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Reclaiming Difference

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“Disability and Art History”

A book edited by Ann Millett-Gallant and Elizabeth Howie

Art history is slow to change. Other humanities and social science disciplines, since the academic and political upheavals of the 1960s, have broadly incorporated issues of race, class, and gender into their curricula and scholarship. So too has art history, but maverick art historians and those working in related fields like visual culture, ethnic, and gender studies have often found resistance from traditional art historians.

My personal experience leads me to that conclusion. I have taught and written about political art, African American art, Chicano/a art, feminist art, and related themes for decades. When I began researching and teaching political themes in visual art, I encountered resistance, indifference, and even hostility from many traditional art historians who didn’t want the “purity” of fine art muddied up with the muck and grime of political conflict.

I was dealing with artists like Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Käthe Kollwitz, the Mexican muralists, America street artists, political cartoonists, and many others. Most important, I addressed their concerns with war, class conflict, poverty, racism, and related social issues. All of these works negated conventional aesthetic appeal. My most amusing episode, in retrospect, occurred when a graduate student related to me that her very distinguished art history professor told her that I was “destroying art history.” Despite his dire prediction, art history has nonetheless survived (and so have I).


But few academic fields have addressed the issues of people with disabilities, and I have likewise neglected this area. It is therefore extremely fortunate that an academic anthology, “Disability and Art History,” edited by scholars Ann Millett-Gallant and Elizabeth Howie, is now available. It reveals the need to include disability in both the study and practice of art. Its visual examples and scholarly analyses have added a powerful—and long overdue—dimension to the field. It is a welcome addition to the growing body of work in both art history and disability studies.

The volume contains 10 separate essays, but like most anthologies, it suffers from disparate levels of quality and readability. Many of the contributions are highly academic in nature and would scarcely attract even most educated readers. This is a subjective judgment and not intended as pejorative; it is simply an acknowledgment of the remoteness of much of contemporary scholarly writing. Several of the essays here are heavily footnoted efforts that cite and often dispute other scholars as they make their arguments. The hard reality, of course, is that only a few other academics bother to read these works, and I suspect that many merely skim them. Such is the contemporary nature of academic publishing.

Click here to read long excerpts from “Disability and Art History” at Google Books.

Still, there are various pieces here that I think are remarkable contributions to the art historical canon. One, “Difference and Disability in the Photography of Margaret Bourke-White,” by Keri Watson, adds to the already stellar reputation of one of America’s finest socially conscious documentary photographers. This chapter focuses on Bourke-White’s deeply sympathetic photographs of the residents of Letchworth Village, an early 20th century “New York state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” Professor Watson also explores Bourke-White’s images in her 1937 landmark photo-book, “You Have Seen Their Faces.

Bourke-White was ostensibly hired to showcase the state’s generosity in treating the residents of this facility. But a closer look at her images reveals that she subverted this objective. Her photos show the intellectually disabled girls wearing ill-fitting, makeshift dresses. The boys and men are depicted digging ditches, loading thousands of tons of coal, and doing other hard labor, with only room and board for compensation. Above all, Bourke-White reveals the depressing pattern of oppression and injustice that people with cognitive and physical disabilities suffered in that setting. This work is a powerful addition to her body of overall photographic work.

As the author notes, “You Have Seen Their Faces” has received significant scholarly attention. I have personally included many of its images in my teaching and publications for decades. But the book also includes images of poor people with disabilities, images that reflect her deep commitment to social justice art, augmenting her Letchworth Village imagery. That dimension is generally neglected in art historical scholarship. I have shown some of these photographs in my UCLA classes, but I regret not discussing this feature of Bourke-White’s vision. That will change starting in January 2020.

Art history is not entirely devoid of disability issues. Anne Marno’s chapter on Otto Dix’s 1920 painting, “The Cripples,” highlights his work on the tragic situation of severely injured German World War I veterans. It is useful in reminding readers of the unspeakable horrors they faced during the Weimar period. Dix is an established figure in the canon, and is regularly discussed with such stalwart German artists as George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, and many others. Marno links Dix’s work to the contemporary era by analyzing it in conjunction with Israeli filmmaker Yael Bartana’s  2010 film, “Degenerate Art Lives.” It is valuable to resurrect Dix’s disability themes to provide a valuable historical context for disabled artists working in the present.

That focus is one of the most valuable aspects of “Disability and Art History.” Several contemporary artists represented in this volume are exemplary representatives of disabled artists who should be serious figures in current art historical discourse. One of the most intriguing and imaginative is Taiwanese artist, disability activist, and scholar Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi. Educated in the United States, Yi was born into a family with variable numbers of fingers and toes—a reality for generations. She herself has two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot.

She has turned what would seem to be a profound disability into an extraordinarily creative artistic outlet. Her efforts are wearable art pieces specifically molded to fit her hands and feet. She photographs herself wearing these pieces, and in the process confronts “ordinary” people with their views of her as a “freak of nature.”

The issues and implications go deeper. As a visual artist, Sandie Yi recalls that people were shocked and disgusted by the sight of her hands and feet. Deliberately, she accentuates her appendages so that viewers must confront, often uncomfortably, normal standards of female attractiveness, beauty, and sexuality. She uses her art to take agency over her own body and to force a reconsideration of women’s power in patriarchal societies, in both Taiwan and the U.S.

Some of Yi’s most striking artistic efforts involve the objects she inserts between her two toes on both feet. She acknowledges that her works reference the historic Chinese practice of foot binding, and the intense, painful pressure that generations of Chinese women had to endure by balancing on their toes. Yi acknowledges and critiques the deep sexism of her ethnic ancestry, while simultaneously advancing disability rights through her visual arts productivity.

Another thoroughly compelling artist represented in this volume is Nomy Lamm. She describes herself provocatively as a “bad ass, fat ass, Jew dyke amputee … feminist dancer, performance artist, writer.” Her artworks reclaim “’fat” and “amputee” from the margins of American respectability and force her audiences to reevaluate American standards—and their own—of physical attractiveness and acceptability. Although her body is dramatically different from that of Sandie Yi, she performs the identical confrontational function with her artwork.

Shayda Kafai’s chapter on Lamm focuses on her 2008 multidisciplinary performance, “Wall of Fire,” which encompasses performance art, visual art, singing, fashion, and, above all, artistic activism. Kafai’s description of Lamm’s event is outstanding. Her details provide readers with the best possible understanding short of actually seeing the performance itself. “Wall of Fire” is only 7 minutes and 13 seconds long and readily available online; it is a perfect complement to this chapter.

At the outset, Lamm begins singing, boldly accentuating her fat body, reclaiming that pejorative word as a political statement. Her sheer, red, form-fitting negligee over her breasts pushed down over her shoulders clearly communicates her lust. Females and males alike cannot help but gaze at her body; that is of course her objective, offering herself as an alluring sexual being.

In the most dramatic moment of the performance, Lamm pulls off her prosthetic left leg, and seductively raises her negligee to the top of her thigh. She then holds her leg in front of her body, and begins slapping it rhythmically and erotically.  Like “fat,” she negates the pejorative language of “crip” and “cripple” in the same way that LBGTQ people have reappropriated the term “queer.”

Lamm has upended conventional notions of sexuality in her art. She boldly proclaims that the desexualization ascribed to disabled and overweight people must end. She uses her own fat and amputated body to show that she, and others like her, can honor and enjoy their own sexuality. That political message should resonate in both the disabled community and in the general population.

“Disability and Art History” offers other examples of disabled artists who contribute to both art historical conversations and to the growing body of disabled art:  dwarfism, PTSD, breast cancer, traumatic brain injuries—those conditions and many more have been and will continue to be represented in the visual culture of our times.  This book is a useful augmentation to the slowly changing discipline of art history. African American, Latino/a, feminist, LGBTQ, political activist, and other scholars and artists historically marginalized and excluded from the academy have blazed the path. Nothing can stop that trajectory.

Source: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/reclaiming-difference/
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