Georgina Kleege's latest book, More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (2018, Oxford University Press), offers a timely and informed account of the significance of blindness to arts and culture. Throughout this book, she moves between analyses of how blindness is represented in philosophy, phenomenological accounts of the cultural practices and technologies that make arts and culture accessible to blind people, and self-representations by blind artists. Using a disability studies and cultural studies framework, Kleege skillfully blends a sophisticated knowledge of European art history, a robust understanding of the disabled people's movement and its politics, and her own experiences as a blind person, a daughter of artists, and a frequent patron of art galleries. The uniqueness of this book lies in how Kleege animates, chapter by chapter, cultural appearances of and encounters with blindness, unfurling a multifaceted account of blindness as offering sensorial and generative experiences of the world.
Kleege begins this elaborate exploration by thinking through the cultural processes through which sightedness has become synonymous with knowledge throughout Western epistemologies. She debases the assumption that blindness creates a lack of insight and knowledge by balancing interpretations of blindness within Western philosophy, such as Descartes and his reliance on the Hypothetical Blind Man, to mobilize the fallacious relationship between sight/knowledge (and its opposite) (14-15) and representations of blind experiences from narrative accounts of public figures, such as Helen Keller (23-25) and Louis Braille (29), who were both industrious, culture-shifting innovators full of insight and worldly knowledge. Throughout this initial analysis, Kleege builds a resounding case for how despite the ways that "seeing is felt as a need" by sighted people, as Bryan Magee describes in conversation with blind philosopher Martin Milligan (25), we can understand blindness as, "something besides the absence of sight" (27-28), as an experience rich with ontological possibilities.
Kleege punctuates this historical account of the ways that blindness is represented in our culture with discussions of how blindness has appeared throughout art history. Blindness most often appears as a trope in artwork by sighted people or through blind technologies, such as Braille represented for its aesthetic value over its utility (47; 48; 50-51), rather than in art created by blind artists. For example, she describes Picasso's painting The Blind Man's Meal (1903) in which blindness appears through a groping figure in a painting which both relies on and confirms to an ableist cultural understanding that the experience of blindness is the experience of disorientation (125-126). Kleege also describes myein, an installation by American artist Ann Hamilton featured in the American Pavilion of the 1999 Venice Biennial, into which the artist incorporated large and unusable braille, which was clearly evoked for its aesthetic value rather than as a point of access (50-51). Kleege juxtaposes Hamilton's use of braille with examples of how it has been used in the artwork of blind artists. For example, she takes up British artist David Johnson's installation Too Big To Feel (2015), in which he created a public artwork out of large cement braille dots, which technically can be read, but not easily (56). In this work, Johnson is speaking back to the ways that braille is divorced from its utility in other works of art, like Hamilton's, expressing anger, "which is not an emotion blind people – or acceptable blind people anyway – are supposed to feel" (56).
Answering her question, "Does access to visual arts for blind people need to occur at the museum or art gallery?" (8) in the affirmative, Kleege moves on in the second half of this book to advance the powerful and convincing assertion that a culture (and its institutions) from which blind people are excluded is sorely incomplete. As she explores the accessibility practices of galleries, museums, and films, Kleege thinks through the socio-political understanding of blindness that such practices refract (3). More materially grounded, the chapters 'Touch Tourism' and 'Audio Description Described' take us through practices that make culture, specifically sculpture and films, accessible to blind people. Giving more than a practical how-to guide (although the reader does gain an understanding of these cultural practices), Kleege describes her experiences of touching sculptures in touch tours and hearing film described through audio description through a skillful phenomenological account. She asserts that while it is important to follow a standard of professionalism and consistency when offering these services, it is also necessary to unsettle the notion that when such standards are properly followed they create straightforward, unmediated, and wholly effective translations of visual art and film (65; 98; 101). To amplify this point, Kleege tells us that touching a bronze Matisse sculpture does not produce a perfect image of the artwork in her mind's eye (65). Similarly, she explains, when an audio describer leaves out important bits of interpretive information, such as describing a shirt as ugly or distasteful, as is instructed by the professional standard of this field, important narrative meaning is lost (103). However, we learn at various points throughout Kleege's book that while touch tours and audio description do not necessarily turn a visual experience directly into an auditory or haptic one, these accessibility practices invited by blind cultural participants do fundamentally change the ways we experience – or more specifically, interact with – art. These practices disrupt traditional, less embodied ways of interacting with art that are framed around the understanding that we can look at but we mustn't touch art while also challenging the assumption that descriptions of art can ever be objective.
There are benefits to the unique ways of being in the gallery and experiencing a film that blind experiences create, and there are also drawbacks and incompleteness. Kleege shares that, in her "wishful imagination," touch tours could happen spontaneously and not require advance planning (61). And although audio description is becoming more integrated (97), it has not proliferated as widely as it should. Kleege's experience of culture as one that is intimately bound to the feeling of dearth (of accessibility, of representations, of spontaneity) likely resonates with how many in the disability community experience arts and culture.
Kleege ends this book with a fulsome engagement with blind artists and the creative, aural and haptic ways that they make their work accessible to not only to their blind communities but also to non-blind beholders. Here, she successfully concludes her argument that building an arts culture that welcomes and desires blind people requires the inclusion of blind artists' work. Kleege profiles some of the most interesting artists practicing today, including Alice Wingwall (128), John Dugdale (130-131), Kurt Weston (131-132), Derek Jarman (134-135), and Aaron McPeake (140-146). All of these artists offer complex, insightful, and political self-representations of blindness, and through an engagement with their work, she debases the myth of the Hypothetical Blind Man who embodied the ableist adage that sightedness equals knowledge (14-15; 122). Moreover, she interrupts the cultural assumption that art is intended for sighted people (and translated for blind people) by highlighting how these artists mobilize different sensorial engagements through their practices (122). For example, she discusses the work of self-described "non-visual learner" (2014, 357) and social practice artist Carmen Papalia (135-140), whose work often takes up the feeling of being conspicuous in public space (135). Kleege describes how Papalia was unsatisfied by a gallery display of the audio described video of his performance of Blind Field Shuffle (2012) because it privileged a sighted experience of the work (138-139). To interrupt the assumption that the audience of this (and all) artwork would be sighted, an assumption unsettled by Kleege throughout her book, Papalia collaborated with sound artist Kai Tillman to create aural reproductions of this performance which were shared along with this video (139). As Kleege writes, this exhibition became "at once sonic and kinaesthetic" (139).
It is worth noting that for each of the many artworks included throughout this book, Kleege provides a well-crafted image description. These descriptions are woven into her analysis of these works. Importantly (and politically), they provide her blind and low-vision readers access to these artworks. As a sighted reader, I found myself reading these image descriptions, caught up in how they worked with and bolstered Kleege's analytic and interpretive insight. This act of praxis not only demonstrates to readers how to write image descriptions, but also establishes how they enrich the hermeneutic relationship between our interpretations of visual art (through a multitude of senses and translations) and the theories we develop alongside these interpretations.
Kleege does a fantastic job of showing how the cultural exclusion of blind and other disabled people is neither inconsequential nor apolitical, but an iteration of the pervasive ableism experienced by disabled people. One way she does this is by including statistics, such as unemployment rates and legislation passages from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), both of which importantly animate disability activism and disability rights throughout this book. As she says, "I am not arguing that access to the visual arts will improve [unemployment rates], but I believe that social change needs to happen on many fronts at once" (9). These cultural-political linkages move me. I would also gently urge Kleege to extend this important analysis and think through intersectional ways that blind and disabled people are imagined out of cultural spaces through, for example, financial barriers, the absence of all gender accessible washrooms, and the ongoing colonization of museums and their archives that write out histories and contributions of Indigenous disabled people and disabled people of color.
This book makes a powerful contribution to the developing interdisciplinary conversation about how disability shapes and is shaped by culture. And the depth of Kleege's analysis demonstrates that, indeed, for many disabled people and disability studies scholars, this nexus is not new. Kleege's book succeeds at animating blindness as an experience that is ontologically rich and cultural vital. We come away from this book with a sharpened sense of how blind people and the phenomenon of blindness interact with and shape cultural production, invite technologies and cultural practices that elevate our cultural experiences, and create artwork that change, multiple, and enhance our understanding of sensorial difference. Overall, Kleege, through her book, makes the creative and forceful argument that, "the integration of blind perception and experience will change the foundational assumption of the culture; change how the human condition is defined" (1).
- Kleege, Georgina. More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford University Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190604356.001.0001
- Papalia, Carmen. "Bodies of Knowledge: Open Sourcing Disability Experience." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 9, no. 3., 2014, pp. 357-364. https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2015.28