth Howie, eds. Disability and Art History. Interdisciplinary Disability Studies Series. New York: Routledge, 2017. Illustrations. 218 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8153-9213-2.
Reviewed by Emmeline Burdett (University College London) Published on H-Disability (August, 2021) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55226
In their introduction to this volume, the editors state that theirs is the first volume to combine interdisciplinary art history with disability studies scholarship. One might think that this distinction belongs to the late Tobin Siebers, but, as the editors point out, their approach is somewhat different. While Siebers focused particularly on modernism and found examples of a “disability aesthetic” across art and visual culture, the focus of this volume is in some respects more diffuse—ranging as it does from Mesoamerican sculpture, through the paintings of Otto Dix portraying injured veterans of the First World War, to photographers and disabled performance artists.
Chapter 1 is Millett-Gallant’s “Artists and Muses: ‘Peter’s World’ and Other Photographs by Susan Harbage Page.” It focuses on the photographs that Harbage Page has taken of her disabled nephew, Peter, beginning when he was five years old. Collectively, these photographs are titled Peter’s World, and they give a fairly comprehensive portrait of Peter’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. As Peter has grown older, he has become more involved in the process, and Harbage Page says that “currently the images are more collaborative” (p. 12). Millett-Gallant argues that the photographs are intimate and that, in contrast to many photographs of disabled subjects, they clearly show Peter as an individual. In a way, however, this is done by showing Peter alone, even in the midst of family occasions, such as Christmas. In addition, his relationships (such as with his girlfriend) are alluded to but not shown. The photographs in Peter’s World can also be contrasted with, for example, Diane Arbus’s Untitled series of photographs of institutionalized people, produced in the early 1970s. While they are “slice of life” photographs, Peter’s World suggests narrative. In addition, while Peter is an active participant in his aunt’s photos, there is a question mark over whether or not Arbus’s subjects all knew that they would be a public spectacle.
Another criticism of Arbus is that her photography “enfreaks” her subjects by photographing them in ways that accentuate their differences. Millett-Gallant argues that this is, in some ways, reminiscent of nineteenth-century photographs portraying people with developmental impairments as members of some primitive tribe. She gives the examples of exhibits at freak shows being dressed in animal skins and of John Langdon-Down’s 1887 study of the exhibition, begun in 1849, of microcephalic children of unknown origin, who were referred to as “Lost Aztec Children.” It is, however, unclear (at least to me) whether Millett-Gallant means this as a general criticism of Arbus or whether it is supposed to refer in particular to her photographs of institution inmates celebrating Halloween. What is clear, however, is that Arbus was not attempting any kind of social revolution as she referred to her subjects as “retarded people, idiots, imbeciles and morons”—in sharp contrast to Peter’s World, which clearly shows his individualized preferences for certain activities (p. 21). Harbage Page also makes an appearance in the chapter, through her 2000 self-portrait A Question of Beauty, which shows her after she had one breast removed due to breast cancer. Through the photograph, she seeks to address questions that, although they relate to issues of beauty, womanhood, and femininity, are in some ways similar to those raised by Peter’s World: for example, after Harbage Page lost her hair due to chemotherapy, she was mistaken for a man. Similarly, her photographs of Peter individualize him and help to dispel misconceptions about people with learning difficulties. In addition, the photo shoots only take place if Peter is in the mood for them, meaning that, unlike with Arbus’s subjects, there is no real question of him being an unwilling participant.
Chapter 2 also considers questions of exploitation in relation to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s 1995 work Ubermensch and German artist and director Christoph Schliegensief’s 2002 TV series and film Freakstars 3000. The chapter opens with two quotations: one from the Guardian newspaper’s review of Ubermensch and the other from a member of an online community called xpbulletin.de who wrote of Freakstars 3000 that the participants were being exploited because they “obviously couldn’t assess the situation” and were “being exposed in front of the whole ‘nation’” (p. 29). The chapter’s author, Nina Heindl of Ruhr University, Bochum, and the University of Cologne, argues that, while the two works in question expose their (nondisabled) creators’ preconceived ideas about disability, they also provide a space for reflecting on stereotypes about disability and deviations from the norm. I must admit that I felt that one of these stereotypes could be discerned in the quote about Freakstars 3000—how did the person know that the participants “obviously couldn’t assess the situation”? Was he (or she) merely trying to make himself (or herself) look virtuous and insightful by assuming that the participants were extremely vulnerable and ripe for exploitation? Or were the participants actually being exploited?
The Chapmans’ sculpture Ubermensch depicts the late physicist Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, at the top of a steep cliff and seemingly in danger of falling right down to the ground again. While one critic, Jonathan Jones, was horrified by the sculpture and interpreted it as mocking Hawking by suggesting that his physical problems were insurmountable, another, Robbert Roos, praised the work and suggested that, by showing Hawking at the top of a slope, it acknowledged that his brilliant mind had enabled him to make such an important contribution to science, despite his physical limitations. Heindl notes that the existence and validity of two such differing interpretations of the same work enables discussion, and she duly discusses it. She writes that Marc Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant also depicts a disabled subject, but that, in contrast to the Chapman brothers’ Hawking, Lapper is in a relaxed and natural pose. She points out that Hawking looked naturally tense anyway, as a result of not being able to use a large number of the muscles in his face. She also addresses the question of Hawking’s precarious pose (one of the front wheels of his wheelchair is teetering dangerously on the cliff edge) and discusses it in relation to Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1801 painting Bonaparte franchissant le Grand Saint Bernard, in which a heroic-looking Napoleon is shown astride a bucking war horse, pointing up a mountain. Like Hawking, Napoleon is portrayed in a precarious position; not only does the horse have just its back legs on the ground, but these are also perilously close to a sloping rock, indicating that, as the position of Hawking’s front wheel means that he is in danger of falling forward, so Napoleon is in danger of being propelled backward. The difference, says Heindl, is that while Napoleon is physically powerful and able to control both his horse and his armies, there is not much that Hawking can do if his wheelchair starts falling forward. The correlation of superior body with superior intellect clearly does not work in the case of Hawking, and this leads to differing interpretations and the possibility that these betray spectators’ own biases.
Freakstars 3000 focuses on some residents of the Tieler-Winckler house for people with learning difficulties in Berlin-Lichtenrade. The participants take part in a number of well-known TV formats, including a singing competition, a home-shopping series, a weather program, and a report from a hostage situation. The show has an accompanying website on which a lot of information can be found about the participants, but nothing at all is said about their impairments, and this seems designed to indicate that the impairments are irrelevant. This stance seems commensurate with Schlingensief’s other projects, most notably, Bitte liebt Österreich (Please love Austria), in which the public could vote on the fates of a group of people introduced by Schlingensief as “asylum seekers” (p. 45). If voted out by the public, these people would have to leave both the accommodation in which Schlingensief had installed them and, in fact, the country. Bitte liebt Österreich was intended to make a point about society’s responsibility toward asylum seekers. Heindl writes that the Germanist Nina Ort is of the view that the online comments about Freakstars 3000, while intended to be supportive of the disabled contestants, contribute to their exclusion by, among other things, leaping to the conclusion that they are victims of exploitation. But were they being exploited? Did Schlingensief undo any good work by calling the group Freakstars, with its obvious connection to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century freak shows? Or was this, too, something that Schlingensief was doing to provoke his audience? Schlingensief’s introduction to the film is reminiscent of the descriptions used by owners of freak shows to encourage the public to come and see their “exhibits,” but it is also ironic, suggesting that it is the viewers, rather than the viewed, who have the problem.
I really appreciate the discursive nature of this chapter, although it is a pity that the author uses the phrase “so-called norm” (p. 30). This is an increasingly common phenomenon—not just in disability studies but also in areas like black studies, where, as a substitute for addressing genuine injustices, scholars and activists take offense at the suggestion that their group constitutes a minority, even when this is obviously the case. Although this may be intended to challenge established ways of thinking, or to preempt questions about the group’s significance, and, therefore, right to have measures taken in its favor, it is counterproductive as it fails to reflect reality. Groups deserve to be included because they are there; they do not have to represent everyone.
Chapter 3 surprised me with its opening sentence in which its author, Rebecca R. Stone, claims that Native American and First Nations people seem to have an unusually high regard for physical difference. This was certainly not the impression I gained from the overview given in Hugh Gregory Gallagher’s By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich, although that book was published in 1990 and could not be described as being an exhaustive inquiry into the subject. Stone’s chapter focuses on the idea described in her opening sentence and seeks to substantiate it by discussing various works of Amerindian art that, allegedly, depict impaired individuals. She also uses the word “dis’abled” to reflect the different way she says that these societies view disability (p. 47). Her chapter begins with a discussion of a Moche figure from northern Peru (circa AD 300), whose completely white eyes, Stone argues, probably denote advanced cataracts. The man depicted was a high-status spiritual figure (that is, a shaman), and Stone explains that a shaman’s roles involved knowledge of areas that would, in Western society, encompass fields as diverse as psychology and medicine; in addition, they acted as mediums and interpreters of dreams. Being a shaman of necessity required anomalousness and living outside of societal norms. This does rather raise the question of whether being regarded as “differently different” constitutes acceptance.
Stone argues that Moche figurines have an unusual degree of realism and that this extends to their depiction of disability; Moche figures are depicted with such things as missing limbs, clefts, achondroplasia, scarring, and evidence of leishmaniasis (a disease in which parts of the face are eaten away by a parasite borne by sandflies). Stone argues that the majority of these figures depict shamans, while others appear to show spiritual intermediaries in trance states. Identifying which conditions are depicted, and therefore interpreting which ones may have been considered to be most conducive to making a good shaman, can be informative. To this end, the number of depictions of visual impairment is striking, making it possible for one to surmise that lack of sight in everyday life was regarded as a particularly important quality for shamanic activities, such as trances. This interesting and thought-provoking chapter opens up new lines of investigation, and the straightforward way the Moche depicts impairments puts me in mind of the English king Henry V (1386-1422). At the age of sixteen, while still heir to the throne, Henry was almost killed when he was struck in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Although he survived, his face was permanently scarred. I mention this because a famous posthumous portrait of the king depicts him in profile, while most English monarchs are depicted facing the artist (actually, a short and totally unscientific look at Henry’s portraiture suggests that he was most often depicted in profile). I assume that Henry V was depicted this way to hide the scarring, and it is interesting to ponder that the Moche probably would not have done this. The chapter also makes me think of Blind Harry (circa 1449-92), a medieval Scottish chronicler about whom I would be interested to know more.
Chapter 4 continues the theme of disability in Amerindian art, and in it William T. Gassoway argues that the contemporary focus on dwarfism in ancient art reveals more about scholars’ preoccupations than about those of the societies in which the artwork was created. Gassoway expresses the hope that his chapter will help with this problem by encouraging scholars to approach disability in a similar way to how they approach categories like gender, race, and sexuality. Gassoway argues that people recognizable as “dwarfs” have been extensively depicted in Mesoamerican art for the last three thousand years and that people of restricted growth held high status at the court of the Aztec king Moctezuma, who apparently valued their “wisdom and exceptional self-assurance” (p. 62). In fact, colonial chronicles relate that when Moctezuma became tired of his other advisers, the palace dwarf was asked to stay behind to advise the king on matters of state and religion. This kind of privileged access to rulers is reminiscent of “fools” at English courts—certainly in terms of how they were permitted to speak to the monarch in ways that no one else could. There is also a traditional realization that the “fool” is actually wise and gives good advice. I do feel that this link is worth exploring. Gassoway writes that a lot of the people of restricted growth depicted in the artworks he is discussing were finely dressed, and he asks whether the works depict actual people and whether their purpose is honorific or satirical? He quotes an account by Hernán Cortés of seeing people with various impairments who were segregated but “with people to look after them,” which does raise the question of whether it was possible to be very high status or very low status but difficult to just “be” (p. 67).
It is difficult to say whether these beliefs have filtered down to modern inhabitants of the Americas, and Gassoway criticizes the common anthropological tendency to assume a great deal of continuity between ancient and contemporary beliefs. In addition, the anthropologist Carson Murdy has developed various theories that, if true, suggest either that the Olmec people of present-day Mexico had an extraordinarily high incidence of impairment or that Olmec artists were fixated on a few individuals. A very high incidence of impairment would surely be evident from Olmec skeletons, but Murdy does not examine any. Those who actually have made such examinations have found that sculptures of fetuses often depict the conditions that they died of. This gives rise to Gassoway’s final question: What was the purpose of ancient people’s depiction of certain bodies? Was it the only proper way of depicting sun, rain, etc.? Such an interpretation would go far beyond the “medical model,” while at the same time not being anachronistic.
Chapter 5 is Keri Watson’s “Difference and Disability in the Photography of Margaret Bourke-White.” Bourke-White was a US photographer who was active throughout the first half of the twentieth century and who was committed to social justice. Watson’s chapter focuses on Bourke-White’s 1937 bestselling You Have Seen Their Faces and her 1934 photographs of the residence of Letchworth Village, an institution in New York that opened in 1911. In 1932, Bourke-White was commissioned by Mary Averell Harriman, one of Letchworth Village’s trustees, to photograph the inmates and document the success of Letchworth’s programs. The institution was proud of its progressive ethos, and the chapter quotes the sociologist and disability studies scholar Robert Bogdan as saying that the photographs “promoted the message that if institutionalized, possibly dangerous and certainly incapable people with disabilities could be tamed, even trained” (pp. 83-84). Watson contends that the photographs are actually quietly subversive, providing both a critique and a criticism of Letchworth but also of institutionalization more generally. She also argues that the photographs provide evidence of Bourke-White’s commitment to social justice.
The evidence for this is visible from a number of photographs taken by Bourke-White at Letchworth Village. Girls Lined Up without Shoes shows that, although the girls are smiling, they are wearing dresses that appear dated and ill-fitting, as well as being not very clean. Their stockings have holes in them, and all the girls have the same pageboy haircut. Watson argues that the way the girls are spilling out of the frame of the photograph hints that Letchworth was poorly planned and overcrowded. Similarly, Men with Hoes, Letchworth Village, 1933 and Boys Digging a Trench, Letchworth Village, 1933 illustrate young boys carrying out manual labor with tools that are too big for them.
Watson shows how these photographs, which offer sympathetic portrayals of people in circumstances that were far from ideal, differed dramatically from other portrayals of disabled people from the US during the same period. Official photographs of agricultural workers seem to have avoided photographing obviously disabled people—although there are exceptions to this—and, of the photographs that Bourke-White took at Letchworth Village, none discussed in the chapter portray people who are visibly disabled. Stereotypes abounded, though, in fiction; Watson mentions Lon Chaney’s penchant for portraying characters “whose bodily difference signified internal derangement,” as well as various characters from the novels of John Steinbeck (p. 67). It is, however, not clear whether these examples are actually stereotypes or whether Steinbeck stands accused of merely portraying characters in a way that acknowledged that they did things in a certain way or would have faced certain constraints due to the society in which they lived. For example, Steinbeck described how Lennie, a mentally disabled character in his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, walked “dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags its paws,” and drank “with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse” (pp. 87-88). Watson’s implication is that Steinbeck’s zoomorphism is insulting and intended to demean Lennie as a character, and, while it may indeed have been intended to “other” him, this is not the only possible interpretation. The same thing can be said of Steinbeck’s characters Crooks, who would at the time have found that both his stooped back and his race (he was black) made him less valuable to others, and Candy, who might have been ostracized by other workers because he only had one hand. It is just not clear whether Steinbeck is being accused of portraying these things at all or of portraying them in a discriminatory way. This is important, as in 2020, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird was banned in California for its use of racist language, even though it is an anti-racist novel and as such obviously portrayed racism, while certainly not endorsing it. This kind of thing makes those involved in social justice movements look ridiculous: as though they have no genuine reasons for wanting to improve society and are loudly offended by things simply because they have not bothered to investigate them properly. Steinbeck’s portrayal of disabled characters is certainly a question within disability studies, and for this reason I would suggest that, instead of using a quotation that could be (or be seen as) completely innocuous, Watson might have pointed out that Lennie is killed by George, then discussed the question of whether or not the reader is invited to sympathize with George rather than with his victim, and approached the question of Lennie’s potential “othering” by working backward. Similarly, Lennie was congenitally disabled, making him much more likely to fall victim to eugenics laws, while Crooks and Candy had simply experienced accidents. The way Watson lumps the three together as examples of Steinbeck’s allegedly prejudicial attitude to disability does not help to center the novel in the time period in which it was written.
You Have Seen Their Faces was Bourke-White’s title for her hard-hitting series of photographs of those suffering severe economic hardship during the Great Depression. Some of the subjects of the photographs were disabled, which suggests that the title tackled not only the temptation to ignore the suffering of the economically disadvantaged but also the systematic exclusion of disabled people from relief programs, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The implication was that, while Roosevelt had risen to become president, he did not think that other disabled people would ever be anything other than objects of charity. This seems to reference Roosevelt’s complicated attitude to his own disability, and therefore I found it odd that Watson made no mention of Gallagher’s 1985 book, FDR’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability and the Intense Efforts to Conceal It from the Public.
Staying on the subject of photography, chapter 6 is Timothy W. Hiles’s “Representing Disability in Post-World War II Photography.” In this chapter, Hiles argues that postwar photographs of disabled people fall into three groups: the first enshrines separation and segregation; the second is more egalitarian but does not eschew this hierarchy; and the third is more inclusive, showing disabled people as just part of society. Hiles argues that, in 1977, the disability scholars Robert Bogdan and Douglas Biklen identified that disability as a concept was a social construct rather than just an objective description of impairment. Photographic representations of disabled individuals dating from the decades immediately following World War II support this assertion. For example, a 1951 Time magazine article focusing on P.S. 135, a school in Manhattan, the purpose of which was to integrate children with cerebral palsy, was accompanied by a photograph of Neil Koenig, aged nine, one of the children at P.S. 135, and, as Hiles explains, the photograph was taken in such a way as to emphasize Koenig’s cerebral palsy (his arched back and unusual gait, for example), while making no effort to show him as a human being. The effect this achieves is reminiscent of horror film “monsters” of the 1930s and 1940s. What is completely absent from the photograph is any acknowledgment that Koenig is a little boy. This is the problem with the photograph, but Hiles writes that the problem is that the article’s emphasis is on “adjusting to normal life” (p. 102). This takes us back to Heindl’s unfortunate use of the term “so-called norm.” There is a fine line between insisting that someone is “the norm” when they clearly are not and then energetically combating this completely imaginary injustice, and, more realistically, acknowledging that the problem is how different groups of people are integrated together. As the chapter correctly observes, portraying a small boy as a threatening bogeyman devoid of individuality is unlikely to assist any kind of integration. The same criticism can be leveled at Normal Pupils Watching Their Handicapped Classmates through a One-Way Window (1950), another photograph published in Time magazine in 1951. Hiles writes that, though integration is more benign and progressive than segregation, it also has problems, and the way it was done during this period reinforced hierarchical structures. The photograph named above is certainly odd, and, though Hiles likens the “normal” children to cinemagoers watching a film, the one-way window makes them seem more like spectators observing non-human animals in a zoo. As Hiles points out, the kind of “integration” likely to result from such encounters would be likely to be condescending at best and not something that would result in genuine equality. By contrast, Cornell Capa’s photographs of people with learning difficulties (published in Life magazine in 1954 to accompany an article on “retarded children”) are very naturalistic but sadly let down by their captions, which draw unnecessary attention to the children’s differences to the point of speculating that one little girl, Eileen, was “staring emptily out into space, lost in her own infantile world” (pp. 108-9). Eileen looks more as though she is speaking or listening to someone.
Having said that, it is rather hard to say what Hiles thinks that integration should be or do. A photograph from 1949, showing the black American baseball player Jackie Robinson signing autographs for a group of white children, would seem to be an ideal example of a photograph showing that prejudice is pointless but apparently not; “the visual code continues to be troublesome because it attempts to absorb difference into the fold of the ‘normal’” (p. 110). Earlier in the chapter, Hiles suggests that such absorption was a good thing, but he has apparently changed his mind.
Another problem with this chapter is that its focus is entirely on nondisabled photographers. A lot of the points made by Hiles could have been made more effectively by using work from disabled photographers, particularly when juxtaposed with the photographs already used in the chapter. The chapter does make a small effort to remedy this, by quoting the writer Raymond Goldman on the psychosocial effects of childhood polio, but it is far from enough. This is similar to a problem we encounter later, in relation to Elizabeth Howie’s discussion of Yinka Shonibare’s A Day in the Life of a Victorian Dandy (1998), a work that is not about disability.
Chapter 7 is Anne Marno’s “The Reception of Otto Dix’s Painting The Cripples (1920) in Yael Bartana’s Film Degenerate Art Lives (2010).” Although the two works are in different mediums and are separated by almost a century, they are strongly connected. Marno writes that Yael Bartana’s film “mobilizes the disabled veterans from Dix’s painting to become a collective force; the film thus strongly asserts the power of modern art against the Nazis’ defamation” (p. 119). Otto Dix was a veteran of the First World War, and his painting The Cripples depicts injured war veterans on a street. It is a criticism of the glorification of war. The painting was regarded by the Nazis as an example of a malignant artist, hostile toward the people, who is mocking heroic life. It was exhibited in 1933 as an example of “degenerate art” but is now presumed lost (p. 122).
Bartana’s Degenerate Art Lives is a contemporary reinterpretation of The Cripples. Modern technology allows her to animate and multiply the veterans in Dix’s painting, and the meaning of what she has done has been much debated. Some people have argued that her work seeks to raise awareness of either disabled war veterans or of disabled people in general. Its grey background makes no reference to a specific time or place—either Israel or World War I—and this gives it a universality that enables it to be seen as a critique of war in general. The reason why Bartana chose this work in particular (as opposed to another, still-extant Dix painting like The Skat Players ) is precisely that it has been lost; by taking the details from a preserved photograph of the painting, she makes the viewer aware of this. This becomes even more powerful when considered in conjunction with the Nazis’ view that Dix’s painting was an example of “degenerate art” and with the Nazi “euthanasia” program. By giving her own reinterpretation of the work the title Degenerate Art Lives, Bartana not only expresses solidarity with Dix but also expresses her own opposition to every form of discrimination practiced by the Nazis. The Cripples lives not only because of Dix’s original intentions but also because of the painting’s own history.
Chapter 8 is Amanda Cachia’s “Disabling Surrealism: Reconstituting Surrealist Tropes in Contemporary Art.” In it, she argues that surrealism takes on new meanings when juxtaposed with the work of the contemporary disabled artists Lisa Bufano and Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi and Artur Żmijewski who does not to identify as disabled. Cachia argues that they demonstrate how surrealism can be simultaneously enhanced and destabilized. Cachia writes that psychoanalysis has also had a long-standing historical and medical interest in the uncanny and that this has often involved disabled bodies. This is quite a problematic statement as such involvement has often been exploitative.
Cachia notes the surrealists’ interest in the form of the praying mantis and quotes the historian William L. Pressly’s claim that “the Surrealists found this cannibalistic nuptial a compelling image of the potential for erotic violence” (p. 134). An example of this is André Masson’s 1939 drawing La génie de l’espèce III, which depicts a mantis and which bears a startling resemblance to the appearance of the disabled performance artist Bufano in her 2011 show Home Is Not Home. The similarity was particularly striking because Bufano, who was a multiple amputee following a bacterial infection at the age of twenty-one, had strapped Queen Anne table legs to her legs and arms. The point of this was to explore various ideas including alternative locomotion, her own sexuality, and corporeal difference. As well as resembling the surrealist praying mantis, Bufano’s performance character resembles The Exquisite Corpse, a surrealist game in which participants drew part of a drawing on a sheet of paper and then folded it over and passed it to the next person. Cachia suggests that the points where Bufano’s limbs meet the table legs are suggestive of the folded-over paper from The Exquisite Corpse. Bufano’s writings explain her connection with the audience, while Cachia argues that this combination of attraction and repulsion echoes the forms fetishized by the surrealists. The difference is that Bufano was in charge (she took her own life in 2013) and that she found the experience liberating.
Yi is a performance artist who was born with two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot (something that has been happening in her family for generations). For her 2005 work, Can I Be Sexy for Once?, she made a kind of stone-like object for each foot to go in the space between her two toes. The “stones” were attached to strings going up each of Yi’s legs, and this puts Cachia in mind of Hans Bellmer’s 1950s photographs of his collaborator, Unica Zürn, with string bound around her torso. Bellmer’s photographs never show Zürn’s face, and the string looks uncomfortable. By contrast, writes Cachia, Yi looks adorned and is empowered, having taken control of her body. Cachia also contrasts the surrealists’ penchant for photographing fingers and toes in such a way as to make them seem uncanny, with the fact that Yi is already uncanny. Furthermore, the surrealists do not seem to have sought out any actual disabled people, preferring to photograph nondisabled people made to look uncanny. Consequently, both Bufano and Yi are expressing power and agency by taking surrealist tropes and using them to objectify their own bodies. In this, they are, writes Cachia, doing something that the surrealists could never quite achieve. Why the surrealists chose not to try to achieve this is another question.
The Polish artist Żmijewski does not identify as disabled but has made a series of photographs titled Oko za oko (An Eye for an Eye) in which nondisabled men “lend” their limbs to amputees, and the pairs are then photographed strolling, climbing stairs, or bathing (p. 152). That Żmijewski does not identify as disabled is potentially problematic for Cachia. Although he seems genuinely interested, Cachia writes that he can only interpret experiences at one remove, as opposed to Yi and Bufano whose performances are directly based on their own personal experiences—but that this may be part of the point. My colleague, the Flemish historian Pieter Verstraete, addressed the question of the contribution that could be made to disability studies by nondisabled scholars in his 2012 book, In the Shadow of Disability, and I would argue that, apart from anything else, demanding that no one could say anything about a topic on which he or she had no personal experience is likely to result in society becoming increasingly balkanized, and the probable lack of dialogue that would result from this is certainly not something that would be at all likely to change society for the better. As Żmijewski “seems genuinely interested,” this is a good starting point—not a reason to reject his involvement.
Chapter 9 is “The Victorian Dandy: Yinka Shonibare’s Allegory of Disability and Passing.” In this chapter, Howie makes a feeble attempt to sustain the idea that Shonibare’s 1998 work A Day in the Life of a Victorian Dandy—a series of staged photographs showing the daily life of Shonibare’s eponymous “dandy”—is about disability, an idea specifically rejected by the artist himself. Howie states that, although Shonibare’s dandy is not visibly disabled (she points out that he has a cane but so did the famous real-life dandy Beau Brummell, as his statue in Jermyn Street, London, and many other pictorial representations, will testify), various points can be made about the way one looks at people who are different. Similarly, Howie points to a mid-nineteenth-century trope of having a masculine hero accompanied by a disabled friend, who would compensate for him being the strong, silent type. The problem with this is that while Shonibare’s dandy is seemingly adored by all and sundry, he is not accompanied by a friend, disabled or otherwise. The “adoration” of Shonibare’s dandy does raise an interesting point to do with class rather than race. Classic British literature is full of grasping characters dancing attendance on rich relations or employers with the sole aim of being rewarded in their will; Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-44) is a case in point, as is George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72). In addition, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon (1817) features Miss Lambe, a West Indian heiress who, prior to her arrival, is seen as noteworthy for her financial situation rather than for her race. This does not mean that there is nothing to say about race but merely that other things are worthy of mention too.
Although the chapter makes interesting points, none of them are about disability, and I would estimate that around 90-95 percent of the chapter is about race. For this reason, I am extremely annoyed that it was considered worthy of inclusion in a book on disability and art history. Howie mentions in passing Shonibare’s work Age of Enlightenment (2008), in which various Enlightenment figures are depicted with visible impairments (for example, Adam Smith is depicted with a hunched back). A discussion of this work would certainly have been more fruitful than concentrating on A Day in the Life of a Victorian Dandy, which merely served to give the impression that Howie was only interested in race or that she was somehow unable to imagine that there could really be anything to say about disability.
The final chapter is “Crafting Disabled Sexuality: The Visual Language of Nomy Lamm’s ‘Wall of Fire.’” In this chapter, Shayda Kafai discusses the performance artist Nomy Lamm’s 2008 show Wall of Fire, which is a reclamation of the sexuality of a “bad ass, fat ass, Jew dyke amputee,” as Lamm describes herself (p. 178). Although the inclusion of this quote indicates that the fact that Lamm ticks lots of boxes seems to be depressingly more important than whether or not she says anything particularly profound about the human condition, her identity is significant from the point of view of the message of her performance art. In essence, disability performance art fulfills a similar function to things like disability pride; it encourages self-acceptance among discredited groups and tells them that they are desirable. In Wall of Fire, Lamm achieves this by, for example, wearing an eye-catching red sundress when a lot of clothes for larger-sized people are dull-colored, suggesting that their function is to help overweight people fade into the background (and that this is by definition what they should want) and making clear that her prosthetic leg can be sexual and is used by her as a sexual object. The title Wall of Fire was chosen because, as she said to the chapter’s author, “For me claiming my sexuality has meant walking into the fire in a way” p. 184).
I found this chapter slightly troubling as I felt that both Lamm and Kafai were conflating things that were not necessarily the same. Part of this has to do with Lamm’s “fat liberation” politics, because, though some of the points made are valid (such as the rejection of dull-colored clothes for overweight people), one major difference is that in the United States, there is greater acceptance of the idea that severe obesity is a disability. Seen from a political standpoint such as Lamm’s, this entails such things as protecting one’s fatness and portraying it as an asset, as Lamm does. It seems to me that this is a more extreme position than, say, drawing justifiable attention to societal pressure (particularly on women) to be slim and conventionally sexually desirable (as well as to the tendency to judge people who are not slim instead of bothering to find out anything about them). It also raises the question of whether obesity is a transient condition—for example, breaking one’s leg does not make one physically disabled. (While one may experience some of the problems and attitudinal barriers that confront physically disabled people, a broken leg usually heals within a relatively short time.) Similarly, it is questionable whether Lamm’s obesity is either natural or permanent, and acknowledging this is not the same as ignoring or endorsing societal pressure for women to be slim.
This chapter also discusses Lamm’s prosthetic leg, and, while it makes many valid points, such as Lamm’s challenging of the traditional idea that disabled people are asexual, it can also be accused of ignoring reality in the same way as some of the earlier chapters. For example, Kafai writes of how soldiers in the American Civil War lost limbs and conflates this obvious actual damage with Oliver Wendell Holmes’s view that the disabled body was not an effective reflection of the ideal citizen of a post-Civil War America. This is reminiscent of the disquiet expressed by disability studies scholars when they found out that the disabled English member of Parliament William Hay (1695-1755) had not regarded his bladder stones as part of his identity but instead had been keen to be rid of them.
This is a thought-provoking and informative work, but it does suffer from many of the pitfalls that seem to be becoming increasingly common in identity politics. For example, various of the chapters deny reality, instead using phrases like “the so-called norm” when there is nothing “so-called” about the fact that one group is more numerous than another, they conflate things that are only superficially alike, they question whether nondisabled people should be allowed to say anything about disability, and so on.
. I discussed this with the disabled artists Tony Heaton and Colin Hambrook, and it transpired that Shonibare was adamant that this work was about race but not disability. He was extremely frustrated that people kept trying to interpret it as being about disability.
Citation: Emmeline Burdett. Review of Millett-Gallant, Ann; Howie, Elizabeth, eds., Disability and Art History. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55226 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.