Tobin Siebers (University of Michigan) and Tom Bieling (Berlin University of the Arts) thoroughly explore the interconnections between disability, theory, aesthetics, artistic practice, as well as its political dimensions. The discussed elements help in setting the framework to a number of adjacent fields including gender-, diversity- and critical race studies, queer theory or cultural studies.
[Tom Bieling:] In your work you illustrate the crucial roles that the disabled mind and disabled body have played in the evolution of modern aesthetics, unveiling disability as a unique resource discovered by modern art and then embraced by it as a defining concept. A concept that seeks to emphasize the presence of disability in the tradition of aesthetic representation. I know it might be difficult, but could you shortly summarize your core theses especially in the two books “Disability Theory” and “Disability Aesthetics”?
[Tobin Siebers:] Disability Theory and Disability Aesthetics represent two sides of the same argument. The first book is an extended correction of the social model and other theories important to disability studies, and the second book focuses on the disability as an aesthetic value in itself.
Disability Theory corrects the social model (social constructionism) as an argument that 1) limits the political possibilities of people with disabilities and other minorities, 2) refuses to allow that disabled identity possesses verifiable knowledge about the world, and 3) discounts the disabled body, limiting the importance of its appearance and feelings. Although both books are theoretical, Disability Theory makes a concerted effort to think theoretically about many of the major issues in disability studies, sometimes using the help of contemporary theories about culture, language, and art, at other times demonstrating how these contemporary theories fall short because they are incomplete without an understanding of disability. My goal was to stake out a position between the medical and social model by calling for a return to the disabled body, but not in a medical sense. I argue that disability identity has epistemological value, and I posit a theory of “complex embodiment” as a way of understanding that the disabled body and its environment are mutually transformative. My strongest focus on complex embodiment occurs in the chapters on the sexual culture of people with disabilities.
Disability Aesthetics focuses entirely on disability as a body (an aesthetic appearance) that makes other bodies feel. This is my baseline definition of the aesthetic. As a new embodiment, disability provides a major source for new aesthetic forms and emotions crucial to the creation and appreciation of art. Disability Aesthetics names disability as beautiful–in fact as the aesthetic object that makes modern art possible. The book is, I think, the most significant focus to date on disabled embodiment. Here it is not a matter of defining disability with respect to a disabling environment. There are no signs of medicalization, except for those that are disrupted by disability. The focus is on disability as itself. The appearance of disability is chaotic, beautiful, enigmatic—a force that changes the history of art and our perception of the world. Disability is a aesthetic value in itself.
In your work on „Disability Aesthetics“ you describe the attempt to theorize the representation of disability in visual culture and (not only modern) art. You claim, that “the modern in art is perceived as disability, and that disability is evolving into an aesthetic value in itself”. Does this relate to what you said in your article (“What Disability Studies can learn from the Culture Wars”, 1993, or in your Book “Zerbrochene Schönheit” 2009), where you identified the goal “…to establish disability as a significant value in itself worthy for future development”? Would you like to further describe this value, and how it could be developed in future?
In the culture wars, conservative political figures confronted only a few examples of disability aesthetics, and the result was a stand-off. If a few works of art inspired by disability could have such a great impact, imagine what would happen if the number of disability artworks in exhibitions were far greater, if disability artworks were accepted as public art, for example, as Alison Lapper Pregnant was.
The more artwork incorporates disability, the greater the chance we have to change the body politic. But disability aesthetics does not have to be limited to works of art, only to paintings and sculptures. It can also play a significant role in design. The goal is to design a society in which the buildings, household objects, automobiles, tools, computers, jewelry, furniture—all these things and more not only accommodate the disabled body but also reflect the aesthetic values of disability.
You stated that the essential arguments at the heart of the American culture wars in the late twentieth century involved the rejection of disability both by targeting certain artworks as “sick” and by characterizing these artworks as representative of a „sick culture“. Do you see a tendency or approach for a counter concept or opposing model, either in western or in any other culture?
First, this question gives me great hope for the future because from the point of view of disability aesthetics there is no more important problem. How do we change the prevailing attitude that sees human difference as deviance rather than variation?
We are living in two cultures of beauty. The first is a eugenic culture, one that wants to cure or eliminate any person who deviates from the norm. In the West, blond hair, blue eyes, slim waist, and tall height define perfection according to the eugenic norm. In the East, the definition of human perfection is different, but eugenics still stands behind it. The result is an incredibly static vision of what human beauty is.
The second culture of beauty is an aesthetic culture in which beauty is not defined by eugenics. In fact, beauty is disconnected from the human body. As I am fond of saying, Picasso’s Les desmoiselles d’Avignon is beautiful, but if I forced my daughter to use cosmetic surgery to imitate that beauty, I would be rightfully locked in jail. Disconnecting aesthetic beauty from human beauty is a crucial step in freeing ourselves from eugenic culture. It helps us to understand that using aesthetics to determine whether a culture or person is sick represents a misuse of aesthetics and a return to eugenics. Rather, the experience of aesthetic beauty, which is based on variation and difference and not uniformity and stasis, represents a break with eugenic culture. Only when we are capable of recognizing disability in artworks and declaring it beautiful at the same time, will we be making progress against eugenic thought. Then it will no longer make sense to call an artwork “sick.”
Does this relate to “Good Art embodies Disability”? What do you mean by that? And is this related to e.g. the techniques and tendencies of Dada and Expressionism to deform the body or somehow determined norms?
Dada and Expressionism are good examples of artistic movements that deform the human shape to challenge norms. But challenging norms was not the only goal of these movements. They wanted to create new forms of beauty, and they did.
When I stated that “Good art embodies disability,” I meant to do two things. First, I wanted to shake up how people think about art and disability. The statement alone challenges people to question themselves: “If I reject this statement, why do I reject it? Do I think that the presence of disability ruins art? Or do I think that only kitsch embodies disability?”
Second, I was inventing a new proverb for the age of disability aesthetics. We have entered a new era, I argue, where the modern in art is recognized as disability. Good art embodies disability for this reason, and as long as we remain in this era, as long as disability represents an aesthetic value, we will know good art in relation to disability. By the way, I am not speaking exclusively of representational art. Disability aesthetics is active as well in nonrepresentational art. It may not be as obvious to beholders. It may require spending time with the art work. But the pay-off is a new way of looking at nonrepresentational art, one that expands the story of how art creates meaning.
If real beauty – meaning a beauty not in line with popular market conditions – has a connection to „disabled bodies“, then art could guide us towards a (currently utopian) society that is based on inclusion rather than exclusion, accessability instead of barriers, diversity instead of “normality” or monotony. Now, if everything or everybody is equally integrated into the realm of beauty, how would you replace the understandings of beauty / ugly?
What I say is that the beauty dependent on the human body is eugenic, and, yes, the market drives these ideas, although the market also drives aspects of aesthetic beauty as well. (How to free ourselves from the market is an important issue, but it is beyond our scope here.) What you call “real beauty”—a term I would not use—or what I call “aesthetic beauty” embodies disability in the modern era, because disability provides new resources for art makers. I think that it is an important leap to “see” disability in art as beautiful, because disability has never been seen in that way. In effect, then, modern art embraces radically different conceptions of beauty, and this is no small thing. It creates different art, and it has the possibility of changing the body politic.
I want to see more and more disability in art; even more I want to see public art guided by disability aesthetics. However, I do not believe that art will lead to utopia. In fact, I am a bit nervous about the concept of utopia. I do believe in social transformation, in inclusion rather than exclusion, in diversity rather than normality. The disability community has the ability to drive social transformation, and it depends in my opinion on at least two factors, as I try to explain in Disability Theory. First, disabled people have emerged as knowledge producers; they are not merely the objects of medical research. This new knowledge of society frees people with disabilities from oppressive stereotypes because they understand that it provides a better explanation than existing ideas of their social location. The justifications for the oppression of disabled people no longer hold water, and once they realize this fact, they begin to gather together to fight oppression and to transform their society into one that will not only accommodate them but accept their contributions as valuable. Second, I believe that identity politics and political action groups hold the key to leading disabled people to full citizenship. But the political transformation of society by disabled people is at early stages. We hope to follow in the footsteps of other successful minority groups such as women and gays and lesbians. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990 and 2008) has advanced the civil rights of disabled people, but we have a very long way to go before we are full and equal citizens. Other countries are making their way forward with similar legislation, but they all use, as far as I know, political action to advance their goals. Disabled people have to hit the streets.
You mentioned*, that „Aesthetics opens us to more expansive and diverse conceptions of the human, and disability has become a powerful tool for rethinking human appearance, intelligence, behavior, and creativity“. Could you give us an „instruction manual“, how to use this tool?
Fortunately, there is no instruction manual for any form of legitimate aesthetics. There is just no recipe for making art. When people start making rules about what art should be, art disappears and tyranny begins.
Disability is an aesthetic resource discovered by modern artists, and it diversifies our conception of the human. First, the inclusion of physical disability in art changes both how bodies appear and their specific appearances. The commitment to conceive of human beings as other than healthy is obvious in the preference for figural deformation in modern painting and sculpture. Second, mental disability has a great impact on modern art. Modern writers are identifiable as “modern” by their use of disability to create distinctive narrative styles. For example, would Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury be nearly as affecting if it were written without using Benjy Compson’s voice? Or consider the impact of Baudelaire’s distracted flâneur, Proust’s use of involuntary memory, or Joyce’s stream of consciousness. What would modern literature be without them? Disability aesthetics multiplies the varieties of the human, including representations of what human beings think and feel.
In your “Contact Zones” Keynote** you talked about “Disability, Pain, and the Politics of Minority Identity”, exploring the use of disability as a prop to denigrate the politics of minority identity. Could you please elaborate!
My talk is the third and final piece of my on-going argument about the representation of pain on the contemporary political scene. I offer a counterargument to the pervasive belief that pain disables the ability of minority people to participate in politics. As long as minority identities are thought disabled, there is little hope for the political and social equality of either persons with these identities or disabled people, for there will always be one last justification for inferior treatment. There will always be the possibility of proving the inferiority of any given human being at any given moment as long as inferiority is tied to physical and mental difference. Moreover, the idea that pain in itself leads to inferior identities, ones given to greater self-recrimination or frequent victimizing of others, relies on a fallacious psychology prejudiced inherently against disability. These arguments fail when we realize that the lack of political fitness ascribed to minority people depends on an analogy to disabled people and on the false belief that disabled people are biologically inferior.
Tobin Siebers is V. L. Parrington Collegiate Professor of English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan. He is the author of thirteen books, including ‚Disability Theory’ (Michigan 2008) and ‚Disability Aesthetics’ (Michigan, 2010).
Tom Bieling is a visiting professor in Applied Sciences and Art at the German University in Cairo and a PhD candidate at Berlin University of the Arts. He is author of the book ‘Gender Puppets’ (Lit, 2008) and Co-Founder of the Design Research Network.
This text has previously been published in: Baltic Horizons, No 21 (118), II. Social, ethical and political Aspects of Research in Design; October 2013, EuroAcademy Series Art & Design, Euroakadeemia, Tallinn, Estonia; pg 45 – 48