This review summarizes Ann Millett-Gallant's (2010) The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art in conjunction with Christine Ross's (2006) The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression. The primary focus of this review is Millett-Gallant's book, which is perhaps the first major union of art history and disability studies. It significantly contributes to disability studies' engagement with art and visual culture, adding complexity to the often one-dimensional, anti-ableist interpretations of visual artifacts, although it arguably does not significantly extend any specific trajectory of disability theory. It importantly embeds disability studies perspectives within the lexicon of art history, although its methodological makeup deviates from typical art history books on contemporary art. To show how Millett-Gallant's book draws from art history but breaks away from its traditions, I compare it to Ross's art history book, which does not recognize disability studies scholarship or assume a disability standpoint, but arrives at parallel conclusions. Both books diversely provide close, complex readings of contemporary artworks and trends that are relevant to disability studies scholars, art historians, and others interested in the intersection of art and disability.

Millett-Gallant provides detailed analyses of specific artworks and bodies of artwork whose subject is visibly disabled persons. The content considered includes a live performance and a sculpture of two women who have no arms, photographs of various "freaks," and fantastic but realistic-looking photographic collages. All of the artworks resemble or parody historic Western art and visual culture. Millett-Gallant's overarching aim is to reject one-dimensional readings of visual culture artifacts about disability that are common in art history and disability studies. Throughout the book, she uses "methods of comparative visual analyses" (p. 19) to demonstrate the importance of changing how audiences view and interpret disability images, rather than attempting to "rescue" (p. 18) disability images from oppressive visual histories. Millett-Gallant asserts that a range of contemporary art media, especially photography, is performative through its interactions with visual histories and audiences. She advocates adding alternative narratives and multiple layers of meaning to recognize the visual disabled body as a complex and multidimensional performative subject, capable of "staring back and forth."

The four major chapters in The Disabled Body each center on specific artworks from the late 1960s onward, and I discuss each chapter, in turn, below. The first two chapters discuss examples that allude to Venus de Milo, the ironically armless icon of ideal beauty. Chapter 1, "Disarming Venus," extends the widest reach of any chapter, discussing legendary performance pieces by Mary Duffy and Cheryl Marie Wade (Mitchell & Snyder, 2000), self-photographic images of artists Sandie Yi and Susan Harbage Page, and freak show photographs from the nineteenth century. Chapter 1 is also the most theoretically definitive, as Millett-Gallant employs a feminist methodology to show how various Venuses in art have debated patriarchal ideals of beauty and sexuality. Chapter 2, "Sculpting Body Ideals," discusses internationally-known artist Marc Quinn's marble sculpture of paraplegic artist Alison Lapper nude (pictured on the cover of Lennard Davis's third edition of The Disability Studies Reader). This sculpture and others in Quinn's Complete Marbles series of amputee sculptures extends the Venus lineage: like Duffy's performance, the sculpted nude Allison Lapper Pregnant recognizes the disabled body as sexual, and unlike Duffy's work it recognizes the disabled body as fertile. The towering sculpture of Lapper is particularly potent because of its prominent 18-month residency on one of four large pedestals in Trafalgar Square alongside statues of military heroes. Millet-Gallant argues that the public placement of the work and the dialogue it elicits constitutes performance. Her assertion that material works can and do perform warrants deeper theorization, but her discussion of reactions by artists, critics, and ordinary citizens confirms the sculpture's engagement with public discourse. Like the photographic artwork of Alison Lapper, Millett-Gallant suggests that Quinn's sculpture of the artist challenges presumptions about Classical beauty, in this case within the contemporary art tradition of confrontational, revisionist works that critically allude to historic art and visual culture.

The third chapter, "Performing Amputation," concentrates on Joel-Peter Witkin's fantastic yet realistic photographic collages, which feature "shocking" themes such as bondage, dismemberment, and amputees. Millett-Gallant likens the portraits, which Witkin painstakingly manipulates to appear antique, to early medical photography and quasi-scientific photographs of "freaks" that were sold at freak shows. To convey these photographs as performative, Millett-Gallant explains how Witkin's amputee portraits parody European masterworks, enlisting classical, ableist conventions to "erase power dynamics of the gaze/stare" and to mask the artist's own exploitative acts (p. 102). She argues that Witkin "highlights their wondrous bodies as spectacular and performative rather than medically legitimate" (p. 88), as Classical immortal beauties, thus amputating the medical gaze of photography and challenging the ideal beauty mandated by contemporary visual culture. However, the mixed reactions of critics that Millet-Gallant discusses, many of whom chastise Witkin for exploiting his grotesque sitters (i.e., people who "sit" to be photographed), suggests the images do not always perform, much less subvert. Millett-Gallant suggests Witkin's work demands viewers to consider why, not how, the subjects are disturbing. But from this dialogue emerges the question of what performs the critical amputation, or how? Is the locus of subversive power in artist, the sitter (subject), the work, or the viewer? Or is subversion accomplished through processes and circumstances such as disability studies scholars who view, interpret, and report on the works, or everyday viewers who think about or converse about the works?

Chapter 4, "Exceeding the Frame," takes an interesting turn away from recent art to Diane Arbus's photographs from the 1960s to early 1970s, and away from disabled people per se to "idiosyncratic masses masquerading and parading indiscretion" (Millett-Gallant, p. 113), including carnival workers (e.g., little people, side show "freaks"), transvestites, bodybuilders, identical twins, and nudists. Millett-Gallant responds to David Hevey's (1992) criticism that Arbus "enfreak[s]" disabled people by representing them as outcasts, and to the widespread assertion that Arbus was interested in outcasts because of her own social difficulties and chronic depression. Attending to contextual aspects of the gaze, Millett-Gallant argues that "Arbus's images are anything but one-dimensionally objectifying" (p. 139), concluding that "Arbus's images … point to the very irony of the gaze itself — we look at the other in attempts to see ourselves more clearly" (p. 139). Chapter 4 works to cement the book's thesis that disabled subjects in contemporary art invite and return the gaze, thus creating a dialogic exchange. Perhaps where Hevey interprets Arbus as enfreaking disability in this vein, others could interpret Hevey as disabling Arbus and her sitters. The uncertainty that this disagreement raises reflects Millett-Gallant's own experience of the gaze/stare regarding certain bodily features that clearly qualify as impairments and others that may be regarded as simply atypical. Millet-Gallant describes this in detail through a close reading of Frida Kahlo's self-portrait, Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938), as an expression of the intersectionality between sexuality, race, gender, and disability. Here, Millett-Gallant (perhaps inadvertently) exposes the impossibility of accurately representing disability due to its diverse appearances and categorizations. However, the retreat from current art to art that predates disability studies, pointing back to Kahlo's 1930s work, seems to work against the notion that contemporary art is a progression beyond the rigid ideals of modernism.

Comparatively, in The Aesthetics of Disengagement, Ross considers a narrower scope of artists with a more acute focus than Millett-Gallant. Ross examines high-profile, active artists whose video, installation, group performance, and other unconventional work is definitively current. While the style and content of this work is disparate, Ross cohesively frames it as characteristic of what she identifies as a ubiquitous "depressive paradigm" in contemporary Western culture. Similar to Millett-Gallant, some of the works Ross discusses are more overtly about depression than others; mainstream audiences (and perhaps the artists) would likely interpret certain works in both books as unrelated to disability. To bolster her claims, Ross contextualizes the work in relation to historic artworks that deal with depression, whereas Millett-Gallant promises to "[place] works by disabled and nondisabled artists in dialogue with one another and with larger visual histories, including visual art in all media, photography, popular media, film, performance, medical imagery, and … freak shows," as a departure from conventional art history readings (p. 6). Millett-Gallant's synthesis of available historic information and literature about the artworks is extensive, but the incorporation of these broad histories is not always thorough. Millett-Gallant's occasional references to "visual culture" have more to do with content (i.e., popular culture beyond fine art) than the critical academic field.

The Disabled Body summons little sustained support from likely critical theorists (e.g., Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan), visual culture theorists (e.g., Mirzoeff, Mitchell), early modern art historians (e.g., Panofsky), contemporary art historians (e.g., Foster, Krauss), or feminist theorists (e.g., Butler, Kristeva), though all these disciplines are referenced throughout the book. Particularly surprising is the extent to which the gaze and various gazes are discussed without extensive attention to visuality. Millett-Gallant instead allies herself with select disability studies scholarship, specifically Anne Finger's (1997) fictional encounter between Frida Kahlo and Helen Keller, Petra Kuppers's (2003) work on disabled performers and artists, Lennard Davis's (1995) discussion of normalcy, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's (e.g., 2001) conflation of "the gaze" with "the stare" in literature, photography, performance, and everyday social interaction. Although Millett-Gallant is informed by this scholarship, her deployed "methods of comparative visual analyses" (p. 19) read as largely independent of any particular theoretical school or disposition, except Garland-Thomson's stare/gaze. Millett-Gallant certainly adds disability perspectives to select postwar art images, but does not substantially extend disability studies theories such as Garland-Thomson's. Art history readers may find the theoretical underpinnings and methodology unfamiliar and disconcerting, and this is where Ross's text succeeds: she provides a dexterous contextualization of current art with historic Western art, ardency in developing a uniform aesthetic theory of disengagement, and close attention to art history scholarship, though without a comprehensive disability studies focus.

What The Disabled Body gains in its departure from formulaic methodologies are honest, accessible interpretations of visual disability artifacts. Millett-Gallant's embodied knowledge of "staring back and forth" effectively bolsters her consideration of artists and audiences whose knowledge and experiences are diverse and complex. Ross, by contrast, bypasses discussions of personal identification and experience; and while her exemplary knowledge of depression and concern with the medicalization of psychiatry will resonate with readers who identify as disabled because of depression, the distance Ross sets between herself, the art, and readers of The Aesthetics of Disengagement is comparatively disengaging. Nevertheless, Ross's argument that depression is a cultural paradigm and her insistence that acts of depression and depressive art resist the medical model on their own terms, affords similar conclusions to The Disabled Body: that disability is a complex sociocultural construction and also a matter of subjectivity and corporeality, and that art which performs disability ultimately challenges one-dimensional understandings of disability.


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  • Garland-Thomson, R. (1997). Seeing the disabled: Visual rhetorics of disability in popular photography. In P. K. Longmore and L. Umansky (Eds.), The new disability history: American perspectives (pp. 335 - 374). New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Hevey, D. (1992). The creatures that time forgot. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Kuppers, P. (2003). Disability and contemporary performance: Bodies on edge. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Mitchell, D. T., & Snyder, S. L. (2000). Talking about Talking back: Afterthoughts on the making of the disability documentary Vital signs: Crip culture talks back. In S. Crutchfiled & M. Epstein (Eds.), Points of contact: Disability, art, and culture (pp. 197 - 217). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
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