Art & Disability

Disability in the Mirror of Art:

Disability breaks the mirror of art as traditionally conceived by putting into question the art object’s relation to perfection, but the beauty reflected in the broken mirror grows more beautiful as a result. The more we enter the modern age, the stronger the equation between art and disability—and to the point where we sometimes perceive the presence of art itself in the image of disability. Disability, disease, and injury have become the figures by which aesthetic beauty is often recognized. Hal Foster associates wounding and injury with an aesthetic realism born of the trauma of modern existence (Return of the Real 1996), while Linda Nochlin claims that the modern in art is made out of the loss of wholeness, embracing the impression that fragmentation reigns, connections in life have been shattered, and permanent values have disintegrated (The Body in Pieces, 2001, 23-24). She traces the essence of modernism to the French Revolution as the historical moment when the body in pieces becomes for modernity a “positive rather than negative trope” (8). Leonard Barkan’s Unearthing the Past (1999) attributes the origin of modernity’s appreciation of the fragmentary, broken, and injured to an earlier period, in the unearthing of classical fragmentary statuary in Renaissance times, calling the modern idea that fragments have “value independent of any potential for being made whole again” “a category shift” (122), one that reorients the “whole project of making art in response to broken bodies” (209). In an increasingly global world, modern art moves away from cultural languages to the biological diversity of the body, and disability marks the outer boundaries of the body diversely conceived. In fact, so strong is the equation between art and disability that we begin to view past works of art in terms of the irrepressible image of disability given by the modern world.

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