Disability Studies Lecture Series—The Geo-politics of Disability

The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification

Tobin Siebers. PhD
V. L. Parrington Collegiate Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design, University of Michigan

Lecture Transcript


Good afternoon. I'd like to welcome you to the second installation of our Geo-Politics of Disability lecture series. Let me start by introducing myself. My name is David Mitchell. I'm the Executive Director of the Institute on Disabilities and an Associate Professor in the College of Education at Temple University. The Geo Politics of Disability series seeks to bring new works from scholars in Disability Studies to the attention of our Temple and Philadelphia community audience in order to discuss issues of trans-historical, cross-cultural, representation of people with disabilities to develop our awareness in the world, disability as a global phenomenon, the way that people with disabilities experience their lives, are treated in different social contexts, and our lecture today is just a perfect example of the kind of powerful work that is going in the particular domains which I will get to in just a moment. What I would like to point out is on your seat is an announcement for an upcoming lecture, so let me start with an anticipatory note. We're going to have Leroy Franklin Jr. [Scheduled for November 18th] here from San Francisco, who will be taking us through his historical research on disability and hip hop music. So I think we'll have some really good audio tracks going on in that and Leroy has really been an amazing leader in drawing out the fact that hip hop has been so significantly influenced by disability experiences. I was just watching, the other day, a sequence on You Tube where he had done an interview with a hip hop artist in Philadelphia, whose name escapes me, but nonetheless, he's already make these bridges that are cross national around this topic and he's also been hosting a number of hip hop groups that are in Europe coming to the United States and vice-versa, so I think that's going to be a great presentation. I encourage you all to come to that and to give Leroy a warm welcome. Also on your seat is a survey form,that we'd really appreciate if everybody filled out. Just about your impressions of the lecture, the lecture series, what you went out of here learning anew...I think that those new learning opportunities will be rife in today's talk because Tobin is really one of the most powerful thinkers in Disability Studies working today. It's really an incredible honor to have him here. And I greatly appreciate him coming. He is the V. L. Parrington Collegiate Professor and Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. When I was a graduate student in the American Studies program at Ann Arbor, I was fortunate enough to kind of share a hallway with Tobin. I was using a cane to walk myself and we would go down the hallway with our respective canes kind of keeping close to the walls—and never speaking a word to each other, the entire time. So much of our relationship has developed since then because we had to get out of sharing that hallway, apparently before we felt safe to talk with each other. Tobin is the author of 12 books...13 now...He's written on areas of aesthetic, religion, Rene Girad's theory of scapegoating, really, drawing him over into the disability studies has been huge boon to the area, because it's brought so much authority and respect to the scholarship to the ....that the rest of us were doing and Tobin's ideas themselves have just been instrumental to my own thinking in particular. His work has just been voluminous and expansive and he's been particularly powerful in the area of comparative literature, the politics of identity, literary criticism of the cold war, psycho analysis, literature in anthropology, creative non-fiction, and on the history of mental in-plane, as he was just telling me. I think this might enter into his talk today. In the back, the bookstore has been kind enough to bring over some of Tobin's books including a book that he published most recently in the University of Michigan series that I edit called Corporealities—that book is Disability Theory. His new book coming out is called Disability Aesthetics from which his taken from today and then there are a series of other works that he's done, please avail yourself of the opportunity to get your hands on those particular items. So, without further ado, let me introduce to you Tobin Seibers, and tell you you're in for an incredible treat—he's got a great talk to deliver to us.


Well, first of all, I just want to thank the Institute on Disabilities for the invitation and David in particular. It's really great to be here. My passing through is much too short, but I hope to visit you again sometime. I also wanted to note, for anyone who might have received a copy of this talk in advance and might be following along, I don't know if there is anybody in that category, but I'm shortening the talk a bit and so I might be jumping ahead. Don't panic if suddenly you lose your place in the talk. Just move ahead. This is just to give us a little bit more time for questions and answers. And the talk is divided into sections so I all announce the numbers as I go through. So I'll start with just my first part.

1. Smile Train, an international organization devoted to children with cleft palette, seems in many ways to be a model charity –and here's one of their web ads behind me, I'll describe it in a minute [SLIDE NUMBER ONE IN ASSOCIATED POWER POINT]. It trains and uses local doctors. It claims to put 100% of contributions toward surgeries. But Smile Train is a model charity in more than one way. It promotes itself by giving a familiar and typical appearance to disability, following an aesthetic model long established for the purpose of qualifying some people and disqualifying others. The "world's leading cleft charity" uses in-your-face, close-up portraits of disabled children, largely of color and non-Western, to encourage donations to the "modern-day medical miracle" designed "to give a desperate child not just a new smile, but a new life." Smile Train equates disability with loss of life, isolating the children from everyday existence and exhibiting them in a series of medical mug shots. Individuality is downplayed, and the children appear first and foremost as medical specimens of nature gone awry, designed to elicit feelings of pity, disgust, and charity. The children's color, non-Western origin, and disabled state stand in sharp contrast to the white, smiling, celebrity friends, such as Candice Bergen, who you have in upper hand corner there, who urge donors to be generous. And by the way, of all the people on the boards, there's not a single person of color, on the board of celebrity spokespeople, that is listed on some of the other pages. And not anybody with a disability, at least not anybody who's identified as such. Smile Train "enfreaks" the children, to use David Hevey's term, only to promise to whisk away their freakish nature through the magic of modern medical technology. Let me note from the outset that I am not opposing the sharing of medical technology across the globe, the assistance of poor nations by wealthy nations, or the creation of charities and nongovernmental organizations devoted to particular world problems. These are desperate times, and many people in the world need help. Rather, what concerns me is the symbolism by which populations and individuals are established as needing help, as being inferior, and the role played by disability in that symbolism, because it has a long history of being placed in the service of discrimination, inequality, and violence. What I am calling the aesthetics of human disqualification focuses on how ideas about appearance contribute to these and other forms of oppression. My claim is that this symbolism depends on aesthetic representations that require further clarification and critique, especially with respect to how individuals are disqualified, that is, how they are found lacking, inept, incompetent, inferior, in need, incapable, degenerate, uneducated, weak, ugly, underdeveloped, diseased, immature, unskilled, frail, uncivilized, defective, etc. My intention is less to provide a theoretical description of this problem than to review a series of analytic examples from the historical record, but I will begin by defining my theoretical vocabulary and presuppositions.

2. And so I'm just going to give you and quick and dirty definition of some of my key terms now. First one is disqualification. Disqualification as a symbolic process removes individuals from the ranks of quality human beings, putting them at risk of unequal treatment, bodily harm, and death. That people may be subjected to violence if they do not achieve a prescribed level of quality is an injustice rarely questioned. In fact, even though we may redefine what we mean by quality people, for example as historical minorities are allowed to move into their ranks, we have not yet ceased to believe that non-quality human beings do exist and that they should be treated differently from people of quality. This belief is so robust that it supports the most serious and characteristic injustices of our day. Disqualification at this moment in time justifies discrimination, servitude, imprisonment, involuntary institutionalization, euthanasia, human and civil rights violations, military intervention, compulsory sterilization, police actions, assisted suicide, capital punishment, and murder. It is my contention that disqualification finds support in the way that bodies appear and in their specific appearances—that is, disqualification is justified through the accusation of mental or physical inferiority based on aesthetic principles. Aesthetics, my second key term, studies the way that some bodies make other bodies feel. Bodies, minimally defined, are what appear in the world. They involve manifestations of physical appearance, whether this appearance is defined as the physical manifestation itself or as the particular appearance of a given physical manifestation. In other words, I'm talking about a body that appears in space, that manifestation, but also what's important is the specific characteristics of that body, which we commonly refer to as someone's appearance or a body's appearance. But before we have specific appearances, what someone looks like, we have to have something that's recognized in space as an appearance, as something that stands forth, that self-manifests. Bodies include in my definition human bodies, paintings, sculpture, buildings, the entire range of human artifacts as well as animals and objects in the natural world. Aesthetics, moreover, has always stressed that feelings produced in bodies by other bodies are involuntary, as if they represented a form of unconscious communication between bodies, a contagious possession of one body by another. Aesthetics is the domain in which the sensation of otherness is felt at its most powerful, strange, and frightening. What I just mean there simply is that, we think of this a lot of time when we're talking about works of art. You walk into a museum, you stand before a painting and the painting makes you happy. Or the painting makes you hungry. Or the painting makes you horny. Or, you meet a person, a person comes into the room and you have a specific sensation, that is, that appears in your body as a result of this other body and it's involuntary. And this is the domain, really, of aesthetics and it's rarely talked about in terms of the involuntary characteristic. But what I'm saying is that you are literally possessed by the other body in that your emotions are determined by it. And whether this effect is beauty and pleasure, ugliness and pain, or sublimity and terror, the emotional impact of one body on another body is experienced as an assault on autonomy and a testament to the power of otherness. Bodies thought to experience more pleasure or pain than others or to produce unusual levels of pleasure and pain in other bodies are among the bodies most discriminated against, actively excluded, and violated on the current scene, be they disabled, sexed, gendered, or racialized bodies. Disabled people, but also sex workers, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, and people of color, are tortured and killed because of beliefs about their relationship to pain and pleasure (Siebers 2009). This is why aesthetic disqualification is not merely a matter for art critics or museum directors but a political process of concern to all of us. And, an understanding of aesthetics is crucial because it reveals the operative principles of disqualification used in minority oppression. My third and final key term is oppression. Oppression is the systematic victimization of one group by another. It is a form of intergroup violence. That oppression involves "groups," and not "individuals," means that it concerns identities, and this means, furthermore, that oppression always focuses on how the body appears, both on how it appears as a public and physical presence and on its specific and various appearances. And why I say—I suppose I should open this up for a second—why I say that oppression is something that happens only between groups is because you can do harm to an individual, but when you do harm in the name of what, of how that individual looks, and the way that that appearance belongs to a series of historical representations about appearance, you're not really attacking the person as an individual, you're attacking that person as a representation of a group. So, oppression is systematic and it takes place when one group, that has power, goes after another group that doesn't have power. Which isn't to say that individual violence doesn't occur, but individual violence doesn't usually occur under the name of oppression. Oppression is justified most often by the attribution of natural inferiority—what some call "in-built" or "biological" inferiority. Natural inferiority is always somatic, focusing on the mental and physical features of the group, and it figures as disability. The prototype of biological inferiority is disability. The representation of inferiority always comes back to the appearance of the body and the way the body makes other bodies feel. This is why the study of oppression requires an understanding of aesthetics.

3. The aesthetics of human disqualification presents in almost every sphere of human influence, but because the art world thrives on aesthetic judgments, art-making practices and debates about them provide a unique window into disqualifying and qualifying statements about human appearance, made almost always, of course, in the guise of judgments of taste. Oddly, although the source of disqualification is not the aesthetic itself, the devices of disqualification are often worked through in the aesthetic context—at museums, art shows, in literary works, music, art catalogues, magazines, and by entertainments of various kinds. My itinerary begins with a focus on the Nazi era because of its definitive and violent interpretation of modern art as part of a medical and eugenic project that disqualifies certain populations as defective. Then I jump forward in time to the controversial display in 2005 of Marc Quinn's sculpture of Alison Lapper in London's Trafalgar Square. Here I address the debate about whether disabled bodies should be subjects of art and displayed in public spaces. Each analytic example demonstrates the shuttling back and forth of aesthetic judgments between the art world and the political world, providing the occasion to map the operative principles obtaining between aesthetics, disqualification, and oppression.

So I'm going to turn now to my look at Nazi art. And I call this little section: Degenerate Art and Defective People. Although the Nazis were not shy about using disability to disqualify human beings, their attitudes acquired even greater transparency in statements about the art world. Hitler's love of art and conception of himself as an artist—as preposterous as they may seem—meant that art was the preferred vehicle for the development of Nazi ideas and philosophy. It was also the domain where we see played out Nazi ideas about non-quality human beings. The competition in 1937 between the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) and the exhibit of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) makes the use of aesthetic disqualification by the Nazis crystal clear by setting in opposition their positive and negative conceptions of human types. The Degenerate Art exhibition represented the Nazi's attack on modern art because of its portrayal of "defective" people, while the Great German Art Exhibition, with which Hitler inaugurated the House of German Art, was supposed to demonstrate the superiority of German bloodlines and aesthetic taste. The purposes of the two exhibitions could not have been more different, but their occurrence in the same year provides the occasion to construct from their negative and positive views of human appearance a clear conception of the Nazi system of aesthetic disqualification.

The works included in the Great German Art Exhibition avoid representing physical imperfection and racial diversity at all costs. The Nazis staked their claim to superiority on the representation of beautiful and healthy German bodies, although the works are now indistinguishable from kitsch. The controlling design of the exhibition came directly from Hitler's ideas about art, as revealed by many public statements. Hitler embraced health and racial homogeneity as the measures of quality human beings. Disease and disability were his principal disqualifiers. "The German people," Hitler exclaimed, "with their newly awakened affirmation of life are seized with admiration for strength and beauty and therefore for what is healthy and vigorous" (Adam 76). "We only want the celebration of the healthy body in art" (Adam 149). The House of German Art was to open its doors only to ability, not disability.

In contrast, Hitler accused the modern works shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of reveling in "deformed cripples and cretins, women who inspire only disgust, men who are more like wild breasts, children who, if they were alive, would be regarded as God's curse!" (Sax 230). As evidence for Nazi claims about the biological inferiority of the subjects pictured in modern art, the catalogue designed to accompany Entartete Kunst juxtaposed modernist works and examples of facial deformities as well as works by modern artists and mental patients. You and go to the next slide. The catalogue—and this is a page from the catalogue (SLIDE NUBMER 2)—the catalogue claims, for example, that a painting by a "schizophrenic from a lunatic asylum" (that's on the bottom half [of the slide]) "looks more human than Paul Klee's botched effort" (Barron 383) So they're juxtaposing these two drawings, one by in their words a "schizophrenic from a lunatic asylum" and a great modernist artist, Paul Klee. Entartete Kunst asks beholders not only to cast the psychological sources of modern art as mentally incompetent but also to confuse modernist experiments with form with realistic depictions of disabled human beings. Paul Schultze-Naumburg, author in 1928 of Kunst und Rasse, Art and Race, provides an early example of the strategy used by Entartete Kunst to denigrate modern art. Could I have my next slide? So this books puts side-by-side, and I'll show you the other side in a minute—It compares portraits, and here are the modernist portraits by Modigliani, Schmidt-Rottluff, and others to medical photographs of physically disabled and diseased patients—so can we have the next slide. (SLIDE NUMBER 3) And what you really can't see unless you put them side by side is that there is a very superficial resemblance between the facial portraits. So you have one person here who has a closed left eye and another closed left eye and if you go back you'll see in the drawings, the left eyes are smaller. So it's a very superficial resemblance, but they make a lot—they make hay with this, by suggesting that what we really have in modern art are portraits of so-called defective people and they're really medical specimens, as opposed to being works of modern art. Similarly, Entartete Kunst either interpreted artworks as medical specimens or juxtaposed artworks with medical photographs and other artifacts. The exhibition sought to tutor the public in the Nazi vision of aesthetics by suggesting the negative medical impact that disabled and racially diverse people might have on the German population. Degenerate art deserved its name in this view because it included bodily deformities, blood-shot eyes, feebleness, and signs of nervous exhaustion—all disabling conditions supposedly brought about by racial impurity or the stress of modern life. Jews, homosexuals, and criminals were automatically assumed to be biologically inferior, and the Nazis found evidence for their assumptions in the physical traits given to people in works of modern art. In effect, beholders were supposed to see the so-called degenerate works through Nazi eyes as picturing examples of in-built inferiority, providing an experience of disability preliminary to the extermination of more than 200,000 human beings with similar characteristics.

The works banned as degenerate by the Nazis are more familiar in their form and content than those approved by them. Consequently, it makes sense to focus first on the so-called Great German Art, so that we may let the full power of de-familiarization strike us when we turn to the better known works and artists. The point of the comparison, I remind, is to gain an understanding of the aesthetics of human disqualification, not to make judgments about which objects are better works of art. This goal requires attention to the contribution of aesthetics to oppression, that is, to the choice of appearance placed in the service of intergroup or political violence.

The Great German Art works to achieve qualification for the German people by designing a specific though imaginary human type based on the healthy and able body. This type was proposed as the norm, and deviation from it tended to justify disqualification and oppression. One of the oddities revealed by a disability studies perspective on aesthetics, however, is how truly unreal and imaginary are nondisabled conceptions of the human body. Remove imperfection from the body, and one discovers the perfect recipe for what does not exist for the most part in the human universe. Disability theorists are fond of noting that nondisabled bodies are all alike, while disability takes a thousand unique and different forms. If the strength of human nature lies in its evolutionary compact with variation, then the Nazi drive toward perfection based on uniformity produces results contrary to the laws of evolution. The Great German Art refuses variation by embracing an idea of human form characterized by exaggerated perfection and striking regularity. May I have the next slide please? (SLIDE NUMBER 4) Arno Breker's Readiness represents the perfect picture of health and ability, but it is deeply unreal and stumbles into pure kitsch: its pumped-up body, thought classical by the Nazis, actually swerves away from its Greek models to present a shape outside the bounds of human form, a shape contoured by steroids rather than sport and dubious as an example of male beauty. It's sort of like Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids.

"There is no exquisite beauty," Francis Bacon claimed, "without some strangeness in the proportion." By these lights, the only thing beautiful about this next slide (SLIDE NUMBER 5) which is Ivo Saliger's Diana's Rest is the peculiar fact that the three women are all exactly the same. So we have the study of three nudes, brunettes, different positions, it's a convention of painting to base multiple figures on the same model—so this is clearly the same model but here, rather than reflecting a painting convention, it really unveils the ideological imperative in Nazi art to achieve human perfection by suppressing human variation. Diana's Rest provides an example of the eerie world, sought by the Nazis, in which the desire for perfection quashes individuality and variety. Could I have the next slide? Josef Thorak's Comradeship (SLIDE NUMBER 6) demonstrates the masculine version of this overcharged regularity. Matched muscle for muscle, the gigantic figures twin each other, while striving to embody an impossible ideal of human health. According to Hitler's address at the opening of the Great German Art exhibition, the Nazi eugenic project required an emphasis on beauty and health as the first step in achieving the goal of creating a new human type. "The new age of today is at work on a new human type," Hitler remarks: "Tremendous efforts are being made in countless spheres of life in order to elevate our people, to make our men, boys, lads, girls, and women more healthy and thereby stronger and more beautiful. From this strength and beauty streams forth a new feeling of life, and a new joy in life. Never before was humanity in its external appearance and perceptions closer to the ancient world than it is today" (Sax 230). Strangeness in proportion in either individual human figures or among them is deliberately eschewed in Nazi art because its goal is to portray a new human being whose embodiment of beauty and health results in an almost obscene regularity of features and body parts.

The image of nature in the Great German Art mirrors its treatment of the human body in the emphasis on banal, unvarying, and exaggerated perfection. If German blood issues supposedly from the soil, the picture of meadow, pasture, and forest in Nazi art seeks an image of nature that supposedly proves the superiority and durability of the German people. Nature in Nazi art is all abundance, but the ripeness is so artificial that it seems—and there is no irony intended—to bulge with decay. It has often been noted that Nazi artists take their image of nature from the tradition of German Romantic art, especially the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The influence, however, is vastly overstated. Friedrich's nature scenes possess an aura of desolation, focusing often on a lone marker in the landscape such as a cross, a solitary figure, a crumbling church, a dead tree, or a broken grave marker. There are no dead trees, ruins, or broken graves in Nazi landscapes—no hint of the weight of time or the inevitability of death blemishing nature's bounty. Rather, nature exists as an eternal plenitude resistant to decay and death. Could I have my next slide? For example, Oskar Martin-Amorbach's The Sower (SLIDE NUMBER 7) displays a blond peasant, marching across a field and smiling at the good earth in satisfaction, against a backdrop of vast blue sky and other fields being prepared for planting—all of the elements united by a rainbow as if to testify to a Nazi covenant with nature. There is not a single dead tree in view, no plant that is not ready to burst into bloom. Could I have the next slide? Gisbert Palmié's Rewards of Work (SLIDE NUMBER 8) represents the same vision of nature. The figures in the foreground, all surrounded by friendly animals and involved in expressions of antiquated labor (weaving on a spinning wheel, gathering fruit in a basket, harvesting wheat in sheaves), focus their attention on a nude blond goddess, apparently work's reward personified, from whom flows an almost infinite trail of golden cloth. In the background blossoms a spectacle of unspoiled nature: a bright sky, flowing river, abundant trees, and grassy meadows. No one aware of the earth's seasons could find in Nazi art the smallest semblance of nature's passage from birth and fullness to death and rebirth. Rather, nature seems fixed in an unending summer, never displaying the slightest hint of autumn, let alone the death of winter—a testimony to the Nazi hope that the Third Reich might endure without change for a thousand years.

Compared to the Great German Art, the art labeled degenerate by the Nazis presents a startling variety of human appearances. But more startling are the suggestions, first, that this variety is an effect of including disability and, second, that the Nazis were the first to recognize the aesthetic centrality of disability to modern art. It is not merely the case that the Nazis preferred representational art to Dada and Expressionism, that they disliked broken lines and un-naturalistic uses of color, that they wanted artists only and always to draw or paint or sculpt with the greatest technical skill. They preferred all these things because they interpreted their opposites as signposts of disability. The techniques of Dada and Expressionism deform the bodies rendered by them, seeming to portray disabled people. The palette of modernism paints human faces in greens, yellows, and purples, embracing discoloration without rejecting attendant associations of disease. The modernist determination to flatten the canvas and to draw attention to the sculptural quality of paint often stunts figures, bending and twisting them into anagrams of disability. Moreover, the attention given by modern art to themes of alienation, violence, panic, terror, sensory overload, and distraction requires an openness to disability as a visible and potent symbolization of these themes. People quivering with anxiety, howling in fear, or cringing in silent terror populate modernist canvases, openly embracing situations and conditions thought abnormal and feared by the Nazis. The Nazis waged war against modern art because they interpreted the modern in art as disability, and they were essentially right in their interpretation, for modern art might indeed be named as the movement that finds its greatest aesthetic resource in bodies previously considered to be broken, diseased, wounded, or disabled.

If modern art has had such enormous success, it is because of its embrace of disability as a distinct version of the beautiful. The Nazis grasped the nature of this aesthetic, but they rejected it, misreading the future direction of art as they misread many other things about human culture. Instead, they attacked modern art for the very features that give it such remarkable imaginative and transformative power to represent the human condition. This point cannot be overstated. For the Nazis, modern art provided evidence in support of the medical and eugenic rejection of disability. The modernist interest in deformation of the human body and in new techniques of representation combined to produce visions of human appearance that demonstrated to Nazi eyes the evils of miscegenation, the devastating effects of modern art on the human nervous system, and the danger of allowing disabled people and racial inferiors to reproduce themselves. The Nazi way of life, once established by total warfare against and extermination of everything not German, would presumably have existed in stark opposition to the world pictured by modern art.

Could I have the next slide? Consider Emil Nolde's Mulatto, (SLIDE NUBMER 9) and I'll get to the next one in a minute which is Ludwig Meidner's Self-Portrait. Although a Nazi sympathizer, Nolde, this is Nolde's Mulatto, found his works displayed at the Entartete Kunst exhibit because of his embrace of modernist themes and techniques. The title of The Mulatto serves as a red flag for Nazi disapproval, but it is finally Nolde's modernist aesthetic that marks the woman in the portrait as "degenerate". Her patchy coloration, overbite, frizzy hair, and narrow eyes suggest in-built inferiority to the Nazi medical gaze. She demonstrates for the Nazis what mixing races will produce and supplies evidence for the necessity of keeping German bloodlines pure. Next slide... (SLIDE NUMBER 10) Ludwig Meidner, the Jewish Expressionist painter who initially made a reputation for himself by producing horrific landscapes of life in the modern city, later became a prolific self-portraitist. The Nazis included his Self-Portrait in the so-called "Jewish room" of Entartete Kunst as proof of the defective nature of the Jewish people, scratching above the painting the words, "Jewish, all too Jewish" and referring to the work in the catalogue as one of "three specimens of Jewish sculpture and painting" (Barron 298). The curation for the Jewish room announced its purpose as the "Revelation of the Jewish racial soul" (Barron 194). What the Nazis saw in the portrait, and wanted others to see, one can only imagine: a misshaped face, elfin ears, deformed hand, and twisted body—all rendered in un-naturalistic colors—seem to attest to the biological inferiority of Jews. So, I hope that you understand what I'm saying here. I'm saying that they take modern art and they look at it and they say these people are disabled, we shouldn't be representing disabled people in art and we shouldn't have disabled people among us. By putting disabled people in art, we're encouraging their presence and the problem is they become involved with our reproductive politics and they pollute our bloodlines. This is a very powerful reading because it suggests that disability and modern art are linked, but that can be a favorable reading. So that's what I'm trying to say...the Nazis reject it for that reason but everybody else, in effect, accepts it they don't call it disability until later. They see it as disability from the beginning and they see it as a distinct version of the beautiful.

The aesthetic vocabulary used by the Nazis to attack their victims is the invention of modern art—stolen to support a perverse and violent cause. The casualties of war represented in modern art display fragilities of the human mind and body that the Nazis used not to denounce war but to condemn certain populations and races. The focus of modern artists on the dangers of industrialization and crowded cities was made to support the idea that human beings best inhabit the archaic landscape of Nazi homelands. The images of diverse peoples from across the globe, celebrated in modern art, represent an openness to human variation that nevertheless struck Hitler's faithful as embracing degenerate, defective, and racially inferior people. The Nazis reinterpreted what they saw in modern art and put it in the service of an aesthetics of human disqualification, setting images, shapes, and human forms to oppressive and violent ends never imagined by modern artists themselves. In no way did the direction and inclination of modern art share in the prejudices and hatreds of the Nazis, but with a brutal twist of interpretation, they turned the expansiveness of human types found in modern art into a condemnation of everything not their own. They created once and for all a system of disqualification that justifies exclusion and genocide—a system whose aesthetic principles still rationalize oppression today.

My second analytic example is going to be statue on Trafalgar square. And this section is called: Alison Lapper Pregnant "Why Shouldn't My Body Be Considered Art?" The most significant aspects of Entartete Kunst, if we listen to the Nazis who toured it, were the feelings of revulsion that the artworks were supposed to excite in beholders. These works were revolting, of course, because they used disability to prove the degeneracy of modern existence. "All around us you see the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude, and sheer degeneracy," explained the introduction to the Entartete Kunst catalogue; "What this exhibition offers inspires horror and disgust in us all" ("Nazi Treasure Trove"). The aesthetic disqualification of disabled people has remained remarkably consistent over time, linking the emergence of eugenics in the late nineteenth century and its applications in Great Britain, the United States, and Nazi Germany to unproductive and inaccurate stereotypes causally expressed today in discussions about healthcare, civil rights, neonatal testing, euthanasia, wrongful birth, reproductive care, assisted suicide, abortion, and quality of life. Although we seem to have moved to some degree beyond the idea that certain racial, ethnic, gendered, and sexed identities represent non-quality human beings, there continues to be widespread acceptance of the prejudice that individual human beings, of whatever race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, might be classified as inferior on the basis of injury, illness, disability, intelligence, or genetic traits.

When incorporated into works of art, however, the forms of aesthetic appearance that disqualify individual human beings as defective produce an entirely different set of meanings and emotions. Modern art claims disability as the virtuoso sign of the aesthetic, increasingly presenting disability as an aesthetic value in itself. Far from designing representations to mark human beings as inferior, modern art turns to disability as a new and powerful resource for promoting aesthetic variation, self-transformation, and beauty. Nevertheless, the radical gesture of rooting aesthetics in the representation of the disabled body produces an interpretive dilemma, one first discovered by the Nazis and still found almost everywhere in the art world today. As modern art increasingly defines its future direction in terms of disability, artists represent disabled bodies more and more explicitly as aesthetic objects, and the beholders of these objects must choose whether to embrace or to reject the strong feelings excited by disability. On the one hand, because modern art embraces disability as an aesthetic value in itself, there seem to be few objects with greater potential than disabled bodies to qualify as works of art. The modern in art manifests itself as disability, and disabled bodies possess an aura that seems to satisfy the artistic desire for new, varied, and beautiful forms of appearance. On the other hand, aesthetic objects symbolizing disability are sufficiently disruptive that some beholders are tempted to reject modern art as "sick" and "ugly" and to call for alternative forms of art that are "healthy" and "beautiful." The alliance between modern art and disability becomes the cause for disgust, complaints, and doubts, resulting in culture wars targeting the art world itself. Disability is mustered as evidence that art as a whole has succumbed to sickness and degeneracy.

In 2004, Marc Quinn began to exhibit a series of works that advances the modern preoccupation with disability as a key aesthetic concept as well as probes the strong feelings of prejudice that disabled bodies excite in other bodies. The Complete Marbles, that's the name of the series of works, revise the tradition of classical fragmentary sculpture for the modern day by representing likenesses of people who in real life have missing limbs, establishing a powerful resonance between artworks long considered beautiful because of their broken state and people whose disabilities would seem to exclude them from the category of aesthetic beauty. Could I have the next slide? (SLIDE NUMBER 11). These are just a quick look at a couple of these works. This is one work and you know, if you look, it's... I've been looking at these so long that when I look at it I don't even see a mirroring of a broken classical statue, I see that it's a representation of a person with a disability, but when I went to see these works in New York, when they first came out, you walked in to the gallery where there was about 12 of these, and your first impression was that you'd walked into an exhibition of ancient, broken, classical statuary. May I have the next one? (SLIDE NUMBER 12) And here you see that the right leg is foreshortened. And maybe we can go right to the next one, which I'm going to spend a lot of time talking about. This is the main exhibition. One marble—this one, Alison Lapper Pregnant, (SLIDE NUMBER 13) won the competition of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group and was installed on Trafalgar Square in London, immediately sparking a heated debate about the kinds of bodies thought permissible to exhibit in public. Alison Lapper Pregnant, juxtaposed with a king, two generals, and the naval hero Admiral Nelson, depicts a nude woman, three and a half meters high, weighing thirteen tons, and carved from snow-white Carrara marble. And I just have to tell you, this...when you see this in Trafalgar Square, you, coming from a distance, you look down on the square, it is so stunning. Because it's this round volume as opposed to these straight up, stick-like figures, representing the various heroes like Nelson and it is this brilliant, light marble. It just catches the sun. It takes over the entire Square. It is so beautiful. Remarkable piece of work. She is also eight months pregnant and has foreshortened legs and no arms. Quinn explained that Nelson's Column, the focal point of Trafalgar Square, is "the epitome of a phallic male monument" and that "the square needed some femininity" (Reynolds). The sculpture repulsed some beholders, while exhilarating others. Some decried the display of a disabled person in a public square, but others celebrated it, pointing out that Admiral Nelson was also disabled. All beholders, however, had a difficult time not revealing their feelings about disability, and these feelings, negative for the most part, affected the sculpture's value and identity as a work of art, not to mention contributing to the ongoing stigmatization of disabled people.

The negative responses by critics to Quinn's work are especially revealing because they fixate on disability as an unacceptable subject for art, while trying to justify by other means the revulsion stirring them. At the same time, the commentators often embrace illiterate positions on disability, praising or pitying the people depicted in the works merely because of their impairments. Robert Simon, editor of the British Art Journal, calls Lapper "very brave" but concludes that the sculpture is "just a repellant artifact" (Lyall). Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal praises Lapper's "admirable courage" only to mount a personal attack against her. He dismisses her as "a single mother sporting ironmongery in her nose," who "has shrewdly (and, in her circumstances, understandably) commodified her armlessness, turning it to an advantage." Well, there's no ironmongery in the nose in the statue, although Alison Lapper does sometimes wear piercings. Okay, so there's obviously a category mistake occurring here. Dalrymple apparently accepts that disability may be represented in art—since he notes that "some of the greatest paintings by one of the greatest artists of all time, Diego Velázquez, are of dwarfs"—but he concludes that Lapper's image, given over to "narcissism, self-pity, and self-obsession," falls well short of Velázquez's "statements of his deeply felt and completely sincere humanity." Apparently, neither Quinn nor Lapper is a good example of humanity. Hilton Kramer in The New York Observer calls Quinn's marbles "an amazing performance," "if you have the stomach for it," accusing the artist of turning beholders into "voyeurs of a succession of personal catastrophes—an experience that bears a distinct resemblance to involuntary encounters with pornography." Finally, in an opinion piece in The Guardian, illustrated –Could I have the next slide please (SLIDE NUMBER 14) -this is the illustration to the piece in the Guardian—it's even worse than what you think it is. Finally, in an opinion piece in The Guardian, illustrated by a photograph of pigeons swarming over the surface of the sculpture and hatefully captioned "Pigeon Toes," this is "Pigeon toes" at the bottom, Brendan O'Neill confesses "to loathe the Alison Lapper Pregnant statue (not Alison Lapper herself, please note, who I'm sure has overcome great challenges to become both an artist and a mother)." For O'Neill, "the statue captures much of what is rotten in the heart of new Britain. . . . Alison Lapper Pregnant is about as challenging as old underwear. . . . It shows that we value people for what they are rather than what they achieve. . . . We prefer victims to heroes". That's some of the commentators...

As much as these commentators try to achieve the focus on the artwork apparently required by aesthetic judgment, they end by remarking not so much on the artistic properties of the statue as on the details of Lapper's disability. Lapper's physical features—and not necessarily those represented in the statue—become reasons for denying the status of the work as art. The commentators also attack Lapper's personality as psychopathological, although it is not clear what Lapper herself has to do with the artwork. More important, the commentaries conclude in nearly every case that the alliance between modern art and disability provides evidence that the art world in general is in decline, rotten, inhuman, or sick. The appearance of disability somehow justifies the claim that the project of modern art is diseased.

But modern art permits no such condemnation of disability. Modern art makes of disability one of its defining aesthetic principles, I have been arguing, rendering it impossible to attack disability without also rejecting modern art. The Nazis, of course, epitomize this last response. They attack the modern in art as disability and, consequently, reject all modern art as sick. The controversy over Alison Lapper Pregnant reinforces a similar dilemma, compelling beholders, whether friendly or not to modern art, to confront human disqualification as a facet of aesthetic judgment. Their choice is either to reject artworks that picture disabled people or to embrace disability as an aesthetic value in itself.

Many beholders choose to reject disability, but what would the other choice involve? "If the Venus de Milo had arms," Quinn observes, "it would most probably be a very boring statue" (4). Quinn's work trades in the bewildering idea that the same properties that strengthen works of art disqualify the actual people who possess them—the same bewildering idea on which modern art establishes itself. Modern art discovers in the eye drawn to the difference of disability one of its defining aesthetic principles. The interviews included in the catalogue of The Complete Marbles insist again and again on this idea. Quinn repeatedly asks the subjects of his sculptures what they think about fragmentary classical statuary, whether it is beautiful and, if yes, whether their bodies are therefore beautiful as well. Lapper poses the same question: "Why shouldn't my body be considered art?" (Freeman). The crucial point here is to recognize that Lapper's body, once turned into an aesthetic representation, has a better chance of being accepted as art than a nondisabled body, despite the fact that disabled bodies, outside of aesthetic contexts, are still dismissed as repulsive and ugly. Disability is not merely unwanted content, political or otherwise, introduced into art but a mode of appearance that grows increasingly identifiable over time as the aesthetic itself.

And now for my short conclusion. In February 1998 New York Press published an essay by Norah Vincent that attacks the emerging discipline of disability studies as "yet another academic fad" (40). Nevertheless, disability studies apparently fails as a discipline not because it is too chic but because it attracts incompetent, weak, and dishonest people. Camille Paglia calls disability studies "the last refuge for pc scoundrels" (40), but if we believe Vincent, disability studies is also a refuge for ordinary scoundrels, not to mention scholars and students of poor quality. Disability studies supposedly attracts people of questionable moral character— "academic careerists" and "ambulance-chasing publishers" who want to profit from the newest fad—as well as mediocre and flawed minds—the "victim-obsessed," the "second-rate," and the psychologically dependent (40). Vincent seems especially keen to discredit disability studies by associating it with intellectually inferior and psychologically damaged scholars, and when she interviews various leading lights in the field, she is more intent on exposing their psychological weak spots than on capturing what is original about their contribution to disability studies. Lennard Davis, Vincent tells us, melts into "self-righteous goodspeak" at the mere mention of disability, while Michael Bérubé speaks in a voice that is "silky and kind" when he argues that disability is an idea necessary to understand human rights (40). Disability studies deserves no place in the university, it seems, and no self-respecting scholar should have anything to do with it.

If there is any doubt that Vincent wants to disqualify disabled people as physically defective, morally degenerate, or psychologically damaged, the cartoon accompanying the essay should make her purpose obvious. Could I have the next slide please. The cartoon, (SLIDE NUMBER 15) drawn by Gary Leib, pictures a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a woman in a nurse's uniform. Leib overlays the drawing with a variety of disqualifying aesthetic markers: some associate the disabled with physical ugliness and lack of intelligence, while others attempt to promote the idea, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the disabled enjoy a privileged, exclusive, and wealthy life style. For example, as beads of sweat run down his face, the disabled man in the wheelchair grips a cigarette holder in his—I see a lot of cigarette holders in the audience today—grips a cigarette holder in his mangled teeth and toasts his public with a martini. Behind him and pushing the wheelchair is his nurse attendant. Her eyes are vapid, and her breasts are bursting out of her tight-fitting uniform. And the little "DS" insignia here is, you know, Disability Studies, so if you don't understand, it represents disability scholars as a group, right, the tag is there to tell us. Most hateful, however, is the fact that Leib draws the cartoon in a way that re-envisions people with disabilities as Nazi soldiers. The disabled man in the wheelchair wears a monocle, summoning the image of an SS officer. The message of the cartoon is shocking and direct in its attack on disabled people; Well, I skipped the most important part actually here: Most hateful about this is the fact that Leib draws the cartoon in a way that re-envisions people with disabilities as Nazi soldiers. The disabled man in the wheelchair wears a monocle, summoning the image of an SS officer. You know, I should have brought in some attendant slides, but I did a research on the use of the monocle in various representations. There's an entire history of the use of the monocle in anti Nazi propaganda during World War II and afterward, where the one way you know to identify a hidden Nazi spy is their inability, their constitutional inability not to wear their monocle. So a monocle definitely stands for an SS officer. I could prove that if pushed. It manages to represent the disabled as poor, inferior, and undeserving creatures who have managed somehow to attain a position of wealth and power superior to other people. The cartoon asks its beholders to believe that the disabled as a group belong to the privileged few, to a dominant class, and to an infamous story of genocide and military expansionism, deserving comparison with the Nazis, some of the greatest criminals in human history.

By way of conclusion, let me pose three questions that I do not intend to answer but offer as background music to Gary Leib's cartoon and other artworks used to disqualify people with disabilities. What would it mean to call a person sick without it being a disqualification? What would it mean to call an artwork sick without it being a disqualification? What is the relationship between these two questions? Applying the aesthetics of human disqualification according to business as usual will give no satisfying answers to these questions. Rather, the way forward requires nothing less than a radical rethinking of the relationship between aesthetics, disqualification, and oppression, one in which the systemic oppression of disabled people would fail, and fail precisely, because it could no longer be based on human appearances, features, and conditions deemed inferior.

Thank you.

Audience Questions


Thank you so much Tobin for more insight than we can handle in an hour. One of the things I was thinking about as you were talking is that your theory and your ability to enter through aesthetic theory helps to further round out the address of disability studies through the social model.

The social model first picked up a distinction between impairment, which is owned by bodies, and a concept of disability, which is the encounter with social obstacles. Within that particular model or approach, there is now way to get at the fact that we experience aesthetic responses as involuntary, as natural, as somehow inbuilt to our own, that's ugly and therefore that's just my reaction to it, but rather to understand the way that aesthetics is really a training mission for how we understand and look at and interpret the world.

Without your work, I think we would be much reduced in our ability to understand that process and as a key rounding out of the way that disability theory can help us understand the practice of human disqualification.

Let me turn it over to the audience, who have been sitting there for some time. If you have questions or comments for Tobin, I'm sure he would welcome them and we would love to have your contributions to this open effort to think on these issues.


I was actually interested in your distinction between photography, on the one hand, and then painting and sculpture on the other. Beginning with the Smile Train example and then in the Nazi examples, you give the distinction or the comparison between modernist art and medical photography. I wonder if you have any comment on the role of the medium and what that might say about the responsibility of the gaze. Because that's one of the things that is negotiated when you distinguish between responsible depiction and irresponsible depiction...what the possibilities are.


That's a great question. In the longer version of this piece, I do a section on medical photography. I do specifically on photography from the Mutter museum in Philadelphia, not unmediated because —I think it was in January 2008 there was an article in Newsweek magazine, which you may have run across, on a new catalog of medical photography out of the Mutter.

They entitled this "A century of medical oddities." They pick up nine or so images from the Mutter catalog and they create their own captions for them. It is pretty scary stuff. It shows that the desire for the freak show is alive and well and they have to go through the process of suggesting that these images are unmediated representations of oddities.

The real question is how do you uncover the artfulness in a photograph by which the subject is disqualified? I try to talk about this by using the Russian formalist idea of de-familiarization or making strange. So what exactly...what are the framings of image, the various uses of medical photography—close ups, focusing on the impaired limb or foreground in a particular way. It does comparisons so that you have the famous images repeated again and again, you have someone of very short stature and then someone of very large stature and they are lined up, so you have the norm is right in the middle and so you get can take in the relationship between the two, whereas, if you just had the picture of either person, you would have no comparison.

And so the way in which medical photography foregrounds references to how we are already reacting to these bodies, it tries to incorporate them into the photograph. So, what I am trying to do in the other work that you heard is try to talk about that moment when we have an aesthetic discussion about an art work where we import into it all our presuppositions which are based on our ongoing discriminations and prejudices and because we think we are only talking about the art work, we expose them. This is what happens in the discourse over Alison Lapper have all these famous art critics trying to talk about why this statue is not a good work of art, but they can really talk about is how the subject is disabled and how they are personally disgusted by it. The same thing happens with medical photography, actually, but only there are certain norms of presentation which are imbedded in the photograph, which help us do that.

Without doing a thorough analysis of various photographs, it would be hard to actually bring out those techniques. I try to isolate a set of those techniques in that piece, which I think is floating around here and you're welcome to read it.




Huge question. There are two ways to think about the relationship between aesthetic models and how people appear in the world and how we might, kind of, criss cross these perceptions in order to open up a new aesthetic. One proposal by Anita Silvers is that we use the preoccupation among modern artists with transforming the human figure to tutor us about new models of beauty which we can then apply to people with disability. So, her big example is that you look at a Picasso where you have the superimposition of the profile and the frontal view of the face. It looks like...I'm going to forget the name of the disability here... it's Osteo (inaudible) —and so she picks that up and she actually shows a photograph of a young boy who has that disability and she compares it to a painting by Picasso Mya With A Puppet and she says this is essentially the same representation. When we look at Picasso, we say that's beautiful and when we look at the young the boy, we think that's ugly.

So, she says, let's look at those paintings until they tutor us to be able to look see people with disabilities as beautiful. I'm certainly not against that idea if it will work. I'm not sure it will work.

I have a more subtle distinction that I am more interested in working on and you can see it moving through my whole talk, is that I want to be able to have us to look at works of disability and say, A. we are looking at disability and B. it's beautiful. And, if we can begin to recognize that in location, on that social location, of the works, of things that we consider to be the most beautiful things on the planet, because that's how we think about art, right, it has more connection to beauty than anywhere else.

Beautiful people come and go, but even beautiful people are in some ways, their beauty is disqualified by all sorts of things like their charm or our involuntary sexual responses. They don't ever quite measure up to beauty at its height within the tradition of aesthetic response.

Cant says that human beings, no matter how beautiful can merely be charming, they can't really be beautiful. But an artwork or a work of nature can really be beautiful. Why not let's go with that, you know, I'm not interested in struggling against it, why not go with it, but recognize that these examples of what is eternally beautiful are actually people with disabilities. So, if we can walk around a museum and look at each work and actually see people with disabilities in the works of art, to look and say oh, I see what some people call sickness there, but it's not sickness anymore, it's beautiful. I think that for me, that's a more interesting way of doing it, because I really question the ability to tutor ourselves directly, by the multiplicity of disability, and find that in an artwork and to somewhat tutor ourselves not to see people as works of art. And finally, not to be going too long about this, I think there is an objectification of human beings that occurs when we want to see them as representing a work of art. We tend already to objectify people at the extreme spectrums of beauty. People who are too beautiful, are objectified for their beauty, people who are not beautiful at the other end are objectified, are disqualified, and so I think the whole issue of trying to apply objective standards to human beings troubles me so a little bit, and so I'd rather enter through the work of art rather than transpose the work of art and objectify the human recipient of that transposition.


So, I just wanted to separate three different claims to the question of whether something is a work of art or not, whether something which in many cases would give aesthetic displeasure, can in some cases or perhaps most of the times give pleasure, versus whether beauty should be the highest aesthetic value or perhaps sometimes ugliness can be the highest aesthetic value as well. I think those are three separate issues and for you they are all together. You want to say, it is a work of art and we find beauty in it, why say that beauty is a requirement for art. Why not say some works of art do other things and why commit yourself to an aesthetic theory of art.

Why agree with the Nazi theory of art? To me it just seems flat wrong that German expressionists works are representational as opposed to being imitative. No, those works are different. There is a difference between German Expressionism and Goya where that really does seem to be an imitative deception of others.


That's a great question, a huge set of questions. Let's see if I can pull apart some of the threads there and give a coherent answer.

Obviously, there is a kind of maneuver that I have made here. I'm not interested in enshrining Nazi theory of art. And that's not their theory of art anyway, it just that they read things too literally.

I happen to think in that literal reading, they put their finger on something. They reject what they put their finger on. That is that art is the active site where we contemplate transformation of the human. Where we open ourselves up to new and different and greater varieties of what humanity is.

Art is always actively working on that issue and in that sense it is picking up the human desire for self—transformation and self—variation. The Nazis reject that but I think it is front and center to art and by giving a literal reading of say a German expressionistic painting and saying this is about human transformation, maybe through the vehicle of artworks, but what I would say is there is no work of art, no moment where a human being creates an object called a work of art, that that work of art doesn't, in some way, produce a transformation of the human being. That is what active sight is—beholders but also for the artist. They are actively transforming conceptions of the human when you do that. And that's what the creation of that other body is. Because you create a body that changes your emotional network, that changes you as a human being. It makes you feel happy or sad or repulsed or all warm and fuzzy.

And so that activity is the site of this active transformation of your emotional and moral compass. That's central to art. Now, what do you want to call that process? I call that process beauty.

And I don't use the word beauty to refer to things that are nominally described as beauty and sort of the everyday use of the term. For me, there is a big separation between the market conception of beauty and the idea of beauty in modern art. The Nazis didn't see that and that's why they would see something like the portrait by Meidner, Meidner's self portrait and say that's an ugly human being, therefore it's ugly. But, it doesn't matter —we don't need beautiful human beings in art works in order to make the work of art beautiful. The representational process renders it that. That idea is as old as the hills. Aristotle is baffled by the fact that when we see a repulsive object in reality, that if we paint it, it suddenly becomes represented as beautiful. We see the think itself, you know we see a decapitated head lying on the floor and we go, "eeghh."

We paint the decapitated head and put it in a painting and we look at it and you hang it over your dinner table. You have the opposite impact to it. The representational process does beautifies, for better or for worse, but it doesn't beautify by making it by prettifying. What it does, it asks us ——why I think beauty is important, I will give you a quick and dirty definition of beauty. Beauty is something that operates on a human scale; which is to say, it usually puts us before something that is around the same size as a human body, or within our area that we can look around all sides of it -this is a very ??? definition of beauty, if this makes sense, —I don't want to get too highfalutin here. The idea is that you can encounter the object and you can see all sides of it, but it is not beyond the scale of your understanding.

And so your relationship is one of a body meeting another body in space and that your conception of that body is that it has an autonomy separate to yours, but like yours. So it is as if we experience works of art as if they are other human beings and through that we understand something more about what a human being is and what our community of human beings is.

So for me, beauty is always about a community of human beings and interactions among them. Subliminally, those are different kinds of interactions, which isn't to say you can have an aesthetics based on sublimity. But if you have a community based on sublimity, it will not create a community. I'm interested in the community. I'm interested in the community that is created in the experience of beauty. That's why beauty is so important to me. But it's not the only thing. I think there is an over reading of modern art, where we say there is too much to do with the sublime, when it really has to do with beauty. I think the reading that I am doing here helps us see the way in which modern art does not leave behind the aesthetics of the beautiful.


Firstly, thanks for the talk, it's great. I really appreciate it. And one thing I really appreciate about the talk was just that you are calling out that we can't separate the aesthetics of disability, disability as an aesthetic, from the living experience of disability. I think that it would be interesting though, to trace that farther back than the modern period.

I think you have disability as an aesthetic to articulate redemptions and suffering and so on in the Bible quite a bit. What's interesting I thought on modern commentary is exactly what you are documenting shows up. You have folks who understand disability as an aesthetic, but then will, say this doesn't actually describe disabled people.

All the sufferers serving Jesus, they weren't actually disabled. Even if the imagery itself is disability, they will say it is not disability. They maximize the aesthetic value of it to describe the suffering of otherwise able bodied people. I think you can trace what you are noticing in a modern period back much, much farther and I think that's an important project.


I would agree with you and one of the projects I'm involved in right now is I'm trying to analyze the history of art in order to talk about how art as a history provides resources for the emergence of art about disability that is recognized as such.

In other words, I don't see a rupture where suddenly we say we can talk about... we can paint a canvas that represents disability and see that as being born. It has to come out of somewhere. I would only say that modern art for me is important because it becomes a sort of hinge moment where we begin to see these representations as a representation of disability.

This is not my idea. I think Henri-Jacques Sticker has just written a history of art that hasn't been published in English. He talks about Bruegel as really important moment in the history of art because, for the first time, you have a representation of people with disability in art that aren't connected to the sacred.

If you look at Bosch, you see all sorts of creatures, monstrous creatures, but they look like the people we meet in the everyday universe. Or if you see The Beggars, for example, by Bruegel, it's someone who's on the street. And it's not connect to a religious representation. It's not there to demonstrate the power of Christ to heal or something like that. It is just a representation of everyday life.

It is not a particularly good representation of people with disabilities, but at least it says that they belong to our world. And so see, that's a little category shift—a small one. Once you begin to make that category shift, which is about a kind of love affair with realism, really, beginning the seeds there, then you can begin to get to the point where you can actually represent disability and try to do it in a way that has to do with the disabled people might want to represent themselves. And you can also change the way you think about beauty.

I think modern art is important to this, but, you're right, it goes back.


I enjoyed your talk. The Jewish artist—inaudible—this sculpture behind you [Alison Lapper Pregnant], is that a permanent installation?


No the idea of the Fourth Plinth Commission was that they would have a work of art and they would put it on exhibition on the Forth Plinth there for a couple of years. Although they did keep this...I want to say that it came down in 2008 and went up if 2005, and it was supposed to only be there for a year. But it was caused such discussion and controversy that they didn't take it down. It is down now. They have another piece that's there. It's not permanent. I wish it were.


Also, I want to comment on a few things. Just recently reading about a painting of a soldier that was severely disfigured or burned. —I think it was on AOL this weekend. Also, do you think that art museums are biased, as you were saying, —my experience with going to art museums, for the past 30, some odd years, except for a painting by Francis Bacon, it's always been the perfect body, beautiful proportions, even with the paintings.

Do you see more of that in paintings rather than sculpture, that depiction?


No, I don't. I think that this move toward the representation of disability, what can only be called as disability, runs across the various media. I find it in sculpture all over the place. You mentioned Francis Bacon—he's a superb example. This project I'm working on...Francis Bacon is important to it. I think it is obviously there in photography, too. And I think that if anyone who walks into a museum is going to see this, especially in new collections.

When I say that a nondisabled body has a better chance of being represented as a work of art than a nondisabled body, I really mean it and if we begin to just focus on that notion, it really shows us how transformative modern aesthetics has become. I used to tell my students when we would be studying the realist novel and I used to talk about photography in order to help them understand their own biases about realism, and it went something like this—that a picture of a piece of trash in an alley is automatically seen to be more realistic, then a beautiful picture of a tulip.

Now, neither one of these objects has greater claim to be more real than the other. We always see the picture of trash as somehow being more realistic than the flower. The flower exists in reality—it's real. Why is that?

It is because our aesthetic of reality has been tipped so that we consider things that are refracted, disarticulated, put on the margins, are more real than other things. Some people that's bad. I think it's good because what it has allowed us to do is broaden up our aesthetics to the margins. What through history hasn't always been allowed in and to begin to think about the nature of our reality and the nature of human forms in a very expansive way.


Thank you very much Tobin. You have contributed to our thinking immensely. Thank you so much for coming. Please let's see you on, Wednesday, November 18th, for Leroy Moore's presentation which I will think will be a wild and wonderful presentation as well and thanks to everybody.


(Although not read during his lecture, Dr. Seibers has provided the reference notes below for some points presented.)

i. The address for Smile Train's website is (accessed February 19, 2008).

ii. The list of celebrity friends from the West includes Christie Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, and Bette Midler, among many others, but no people of color. Thus, even when the children are cured, and their disabled status vanquished, their racial difference remains as a sign of disqualification, at once stigmatizing the children and justifying the intervention by benevolent representatives of white modernity. See (accessed February 19, 2009).

iii. Smile Train also presents the threat of disability as an emotional reason to rescue unhealthy people living under inferior conditions in faraway lands. Kim and Jarman provide a brilliant discussion of this trend in the context of postcolonial studies: "we argue that Western or modern gestures to rescue people with disabilities in non-Western or ‘pre-modern' locations strategically function to produce hierarchies between different societies and nations. . . . Trading upon modernity's mask of benevolence, these hierarchies are often signified by one group's charitable acts scripted as the ‘selfless' and ‘generous' rescue of disabled people who have been exploited, mistreated, or expelled by societies defined as ‘pre-modern'—that is to say, groups automatically coded by a relative ‘lack' of development" (53-54).

iv. Attendance at Entartete Kunst far outstripped the numbers at the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung, raising serious doubts about Hitler's taste in art. Entartete Kunst traveled to twelve cities between 1937 and 1941 and attracted more than three million visitors. For more information on the two exhibitions, see Barron and Siebers (2000).

v. Carol Poore's analysis of Schultze-Naumburg is especially effective (53-55). Her analysis of disability and Nazi culture catalogues in great detail the variety of uses to which the Nazis put disability, including its propaganda and pictorial value (67-138).

vi. From 1939 to 1945 between 200,000 and 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people were executed under T-4 and other euthanasia programs in Nazi Germany. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people were sterilized. The moral legacy of this history casts a shadow over contemporary debates about abortion, assisted suicide, the human genome project, mercy killing, and wrongful birth.

vii. One notices here, incidentally, the influence of Winckelmann's emphasis on classical art's mimicking of the beautiful Greek body, but Winckelmann's love of corporeal perfection did not prevent him from embracing fragmentary and broken statuary, such as the Torso Belvedere, as the height of aesthetic beauty, while the Nazis were incapable of accepting any kind of human deformation or incompleteness as art. One searches in vain among Hitler's speeches on art for anything resembling Winckelmann's admiration of broken beauty. For a small analysis of fragmentary classical statuary in the context of disability, see Siebers (2008a).

viii. For a superb analysis of the controversy, see Ann Millett: "Public space and its monuments," she argues, "have been gendered male and raced white traditionally, and public space is largely ableist in attitude, not to mention accessibility (or lack thereof)."

ix. For example, Kim Levin reviews Quinn's work positively in The Village Voice but describes disability in negative language: At first sight, it looks exactly like a hall of sublime white marble antiquities. . . . But something, you suddenly realize, has gone terribly wrong. . . . Take a closer look at the embracing couple at the entrance. Titled Kiss, the piece harks back to Rodin and the romantic Beaux Arts sculptors. It invokes all the obsolete clichés of beauty, perfection, and idealization. Marvel at its outmoded skill, until cruel reality sinks in. The male figure has stunted thalidomide arms. The female's arm is normal but she has only one. Take a good look at the others too. Their truncated and missing parts aren't due to the vicissitudes of time but are the result of accident, genetic defect, or iatrogenic calamity. Quinn exploits the romance of classical antiquity—which depends on the mutilations of time and the notion of loss—to confront us with our own avoidance of the horrific fragility of the human condition.

x. Nor is it clear why Quinn's sculpture of Lapper succumbs more to "narcissism, self-pity, and self-obsession" (Dalrymple) than Velásquez's self-portraits or paintings of little people. Rather, similar to the example of the so-called degenerate art, commentators project their feelings of revulsion toward the artwork onto the artist or subject of the work.

Institute on Disabilities at Temple University
University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service