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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Monday, September 22, 2008


Disability and its Prevalence in Art

In an excellent article by Tobin Siebers titled Disability Aesthetics, Siebers notes that "The human body is both the subject and the object of aesthetic production: the body creates other bodies prized for their ability to change the emotions of their maker and endowed with a semblance of vitality usually ascribed only to human beings. But all bodies are not created equal when it comes to aesthetic response." (Siebers, T. (2006) Disability Aesthetics. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 7 (2): 63-72.)

As Siebers points out, and I agree, the most profound and "beautiful" art is that which is not hiding reality, but exposes it. "That is, good art incorporates disability," he says. The Venus de Milo, cited often as "beautiful" has missing arms. Renee Magritte recreates her and at her arm stumps, paints them blood-red.

This is in stark contrast to the Nazi era when Hitler was repulsed by the greatest artists of that time. The Nazi's rejected art as "degenerate," and "Hitler saw in paintings by Modigliani, Klee and Chagall images of 'misshapen cripples,' 'cretins,' and racial inferiors when the rest of the world saw masterpieces of modern art...Modern art continues to move us not because of its refusal of harmony, bodily integrity, and perfect health. If modern art has been successful, I would argue, it is because of its embrace of disability as a distinct version of the beautiful. The Nazis simply misread the future direction of art, as they misread many things about human culture." (Siebers, p.66) To denounce the importance of art, and moreso, the work of so-called "outsider artists" -- I say so-called at this time as "outsider" is also a reflection of how we view people with disabilities on the outskirts or outside of society -- after the example of the Nazis would be naive. Material culture reflects the kind of society we are, and are becoming.

Another artist, Judith Scott, was also considered autistic: "She was also deaf, unable to speak, extremely uncommunicative, isolated, almost autistic," writes Siebers. "She was warehoused at age seven in the Ohio Asylum for the Education of Idiotic and Imbecilic Youth and spend the next thirty five years of her life as a ward of the state until her twin sister rescued her and enrolled her in the Creative Growth Center, a California program in Oakland designed to involved intellectually disabled people with the visual arts. Almost immediately, she began to make fiber sculptures six hours a day, and she maintained this relentless pace for over ten years." (p. 70)

John MacGregor asks critical questions about Scott's work: "can art, in the fullest sense of the word, emerge when intellectual development is massively impaired from birth?..." (p.71)

I agree with Siebers that autistic or any other kind of art created by any person is a form of savantism. Rather, art is an intention and is subject to interpretation. "Intelligence, however, is fraught with difficulties as a measure of aesthetic quality, and intention in particular has long been condemned as an obsolete tool for interpreting works of art...

...Disability aesthetics prizes physical and mental differences as a significant value in itself. It does not embrace aesthetic taste that defines harmony, bodily integrity, and health as standards of beauty. Nor does it support the aversion to disability required by traditional conceptions of human or social perfection." (p.71)

Let Scott be our food for thought this morning. Let her work make us not only question what art is, but what makes up this idea called humanity.

Dedicated to her memory, this website tells Judy's remarkable story.


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11:29 AM  

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