- Disability and Art History ed. by Ann Millett-Gallant and Elizabeth Howie
Ann Millett-Gallant and Elizabeth Howie make clear in the introduction to this carefully selected collection of essays that it is the first of its kind. Based on sheer visuality alone, art history and disability studies converge, overlap, and inform each other. Yet other than the well-known scholarship of disability studies and visual culture, no other text specifically about art history and disability studies had been published before. The authors explain that the contribution that art history has made to disability studies is in its distinctive ability to "open ways to think about art historical tropes that tie together appearance, character, and identity, in diverse geographical and historical contexts" (3). The authors also note that art history evolved as a discipline at the same time in the nineteenth century that the medical model became the conventional method of defining disability. Although the subject of two chapters in this volume pre-date the nineteenth century, all the authors struggle with the troubling reality of entrenched notions about disability embedded in art history that remained unchanged until fairly recently.
The chapters are diverse in time period, cultures, and media, and are ordered to form thematic connections. And although not ordered chronologically, the final three chapters look toward more contemporaneous and performative work, which give the reader a sense of how the primary voice of disability arts has altered the conversation in art history. The authors write about artists who address the contemporary issues of intersectionality—the impossibility of speaking about disability without acknowledging other aspects of lived reality, such as gender, race, social class, ethnicity, and religion.
Disability and Art History begins with Millett-Gallant's elegant chapter about Susan Harbage Page's series of photographs of her nephew Peter, with his purposefully unnamed disability in both the chapter and the photography, [End Page 381] as he develops into a young man. Harbage Page evades the problematics of voyeurism of photographing Peter from childhood to young adulthood by inviting him to become a participant in the artform. Millett-Gallant examines the historical problem of photography's appearance of reality while it is in fact an artifact of the photographer's perspective, culture, social order and, in some cases, exploitation. This is the danger with which Harbage Page must deftly deal with her "muse," and in which Millett-Gallant and this reader believe she succeeds. The relationship between the photographer and the "subject" and then later the collaboration between the two, is evident in the loving and tempered depictions of Peter in his daily life.
In a similar theme, Nina Heindl discusses the debate that arises when nondisabled artists choose as their subjects disabled people. Here Heindl discusses two quite different art forms, a contemporary sculpture called Ubermensch depicting Stephen Hawking in a wheelchair precariously placed on a fiberglass cliff, and a television series and later a film called Freakstars 3000 that included intellectually disabled youth. The nature of the debate stems from the public's assumption that disabled people are exploited. While this might appear to be a benign gesture, the author suggests that it is rather a consequence of the public's perception of disability as a problem, loss, or tragedy, and the nondisabled viewer's concomitant discomfort and ambivalence. Heindl quotes an insightful statement by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson regarding the change of focus from the absoluteness of disability, as a result of disability studies, to its place in a system of ideas, constructs, and contexts, and how disability is perceived and represented in this system. The critiques of the two artworks document widely different interpretations. Hawking is either a prisoner of his body in a compromising position, or he is literally and figuratively in a superior position high above the common human being. The non-disabled directors of Freakstars 3000 can easily be faulted for engaging disabled youth in a tableau that is beyond their understanding. Yet this perspective belies the inherent belief in the helplessness of...