Disability in Art History
First Things First...
This class will look at examples of the disabled human body as it has been represented in art history. What does it mean to be human? How is the body used and represented in visual culture? How are formations of disability articulated in relation to ideas of normality, hybridity, and/or anomaly, and how do artists use visual culture to affirm or subvert notions of the normative body? From Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Diego Velázquez to Marc Quinn and the Chapman brothers, artists have included images of the disabled body in their work. Other artists, including Orlan and Stelarc, have used their bodies to push notions of normality.
This lesson plan explores the body in visual culture to uncover the ways in which bodily difference is and has been articulated physically and theoretically and demonstrates the ways in which disability, like gender, race, or sexuality, is a cultural construction. This lesson includes artwork from across stylistic and historical periods in order to demonstrate the ways in which disability is historically and culturally contingent. Considerations include the changing role of images of the body in visual culture and the place of those representations in society.
Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just a few artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.
- Historical Representations of Disability
- “Freakshows,” Power, and Privilege
- Body, Performance, and the Posthuman
Chronologically, “disability studies” emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, and “body art” was established as a category of contemporary art in the 1970s, but disabled bodies occur in art dating to at least the 1st century CE. Still, a class on the disabled body might come quite late in the semester, after looking at other issues of identity, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. A lecture on “Disability in Art” can be a good opportunity to reflect on a central narrative of art history—representation of the human figure—and to reflect on the ways in which art contributes to and challenges the construction of normative culture. Disability studies offers an alternative methodology and point of departure for the study of the body in art history.
Consider past material covered with the class—how has the body, both abled and disabled, appeared within the course? Why do we tend to ignore the disabled bodies that appear in works such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)? How much have we learned about the lives and impact of people with disabilities throughout history? Why might that be?
Ableism is defined in disability studies as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. The ableist views able bodies as the norm in society, implying that people who have disabled bodies must strive to become that norm. Disability is thus held as an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity; disability is seen as a “bad” thing that must be overcome. Use this definition to prompt a discussion about the ways ability bias has impacted art making and the ways it can affect our understanding of history. Ask students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the above questions, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of works that include representations of disability. Consider the biases of historians who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions.
Disability has always been part of the human condition. Throughout history, people with disabilities have often served as visual and cultural objects, rather than as active participants in and creators of culture and media. People with disabilities have not typically decided how they would be portrayed in art, nor have they participated in the creation of the art objects in which their bodies appeared. Instead, artists and authors have used various disabilities to convey ideas about evil, suffering, grace, and human nature and to reinforce stereotypes about disability.
Disability is a subjective, corporeal, and complex sociocultural construction. Looking at disabled bodies in art history offers significant insight into the various ways in which art can support or subvert the construction and performance of normative values. Recognizing the ways in which art performs disability ultimately challenges one-dimensional understandings of disability and art.
The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in one hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:
- Polykleitos, Doryphoros, marble copy of bronze original, c. 450–440 BCE
- Old Market Woman, 150–100 BCE
- El Greco, The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind, 1570
- Mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (1180s)
- Luttrell Psalter, 1325
- Man with crutches
- Crippled child
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568
- Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple, 1659
- Francisco Goya, Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux, 1824–7
- Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane, 1822
- Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
- Francis Galton’s Composite Portraits (published in The Photographic News)
- “The Jewish Type,” 1885
- “Health, Disease, and Criminality,” 1885
- Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
- Albrecht Dürer, frontispiece to Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
- Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, 1645
- Lavinia Fontana, Antonietta Gonzalez, 1656
- Charles Eisenmann Studio, Myrtle Corbin, c. 1880
- Charles Eisenmann Studio, Eli Bowen “The Legless Acrobat,” c. 1880
- Charles Eisenmann Studio, Charles B. Tripp, c. 1880
- Marion Post Wolcott, Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, 1939
- Ben Shahn, Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, 1938
- Russell Lee, Untitled, Donaldsonville, Louisiana, 1938
- Reginald Marsh, Sideshow Sign at Coney Island, c. 1939
- Eudora Welty, Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair, c. 1939
- Diane Arbus, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970
- Diane Arbus, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, New York City, 1970
- Diane Arbus, Untitled, 1970–71
- Otto Dix, War Cripples, 1920
- Otto Dix, Scat Players, 1920
- Orlan, Self-Hybridizations, 1994–Present
- Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98
- Lisa Bufano, Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, 2013
- Matthew Barney with Aimee Mullins, Cremaster 3, 2002
- Mary Duffy, Performance, 1995
- Venus de Milo, 130–100 BCE
- Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
- Jake and Dinos Chapman, Übermensch (Portrait of Stephen Hawking), 1995
At the End of Class...
Ask students to reflect on the various ways that disability has been constructed throughout history and how visual representations are powerful tools in the construction of societal values. This lecture has brought together religious and secular paintings, photographs, contemporary sculptures, performance, and digital media to examine the various visual constructions of disability and difference that they embody. If students are interested in further projects related to arts and disability, you might direct them to http://disartfestival.org/, an online resource. Whereas disability has rarely been a part of the American cultural imaginary, the DisArt Festival hopes to subvert normative expectations and cultivate a space where differences are celebrated.