From Odysseus's scar, to Brueghel's painted peasants, to Victorian illness in sentimental fiction, to war-torn soldiers, to the mentally ill and psychologically alienated in contemporary war films, disability influences every genre and medium in the history of art. Disability studies scholars have explored slices of this history — for instance, Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum in Defects: Engendering the Modern Body (on the eighteenth century), or Martha Stoddard Holmes's Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Others have engaged specific kinds of disability across time, as in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Still others have ambitiously explored the representation of various kinds of disability, as in Mitchell and Snyder's Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Even with this rich history,Tobin Siebers's Disability Aesthetics takes the project of theorizing disability's role in art across the ages to a new level. Siebers demonstrates that disability is not only a fundamental concern of art but also a critical concept that helpfully raises questions about beauty and the appropriate content of art — in other words, questions about "what art is" (20).
Siebers begins with the question, "To what concept, other than the idea of disability, might be referred modern art's love affair with misshapen and twisted bodies, stunning variety of human forms, intense representation of traumatic injury and psychological alienation, and unyielding preoccupation with wounds and tormented flesh?" (4). However, this is not just a question with the obvious answer, "No other concept." Siebers adds the qualifying questions: according to what system of valuing disability do most people think the Venus de Milo is beautiful, while they will most likely dismiss Nazi art as kitschy — that is, if Nazi art even retains the circulation for people to encounter it in the first place? Building on Alexander Baumgarten's definition of aesthetics as "the way some bodies make other bodies feel," Siebers's answer to the primary question is that disability is central to aesthetics because it enlarges our understanding of human variation, which, generally speaking, is what art is about (1).
This ambitious and important book makes several large claims, all of which center on the aesthetic and revolutionary potential of disability to transform our understanding of what constitutes beauty. At the same time, Siebers argues that disability's valorization along these lines threatens existing ways of critiquing works of art in terms of disability and defect, as well as existing ways of devaluing human bodies in aestheticized terms. As a concluding illustration of disability's potential impact on aesthetics, Siebers discusses Susan Dupor's painting Streams of Consciousness, which depicts a woman swimming in a stream with her eyes closed. A number of hands emerge above the surface of the water in front of her. Dupor is deaf, and the painting's title indicates that the hands represent consciousness in language: the swimmer's eyes are closed, but she continues to think and process in sign language. The hands are similar to the swimmer's and are "neither surrealistic nor gothic" (138). Rather, by concretizing disabled consciousness in sign language, they indicate "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" (139). In this and other examples, Siebers demonstrates that if disability becomes part of our understanding of beauty, it will no longer be possible to dismiss works of art by referring to them as "broken" or to devalue disabled bodies by calling them "ugly."
Disability Aesthetics takes as its objects of analysis sculpture, performance art, websites, painting, popular and medical photography, film, newspapers, built environments and architectural theory, trauma studies, cultural theory, "outsider" art, and art vandalism. Such an ambitious range of materials makes sense for this book, since Siebers wants to make claims about disability's status not in aesthetics of a particular period or genre, but as part of the very notion of the aesthetic. If aesthetics is about bodies, then disabled bodies must figure in any account of the interaction between human bodies and the artistic bodies we create. As Siebers points out, "If aesthetics 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.… The body is, simply put, where everything in human culture begins and ends" (136).
The first four chapters — "Introducing Disability Aesthetics," "The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification," "What Can Disability Studies Learn from the Culture Wars?," and "Disability and Art Vandalism" — and the conclusion, "Disability in the Mirror of Art," are especially lucid, though the whole book is insightful and incisive. For example, in the chapter on art vandalism, Siebers identifies the following paradox: on the one hand, images of disabled bodies are often regarded as beautiful when their content intentionally takes on disability or when the object comes to us already containing disability as part of its form. The disabled peasants in Brueghel's The Mendicants "are static emblems of human differences, safely on display in a freak show, and we need not worry that they will cross the boundary between art and reality" (91). On the other hand, however, works of art conceived as able-bodied and then disabled by vandalism become repulsive by virtue of this assault on their form, and they are often described as maimed and broken bodies. So, when Hans-Joachim Bohlmann flung sulfuric acid onto Rubens's portrait of Archduke Albrecht in 1982, the vandal's act created an impression of injury. "Because the vandal has violated the barrier between art and reality, the barrier no longer stands to protect us from the new and invasive emotions now attached to the work. The vandalized image may be broken, but its ability to represent its new object [i.e., a disabled body] is somehow rawer, more immediate, more potent" (92). Representations of disability and trauma can be beautiful — Siebers invites us to think, for example, of Andy Warhol's images of car accidents — but assaults on formerly "intact" bodies probably cannot. For Siebers, this tension reveals the complexity of disability's aesthetic function: disability is by turns beautiful and disqualifying in both art and in life.
Disability Aesthetics maps this complexity and successfully identifies ways that disability has (often unconsciously) been and should (consciously) continue to be a part of our understanding of beauty and humanity. The introductory chapter would be a useful contribution to an upper-level undergraduate course in disability studies, but in general the book is probably best used by graduate students and scholars in disability studies and, as mentioned, those working on aesthetics. The book will be especially useful to art historians and critics but also to anyone interested in matters of aesthetics in any conceivable medium, period, or genre. The great achievement of Disability Aesthetics is its successful argument for the centrality of disability to any consideration of art. It would benefit future aesthetics and art criticism to take up Siebers's call to include disability in both their conceptions of art and their analysis of particular works.