After a decade of reporting on sports for Canadian media, Mike Levin spent twelve years in Asia writing on business for newspapers in Toronto, New York, and London, and then running Billboard magazine's Far East Bureau in Hong Kong. Returning to Canada he discovered the creative links among these subjects and in 2006 did the only sensible thing by starting Unfolding, an arts magazine in Ottawa.
Tobin Siebers is V. L. Parrington Collegiate Professor and Professor of English Language and Literature and Art & Design at the University of Michigan. He is the author most recently of Disability Theory (Michigan 2008), Zerbrochene Schönheit (Transcript Verlag 2009), and Disability Aesthetics (Michigan 2010).
ML: What are you trying to say with your two new books?
TS: My two new books, Disability Aesthetics and Zerbrochene Schönheit, have similar goals, although aimed at different audiences. My first goal is to disrupt the belief that disability can have no connection to the ancient craft of the beautiful. When most people think about disability, beauty does not immediately spring to mind. Disabled people are almost everywhere stigmatized as ugly. Similarly, most people have a difficult time conceptualizing the idea that disabled people are in a position to make significant contributions to art, either as symbols of aesthetic beauty or by making art themselves. Nevertheless, the history of modern art unveils increasingly as it evolves a powerful connection to disability. Aesthetics opens us to more expansive and diverse conceptions of the human, and disability has become a powerful tool for rethinking human appearance, intelligence, behavior, and creativity.
My second goal, related to the first, is to mount a historical argument that demonstrates the awareness and use of disability by modern artists. Surprisingly, broken and disabled bodies in art are not seen as less beautiful because of their state but as more beautiful. The modern in art is increasingly readable as disability, and to the point where we now recognize modern art and its techniques by the embrace of bodies that can only be called disabled. The techniques of Dada and Expressionism deform the bodies represented by them, seeming to picture disabled people. The palette of modernism paints human faces in greens, yellows, and purples, embracing discoloration without rejecting attendant associations of disease. The modernist determination to flatten the canvas and to draw attention to the sculptural quality of paint often stunts figures, bending and twisting them into avatars of disability. Moreover, the attention given by modern art to themes of alienation, violence, panic, terror, sensory overload, and distraction requires an openness to disability as a visible and potent symbolization of these modern themes. If modern art has had such enormous success, it is because of its embrace of disability as a distinct version of the beautiful. No object has a greater capacity to be accepted at the present moment as an aesthetic representation than the disabled body.
ML: Why does disability reflected in art's broken mirror grow more beautiful if our North American culture becomes more intolerant of imperfections?
TS: The answer to this question is complex because we live in two cultures of beauty, and they are often confused with each other. On the one hand, aesthetic culture views human variation increasingly as the motor that drives the appearance of the beautiful. Here discussions of imperfection do not make a great deal of sense because the idea of aesthetic beauty does not mirror ideals of physical perfection. On the other hand, we live in a commercial culture that markets human beauty. This idea of beauty is linked specifically to the human body, and it seems to be growing more narrow even as it grows more influential. This last culture is the one that seems intolerant of imperfections. It is the culture of the beauty pageant and plastic surgery, the culture so successfully and rightly attacked by feminists.
What we call aesthetic beauty has been developing for many centuries, but with modern art it emerges in all of its glory, and in a way where it becomes quite difficult to confuse its ideals with those of commercial beauty. If I were to say that Picasso's bathers in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon are beautiful, I would not be saying anything radical or unintelligible. People go to museums to have this experience of beauty. But if I took my daughter to a plastic surgeon and insisted that she have an operation to make her look like one of Picasso's bathers, I could be rightly accused of abuse because the result would be to deform my daughter's appearance. Orlan, the French performance artist, made the particular nature of aesthetic beauty clear for all to see when she determined to use cosmetic surgery to give herself the appearance of some of the great beauties in the history of art, including the Mona Lisa and Botticelli's Venus. She also took facial features from non-Western art, from African masks, for example. The result was not a face that commercial culture could accept as a human beauty. In fact, she looked monstrous from the point of view of commercial culture.
Here the Nazis are an interesting part of the story. In many ways, National Socialism marked the emergence of the culture of commercial beauty. It is here that we see a new magazine culture with titles like Strength and Beauty (Kraft und Schönheit) or simply Beauty (Die Schönheit). These magazines are the forerunners of the health, fashion, and beauty magazines currently found on our newsstands. The articles and illustrations in these Nazi magazines celebrated the cult of the body, seemingly for itself, but the celebration was also ideological because they promoted the healthy Aryan body to stave off Latin, Asian, and other foreign influences — the very influences that often define beauty in modern art. In particular, the Nazis accused modern artists of being either disabled or representing disabled people. For the Nazis, anything resembling racial diversity stood for biological inferiority, was reducible to disability. Hitler, for example, said that only defective vision could explain the use of color in modern art, and he saw in paintings by Picasso, Klee, and others portraits of "deformed cripples and cretins." The Nazis objected to ideas of aesthetic beauty found in modern art and replaced them with racial and physical ideals, cementing trends in advertising and publishing that insist to this day on the rapport between success, happiness, and physical beauty. It is disturbing to compare these early Nazi publications to today's fashion magazines because it exposes the large degree to which popular images of beauty derive from fascist sources.
It is certainly not the case that these two cultures of beauty never merge, but they are usually at loggerheads. Often, the infiltrations of commercial beauty into the art world read as kitsch (consider Jeff Koons's porn art), while no one would ever dare to judge beauty pageants according to the ideals of aesthetic beauty found in modern art. Commercial culture works to rid us of images of human imperfection. It refines our desire as the desire for perfection. Aesthetic culture uses images of disability to make us think twice about the desire for perfection. It makes disability beautiful.
ML: "Aesthetics opens us," you state, "to more expansive and diverse conceptions of the human, and disability has become a powerful tool for rethinking human appearance, intelligence, behavior, and creativity." In art, perhaps. But aren't we hardwired to abhor and reject the weak?
TS: I hope that you are trying to be deliberately provocative with this question, that this is not something you really believe, but let me take the question seriously for a moment.
If human beings were hardwired to abhor and reject the weak, mothers would strangle their new-born babies in their crib and the elderly would be euthanized. The issue is how we define weakness. Why define disability as weakness? In the human universe, in fact, we tend not to define the weak according to physical properties. Our politicians are not the strongest physical specimens; nor are the heads of corporations given control because they can beat everyone else at arm-wrestling. Nietzsche complained that human culture had been polluted by the opinion of the weak, who managed to take power over the strong by outlawing the use of physical force in the control of others. Somehow the lambs, he lamented, have defanged the lions. Nietzsche wanted to restore the "natural order" and feed the lambs to the lions. He apparently never considered that he would be among the first to be served up to the lions.
Human culture is not based on a natural order. It is not about hardwiring. Human beings value other human beings who show what we might call cultural intelligence. Culture is the tool that humans use to affect their environment, and we value people who make contributions to culture, who invent new tools, including methods of organizing ourselves and methods of perceiving how we organize ourselves.
Art is a mode of perception. In its earliest definitions, art was thought a representation of nature, including human nature. It was the mirror in which we see ourselves. Later, we began to think of art as a lamp, a means by which we reveal hidden things about ourselves. The idea of art as a mode of perception remains regardless, and it is the reason why art is of value today.
My point is that disability aesthetics is valuable because it introduces a new mode of perception concerning what a human being is. It asks us to see our fellow human beings differently and introduces a critical distance in the perception of society and cultural values. At the same time, it contributes to an age-old concern about what you call human weakness. It asks us to set down this usage, to understand that ability is not one-dimensional, that there is a great diversity in the ways that human beings belong to and contribute to the world.
ML: You argue that the acceptance of disability enriches and complicates materialist notions of the aesthetic and that the rejection of disability limits definitions of artistic ideas and objects. I'd really like to understand these ideas better.
TS: The history of art charts in many ways a conflict between materialism and idealism. In the most simple terms, the idea of an artwork has always been seen as different from its materiality, and the expectation is that beholders will react to the idea of art and not to its material or physical presence. This conflict usually falls under the heading of "disinterestedness." Disinterestedness separates the idea of an emotion from its physical reaction. We experience abstract, ideal versions of emotions like love, hunger, or anger in the presence of an artwork. For example, I should experience the Venus de Milo as erotic, but I should not be compelled to embrace her. I should be drawn to Cézanne's apples, but they should not appear more appealing at lunch time. If I am driven as a beholder of an artwork to react in a emotional way, it suggests either that I am unstable or that the artwork has somehow failed, and yet we should also recognize that art moves us precisely because it invokes fundamental human emotions. If feelings of love, hunger, and anger were not part of our emotional makeup, art would have no meaning for us.
Disability, because it is so powerfully located in the body and its emotional substrata, compels us to rethink the artificial separation between what art makes us think and what it makes us feel. Some commentators in the history of art believe for this very reason that disability should have no place in art. It is too difficult to separate it from the emotions that it raises. The Nazis believed that modern art represented disabled people and biological inferiors; they labeled this art "degenerate" and called for its destruction. The same reaction may be found today. Recently, critics in London called for the removal of Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant, installed on Trafalgar Square, because the sculpture represents a pregnant woman with no arms and foreshortened limbs. These critics found the work repulsive, and argued that disabled people should not be portrayed in art. But the modern in art has been from its inception interested in transforming the human and the human desires directed toward it. Art is the active site designed to explore and expand the spectrum of humanity that we will accept among us. It accomplishes this goal by breaking down the separation between idealism and materialism, by compelling us to face the fact that artworks are bodies that make us feel. The acceptance of disability enlarges our material and physical responses, while the rejection of disability limits the definition of art.
ML: So, the goal of embracing disability in art is to further fuel the idea that art is an emotional provocateur, boosting our emotional reactions (and theoretically enjoying art more) rather than simply reacting to art's material representation?
TS: An art object is a body that makes other bodies feel. It takes possession of our feelings. It makes us feel emotions whether we want to or not. We feel that we stand before a significant appearance in the world that strikes us with its otherness, by which I mean that the artwork exists beyond our ken and control. In this sense, encountering an artwork is like encountering another human being. The artwork is autonomous, its own law, its own idea, and though we may try to think about it, we will never arrive at a point where our thoughts control it, where we are identical to it.
I am arguing for a definition of art that breaks down the artificial separation between thought and feeling. The artwork makes us feel because of its unique physical properties, because of the way that it stands among us as a distinct physical manifestation. We cannot ignore the feelings that it invokes. At the same time, we cannot help thinking about the way it makes us feel and why it might make us feel the way we do. Art perception involves both perception of the artwork and self-perception. Objects that do not produce such perceptions are not successful as art. They are either interior decoration — objects that are easy to live with because they prettify our environment — or acts of violence masquerading as art — objects that terrorize their beholders, that stun them out of thought by overloading their emotions. If I were forced to choose between these extremes, I would chose the latter, but I think the most successful artworks use their physical presence to make us feel and think about feelings.
It is certainly not the case that any art object eliciting the image of disability will qualify as a successful work of art. But I do believe that at this moment in time, because of the role currently played by disability, works representing disability have a strong and unique capacity to summon feelings and thoughts that make us perceive the human condition anew.
ML: Do you think disabled people are as creatively capable as the nondisabled?
TS: Neil Marcus, the disabled dancer, observes that "Disability is not a brave struggle or courage in the face of adversity. Disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live." I agree that disabled people have to be ingenious to live in societies that are by their design inaccessible and by their inclination prejudiced against disability. It requires a great deal of artfulness and creativity to figure out how to make it through the day when you are disabled, given the condition of our society. However, I see no signs that nondisabled people are by their nature more creative or that the disabled are by their nature less creative.
ML: Why does our culture continue to believe that the disabled are relatively incapable of creating or appreciating creativity? I'm thinking about this in the context of artistic intention.
TS: The "why" is more difficult to address than the "how." Everywhere we see "how" discrimination against disability works, but do we really know "why" things are the way they are?
For one thing, we do not recognize degrees of disability. Disabled people are believed to be disabled all the way down. If you have trouble seeing, you must have trouble hearing and thinking, too. The myth of the genius artist is powerful in our society. These artists are brilliant and beautiful, perhaps a little "crazy" but not in any way that resembles mental disability. Disability and artistic ability are simply not thought to meet in this scenario. Disabled people supposedly cannot intend to make art. With only the rarest exceptions, disabled people are not counted among the quality people who grace our society. We don't expect them to be great artists, scientists, or politicians, and if they are, their disabilities are well concealed or, perhaps, we just don't see their disabilities. It is too incongruent to think of great achievement and disability in the same breath.
Our culture does not expect very much of disabled people in general. The disabled are the most economically deprived minority group. They are locked up in institutions and homes because of inaccessible architecture, prevented from circulating among us and exercising the freedoms that we all consider basic to human beings. They are the victims of discrimination and prejudice. It is easy to justify killing them. People will not hire disabled people, and befriending or loving them is considered a huge mistake. Bring home a disabled person to meet your family and announce that he or she is your lover and wait for the waves of congratulation. You will wait a long time. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that our culture does not recognize the creativity of disabled people or the influence of disability in the art world. Everywhere disabled people are stigmatized and called ugly, but in the art world, the one small corner of the human universe with the greatest claim to create and recognize beauty, people with disabilities are represented as beautiful. This is why disability aesthetics is not only of concern to art critics and museum directors. Disability aesthetics is everyone's concern because it touches upon fundamental issues of human rights.
ML: Concerning fundamental issues of human rights, is this the right to create or the right to be culturally (and financially) supported in creating, in the same way that elevators give access to upper floors?
TS: By fundamental issues of human rights, I refer to the requirement that we not discriminate against certain populations because we perceive them to be different from other populations, that we not use human difference to disqualify certain individuals as inferior and therefore as undeserving of basic human rights. I am in favor of a theory of human rights based on universal access. But you raise an interesting question by asking about what you seem to call the right to be creative.
I live in the United States, perhaps the nation in the world most associated with capitalism. Here the market is supposed to determine everything, though this is a bit of a myth, since those who control the market play by different rules from those working in the market. The U.S. provides very little arts funding compared to other nations. It does not give much support to artists via grants — the National Endowment of the Arts is notoriously under-funded — and the government is not really involved in purchasing art. In Sweden, if I remember correctly, there is a rather large budget for buying art from people who define themselves as artists, the idea being that society benefits when people are able to make a living by creating art.
I believe in a strong social security net and socialized medicine, and I would like to see more arts funding in the U.S., but I remain, to be honest, too much of a market thinker to believe that we should define art-making or any other occupation as a basic human right that requires us to provide automatic financial support. I may be wrong, but art seems to me to take its strength from the critical distance that artists hold from mainstream society, and if they were indiscriminately supported by society, I think that art would lose something of its ability to make us see our society and ourselves differently.
ML: I believe a lot is changing, as much a result of our culture of entitlement (with all its debits and credits) as for any other reason. Are we beginning to accept our own imperfections or are we just better at ignoring them?
TS: The disability rights movement is one sign that our culture is growing more willing to include a more diverse definition of humanity, one that embraces people formerly conceived as imperfect, defective, ugly, and inferior. But we have a long way to go. In the U.S., the Supreme Court has rolled back the advances made by the American with Disabilities Act of 1990. Disability still seems to be the last frontier of justifiable human inferiority. We know that we cannot call someone inferior on the basis of race or gender, although it happens all the time in practice, but we do not yet know that we cannot call someone inferior on the basis of their physical ability, intelligence, or mental health. In the art world, there are still those who say that disabled people have no place being in art or making art, even though the last three hundred years of art history have given us a picture of humankind as expressive of disability as ability.