Among the humanities, art history has been one of the less-developed areas in Disability Studies. While literary studies of the representation of disabled people were among the foundational areas of the field, the parallel in visual media has been less robust. Some of the most significant works in the field that address art, such as Tobin Siebers Disability Aesthetics and Rosemarie Garland Thomson's multiple writings on enfreakment and book Staring, tend to situate art as just one approach to narrative and representation. Others, notably Georgina Kleege's book More than Meets the Eye, address the situation of disabled people vis a vis the art world and access.

Several recent anthologies, including Disability and Art History (2016) and Mobilizing Metaphor (2016), have begun to shape a new field of disability art history. This volume edited by Alice Wexler and John Derby (and completed by Wexler after Derby's death), builds on these precedents, and shares several authors with the previous works. However, this book also introduces artists' and curators' reflections and more deeply engages with the place of disability and disabled people within art-world practices. The title, therefore, refers to contemporary art not only as a category of works, but as a space of production and discourse in itself.

The first two of the book's five sections take on the issues of access and (lack of) belonging in art spaces, and collaborations that can often marginalize disabled people. Two strong opening chapters by Taraneh Fazeli and Carmen Papalia, curator and artist, respectively, take on the inaccessibility of the art world as a central, rather than ancillary, matter to their practices. Both authors question and circumvent typical access approaches – for example, by presenting access inquiries as questionnaires rather than statements, or posting "RADICAL ACCESS" signs as a clear statement of intention. They also both tie access work to other current issues of racism and colonization within the institutions where they show their work.

In the second section on collaboration, an article by Mira Kallio-Tavin and a second co-authored by Claire Penketh, Anne James, Sam Wade, and Richard Nutter address scenarios of collaboration among disabled and nondisabled artists – Kallio-Tavin looking at visual artist programs in Finland, and the second group looking at a British youth music festival called DaDaFest. Both chapters address the ethics and history of practices that have often been patronizing and constrained disabled artists' contributions in the interest of "therapeutic" or artistic goals. While these two essays address longer histories of therapeutic and pedagogical collaboration, a standout piece by Carol Zou raises questions about the newer context of "social practice" artworks. Through the work of Fiamma Montezemolo, whose work Echo revisits artists' works airing traumatizing experiences, Zou asks for an account of the potentially re-traumatizing impact of these works on their participants.

Underlying many of these pieces is the core argument that art institutions frequently wish to resolve disability in tidy and controlled ways – whether by cordoning off issues of access to facilities managers, or maintaining a (non-disabled) artist's priorities in a collaboration with disabled artists. As if in response, many of the articles represent collaboration themselves. Co- and multiple-authored pieces support the idea presented by Karen Keifer-Boyd, Alice Wexler, and Michelle Kraft in their chapter on "communitarian dialogic-cosmopolitanism," or an idea that belonging in the art world is itself an embodied relation that can only happen collectively and with intention.

The later sections of the book present closer readings of artists' works themselves, many of them building on Disability Studies theories of representation and practice. Amanda Cachia and Ann Millet-Gallant address ableist histories of representation in film and modern art, but take a new turn to suggest ways that the "narrative prosthesis" can support a liberatory reading by a disabled viewer (and in Millet-Gallant's case, participant). Stefanie Snider's chapter on the intimate cancer photographs of Tee Corinne and Jack Richardson and Jennifer (Eisenhauer) Richardson's study of Bill Shannon's dancing performance work both offer close readings of works that publicly reveal physicality of the artist's and others' selves. Carrie Sandahl's chapter in the middle of this section, observing the work of Matt Boddett and others in the 3Arts residency that Sandahl runs, ties this section together by proposing a distinctive phenomenological turn in contemporary disability art. In all of these examples, the artwork is not an autonomous work, but a relational one, in which maker, subject, and audience are drawn in at various turns to qualify and interpret the work.

A section on Outsider Art is shorter and less cohesive, with two chapters: one by Wexler on Lee Godie, who took striking self-portraits in bus stations and sold her work outside the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1970s, and another on Aurie Ramirez, a Filipina autistic artist whose work playfully depicts sexuality and gender expression. I was surprised that Wexler's essay did not address the recent National Gallery exhibition, American Vanguards, that sought to resolve the "outsider" category by pairing recognized art-world figures with "outsiders"; the exhibition, like Wexler's essay, aligned Godie's photo portraiture with Cindy Sherman's, but without the insights of Disability Studies and the questions of postmodern artist's identity that Wexler applies.

The final section includes first-person accounts by artists themselves: Riva Lehrer on portraiture; John Derby on mental disability as a source of both struggle and the "accidental accomplishments" of his own work [previously published in DSQ]; Katherine Sherwood on her disability art communities; and an interview with four artists (all outside of the U.S.) who discuss their work, with attention to issues of disclosure. While these pieces represent very different perspectives, they show the extent to which artists themselves are engaged with themes of Disability Studies, from histories of representation to the relational models discussed elsewhere in the book.

Even though the chapters are wide-ranging, threading through is a sense of relational and collaborative work; few of these chapters address only one artist's work. When they do, it is within the context of others – audience, curators, teachers/students, or the viewer as a conversant. While often critical of the practices and orientation of the current art world, the authors assert a belief in contemporary art as a field open to exploring boundaries, particularly in addressing the politics of embodiment and identity – and that these commitments might allow for change to create inclusion that would go beyond being listed as a "great artist" or intermittently being given access.

As I began this book and reflected on the relatively small bibliography of art history and contemporary art writing on disability, I wondered why we continue to see so many anthologized works and not as many monographs. Perhaps it's due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, or – in a contemporary scholarly reality – to the lack of funding support that many in the field experience as freelance writers or curators. For others, it may be that short writing in collaboration is more appropriate to their overall practices as makers or curators.

Several of the chapters in this text could represent a monograph-in-progress, and I hope some of them indicate a new literature emerging on the curation, collaboration, and the output of disability arts. Still, within this collection, many of the chapters come together as a whole to make an argument for the relationality of disability as it appears in the art world and for the need for clear ethical and theoretical grounding for this work. Together they reflect the collaborative and intra-citational nature of Disability Studies and its important implications for the contemporary art world.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2021 Bess Williamson

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)