Georgina Kleege's More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (2018) brings art history, philosophy, disability studies, and the politics of accessibility into productive discussion. The book proposes blind people and the experience of blindness are crucial parts of the creation, appreciation, and theorization of visual art and culture, and purposefully puts "blind people in dialogue with the philosophers, scientists, and educators who study blindness and speak on behalf of the blind" (12). Building on her foundational Sight Unseen (1999), Kleege weaves personal narrative with a close reading of philosophical texts and a trove of historical and contemporary art works, moving from accounts of her own embodied experiences using assistive technologies in art institutions to an analysis of Dennis Diderot's 18th century letters.

Kleege argues blindness is more than the Hypothetical Blind Man, a stock character considered in philosophical theories of consciousness explored by the likes of Diderot, Descartes, and Locke. Born blind, this figural man is often tasked with serving as a subject of pity for sighted audiences and his appearances in philosophical thought often involve the desire for sight through haptic means. These include seeing with his hands or using a stick to construct a mental image of his surroundings – assumptions that persist in accessibility options for the blind that include a predilection for touch and the government issued white cane. In each chapter, Kleege uses examples of Western art history and the experiences of blind artists and art consumers to unwork the assumptions about blind individuals fostered by the centuries long prevalence of the Hypothetical Blind Man. Kleege's focus on visual art to do so allows for a further weaving of threads that make prominent the lived experiences of disabled populations as consumers of visual culture and the position of disability in the creation and circulation of disciplinary conventions.

In one such thread, Kleege reveals how blind individuals already occupy a space in visual culture and should not be infantilized by the accessibility tools of fine art institutions. Kleege references her upbringing as the daughter of two visual artist parents and her life both inside and on the margins of the fine art world since becoming blind at the age of 11. She moves through the history of assistive technologies available to blind art patrons and provides detailed accounts of the accessibility tours available at a number of museums in the US and Europe. Though inclusion of blind people in fine art spaces is on the rise, these institutions often still work from the figure of the Hypothetical Blind Man, creating tours that fail to account for patrons like Kleege, who became blind at a young age, and rarely consider the diverse artistic experiences, imaginations, and sensory desires of blind art audiences. Kleege's experience of the ubiquitous art museum 'touch tour', which allows blind patrons to touch certain art objects, demonstrates the array of senses stimulated in the experience of art beyond the visual, even for sighted audiences. Touch, Kleege states, is not a replacement for vision. In addition, Kleege cites an array of blind artists, with the final chapter focused on contemporary practitioners including Carmen Papalia and Alice Wingwall.

In another thread, Kleege expands the conversation on accessibility. Her focus on the amount of time and planning required of blind art patrons to schedule a touch tour is a prime example of how disability is often accessed through a different temporal framework, creating an important dialogue with the rich literature on crip time (see Kafer 2013, McRuer 2006). In addition, Kleege provides thick descriptions of all artworks cited. There are some images included, but all works of art are described using an array of sensory details. Kleege does not fail to speak to the diverse capacities and needs of the audience she is asking art institutions to more thoughtfully consider. Fittingly, she then moves the issue of accessibility into the wider public space of visual culture. She uses the analogy of the ramp to make the case for the wider utility of accessibility tools often reserved for blind individuals. Chapter 7, for example, focuses on audio description in film and TV as an accessibility feature exclusive to disabled audiences. Kleege suggests this feature has a wider utility. She describes taking her mostly sighted students to watch The Sessions (2012) in a theater that provided audio description to the entire audience. She notes how many of her students found the descriptions to be an enhanced aesthetic component, adding notes about character motivations or behaviors that would otherwise be absent from the film. In this example, Kleege offers a way to theorize more inclusive cultural spaces and delivers a classroom exercise to readers who might teach disability studies courses or topics on college campuses.

In these woven threads, Kleege offers the opportunity to think through the historical use of 'blindness' as metaphor in discursive practice. As an interdisciplinary field, disability studies scholarship often works to question the ableist conventions that filter throughout the English language. Kleege contributes to this ethos and prompts further inquiry into the philosophical roots and conventions of Western art history and curatorial practices that so often alienate blind participants and audiences in theory and practice. Kleege brings a nuance to this larger discussion and I can imagine her text would generate a lively discussion in any disability studies course, especially if assigned with Dolmage's Disability Rhetoric (2014) or perhaps the edited collection, Keywords for Disability Studies (2015). More Than Meets the Eye, however, should be utilized by more than just scholars and students of disability studies. Kleege's text should be essential reading for students in art history or for those pursuing an MFA degree in museum studies, curatorial studies, and the fine or the performing arts. It would also serve readers of Western philosophy an opportunity to consider more deeply the ways in which the discipline historically works from the position of conceptualizing an able body as universal or 'neutral' in theories of consciousness.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Rachel et al. Keywords for Disability Studies. New York: New York University Press. 2015.
  • Diderot, Dennis. Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature and Other Philosophical Works, ed. David Adams. Manchester: Clinamen Press. (1749) 1999.
  • Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 2014.
  • Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2013
  • Kleege, Georgina. More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. New York: Oxford University Press. 2018.
  • ___. Sight Unseen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1999.
  • McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press. 2006.
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