Commentary by Tobin Siebers, V. L. Parrington Collegiate Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Art & Design, University of Michigan
Art is the mirror of nature, it has often been said, but what of disability reflected in the mirror of art? Supposedly, the fabled perfection of art began by mirroring the faultless beauty of nature. Greek and Roman art focuses almost always on the beautiful physique, and this focus, so difficult to shake, endures until the modern age. Johann Joachim Winckelmann claims in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture that the beauty of Greek sculpture descends directly from the beautiful nature of the Greek body, beautiful nature and healthy bodies still being for him practically synonymous. Similarly, Alexander Baumgarten conceives beauty in his Reflections on Poetry as the mental harmony felt by the beholder before a body. The experience of aesthetic objects organizes in itself the internal consistency of the mind. Aesthetics begins implicitly, if not explicitly, as a mode designed to perfect human beings. Today, some thinkers continue to believe that images trap the psyche in the illusion of perfection, and although this perfection may prove to be a mirage, it has tenacious durability. Jacques Lacan speculates in “The Mirror Stage” (Ecrits 1966) that the human ego discovers at an early age the false image of its own perfection in the mirror. The small child, barely able to stand, nearly incapable of controlling its movements, looks into the mirror to discover the static but masterful image of a mature and able body—a narcissistic image of the ego that the child will never be able to live up to.
The Body in Pieces
Disability breaks the mirror of art as traditionally conceived by putting into question the art object’s relation to perfection, but the beauty reflected in the broken mirror grows more beautiful as a result. The more we enter the modern age, the stronger the equation between art and disability—and to the point where we sometimes perceive the presence of art itself in the image of disability. Disability, disease, and injury have become the figures by which aesthetic beauty is often recognized. Hal Foster associates wounding and injury with an aesthetic realism born of the trauma of modern existence (Return of the Real 1996), while Linda Nochlin claims that the modern in art is made out of the loss of wholeness, embracing the impression that fragmentation reigns, connections in life have been shattered, and permanent values have disintegrated (The Body in Pieces, 2001, 23-24). She traces the essence of modernism to the French Revolution as the historical moment when the body in pieces becomes for modernity a “positive rather than negative trope” (8). Leonard Barkan’s Unearthing the Past (1999) attributes the origin of modernity’s appreciation of the fragmentary, broken, and injured to an earlier period, in the unearthing of classical fragmentary statuary in Renaissance times, calling the modern idea that fragments have “value independent of any potential for being made whole again” “a category shift” (122), one that reorients the “whole project of making art in response to broken bodies” (209). In an increasingly global world, modern art moves away from cultural languages to the biological diversity of the body, and disability marks the outer boundaries of the body diversely conceived. In fact, so strong is the equation between art and disability that we begin to view past works of art in terms of the irrepressible image of disability given by the modern world.
Nevertheless, the force of specific historical arguments, such as those by Foster, Nochlin, Barkan, and others, seems compromised by the fact that art has a longstanding relationship with the human desire to understand the human differently. The making of any object, out of any substance, by a human being is also in some way a making and remaking of the human. The object of human craft is the human being, and the most immediate sign of the human and the material out of which we craft it is the human body. If art and the human are inseparable, it is because art is the process by which human beings attempt to modify themselves—and this process is a crucial factor in human history. Moreover, when art expresses the desire to perceive the human differently, it must consider human beauty differently as well, and if recent art shows anything, it is that beauty has become a radical concept by virtue of its preoccupation with the disabled body. Beauty is other today—and like no other time in human history.
The usual effect of reflecting on disability finds disabled people looking into the mirror and dreaming of ability. Putting disability in the mirror of art, however, discovers a different mode of reflection. A brief look at two paintings may help to describe the effect of combining disability and aesthetic value. Both paintings engage disability in relation to self-reflection, asking how art works put disability in the place of the beholder’s mirror image. The first and earlier painting does not take disability as its explicit subject matter, although it is tricky, thanks to the centrality of disability to the ambition of art, not to read it that way. The second painting is the work of a disabled artist, and it takes her experience of disability as its theme. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the painting makes it difficult to reduce the content only to disability, suggesting that disability now claims a broader symbolic dimension touching on human imagination and self-transformation.
Two Bathers, or Dina, Back and Profile by Aristide Maillol has many typical features associated with his work (see Bernard Lorquin, Maillol Peintre, Paris: RMN, 2001, 166-67). The woman or women are fleshy, with round stomachs and heavy thighs; their breasts are small; and they wear their hair up in a twist. The nondisabled woman lies with her back to the beholder in the grass next to a pool. The armless and legless woman floating on the surface of the pool, whether the reflection of the nondisabled woman or her twin rendered limbless by immersion in water, faces the beholder. Thus, the painting unfolds a fundamental ambiguity that ends by confirming the importance of disability in modern art. The title asks the beholder to decide whether the painting represents one or two women, but the decision cannot be made absolutely without destroying the defining symbolism of the work. The conceit is to render the back and profile of Dina Vierny as an encounter between two bathers, providing the experience of volume given by sculpture, but the unity of the human body renders the conceit problematic in the absence of a mirror, explaining why the painting requires the presence of water as a possible reflective surface.
Reflection is the master trope of the painting, but this trope is anchored by the representation of disability, whether the work portrays one or two women. If the painting includes two women, it shows them reflecting on themselves in comparison to one another. Whether the encounter is erotic is not clear, but the image demands in any event to be read as a scene of desire. Either the women desire to possess one another or to be one another, producing the conundrum of modern identity recognized by feminist thinkers in which women are pitted against one another as they judge their bodies either superior or inferior. Here the fragmentary form of the woman in the pool signifies that crucial physical difference—the difference that demands to be read as either the superiority or inferiority of one figure. If the painting includes only one woman, it pictures a woman examining her reflection in a pool—the archetypical scene of narcissism. But here the archetype fails because the reflection is not more perfect than the original. Narcissus does not fall in love with his better. Or, perhaps, the reflected figure is the more perfect: disability in the mirror of art revolutionizes the idea of perfection to include the impairment of foreshortened limbs.
The riddle of Maillol’s painting is, at the very least, to move between these two interpretations, but one idea appears to be constant, whether the painting depicts two women or one: the work presents a confrontation between ability and disability. The figure in the foreground is able-bodied, but the figure in the background, because of the immersion in the water, appears as if her limbs are cut off, despite the fact that there is no reason why a reflection in water should automatically give the image of amputation. Rather, a more informed interpretation understands that the woman in the pool mirrors Maillol’s embrace of the tradition of fragmentary classical sculpture and its definition of beauty. In this tradition, the loss of limbs demands to be understood as the essence of beauty. Maillol copies the beauty of the Venus de Milo here, as he does elsewhere (see his last sculpture, Harmonie, 1940-44, a bronze statue of an armless woman), capitalizing on the modern tradition of representing beauty by incompleteness, breakage, and disability. If there are two women in the painting, the disabled one is named the more beautiful, as if Maillol wishes to contrast an aesthetic, fragmentary, and broken beauty to a lesser, intact beauty. If there is one woman in the painting, she appears to imagine her form more perfectly as incomplete or disabled, as if she aspires to the legendary beauty of the Venus de Milo. In both cases, disability represents the aesthetic value and the summit of what beauty might achieve. The equation between art and disability found throughout modern art is confirmed by the fact that there is really no way to interpret the incomplete figure as other than beautiful.
Reflecting on Disability
Susan Dupor‘s Stream of Consciousness, shown above, shows a woman swimming downstream in a narrow river surrounded by lush vegetation, her reflection lightly visible and doubling her in the water around her. She is not, however, looking at the reflection. Her eyes are closed, and she seems to be sleeping, so relaxed and taken with the inner life of consciousness as in a dream. Only the appearance of nine hands rising out of the surface of the stream startles the tranquil scene. The hands mirror the hands of the swimmer, as if to mimic her future strokes as she advances downstream, but the painting is not an exercise in cubism, blurring, or trompe-l’oeil. Its goal is not to depict motion but thought, as the work’s title indicates, for Dupor is deaf, and this painting, like many others by her, includes multiple hands as a method for expressing the presence of sign language. The stream in which the swimmer courses represents a stream of consciousness expressed in hand signs.
Although disembodied hands may seem to eyes untutored by Dupor to have a chilling effect, as if severed hands or the hands of strange beings were reaching out around the primary figure of the painting (see also Courtship or Halcyon), the effect here is not macabre because the hands are neither surrealistic nor gothic. They clearly belong to the swimmer, and they express a world in which she is deeply absorbed. Nor does the mirroring of the swimmer elicit a potentially damaging encounter in which two women judge one another’s physical beauty as superior or inferior. The mirror image suggests self-reflection, but in the absence of narcissism, because sign language mediates the action of self-reflection. The swimmer is not self-absorbed but absorbed in language—a language at once natural to her and artificial: the language of hand signs is both a part of the river and its natural surroundings and a social artifact used for communication with other people. More important, the work represents sign language with multiple disembodied hands, invoking the idea of fragmentary statuary, as in Maillol, but pushing the tradition of broken beauty in a new direction. Rather than representing beauty by removing body parts, Dupor’s painting multiplies them, suggesting that disabled bodies possess a beauty and amplitude previously ignored. The swimmer flows through a world in which perfection does not provide the only standard for human ability and beauty. Spread out before her are the living symbols of a beautiful and expressive future defined by a radically different conception of the human body and mind.
Disability as an Aesthetic Value
Art’s desire to transform the human revolutionizes beauty by claiming disability as the form of biological diversity with the greatest potential for artistic representation. The figure of disability checks out of the asylum, the sick house, and the hospital to take up residence in the art gallery, the museum, and the public square. Disability is now and will be in the future an aesthetic value in itself.