Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics

In Disability Aesthetics, Siebers defines aesthetics as what bodies feel in the presence of other bodies. Works of art that engage with bodies, especially in regard to modern art, are also engaging with disability. Not only is disability representation a factor in art, it has only grown stronger over time. While we tend to subscribe to an ethos of disinteredness when it comes to art, our response to disability is decidedly materialist (it seems less beautiful and more “real”). This provides pushback to the idea that making or appreciating art requires intelligence or taste, and therefore disability aesthetics not only imagines new forms of representation for disabled people but also asks how disability enriches our understanding of art. In his words, “disability operates both as a critical framework for questioning aesthetic presuppositions in the history of art and as a value in its own right important to future conceptions of what art is” (20).

The chapter that was most interesting to me is on vandalism. Siebers argues that vandalism modernizes art, making pieces that have to do with the body into pieces in dialogue with disability. While we are willing to accept art that depicts disability, we are reluctant to name art that has been destroyed or changed as art about disability. These images fail to represent what they represented before, recalling to my mind chronicity and ongoing illness that changes ones life or appearance. Since they were not “about” disability before, “Their content has nothing to do with disability. Rather, their shattered form evokes the idea of disability” (92). This is why vandalism can be described as art about disability. Vandalism returns attention to material aspects of art, making form supercede content. Vandalism also removes art from its association with genius or intelligence, meaning that vandalism’s status as art is always up for debate, but Siebers believes it can be art because it gives old art new meaning. The one critique I have of this argument is that it feels like it slots easily into the idea that disability is always associated with woundedness or brokenness, a theme this book returns to. If I were thinking about RGT, where would the opportunity for positive representation and mutual looking come here?

The last chapter on literature and images of disability is similar to WJT Mitchell’s stance on the distinction between images and words. Siebers is less interested in proving that this difference is fluid, and more interested in using disability aesthetics to reverse the primacy of words over images. He does this by examining examples in literature, most notably Ulysses’ scar, that are moments of detail which are visual in nature, even though they’re written down. He uses Barthes’ punctum to describe the emotional impact of these images. If difference is what pricks us, if the attention of the beholder requires difference, and if disability is difference, than both visual and narrative small differences like pockmarks or scars spur viewers to pay attention and push against sole representations of the healthy body (one not marked by difference).

Like Sontag, Siebers believes we are in an age of public images characterized by opticality, which reduces the importance of materiality and the body in visual perception. While Sontag believes the photograph is accelerating this change, Siebers thinks disability aesthetics in art, including photography, are helping to push back against it. “Disability aesthetics” as a term makes me feel that my investigation of melancholy atmospheres has legs. Siebers manages to argue that disability is a critical framework while not discounting its importance as a lived experience. Similarly, I want to keep melancholy as an extant experience close to me while also seeing where it is used to characterize or expand literary ideas.

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