Imagining Modern Bodies: Disability and Art at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Ann Fox, Professor of English,
Davidson College

Disability? What could disability have to do with art and literature? Isn’t it only the province of those involved in medicine, therapy or special education? We’re not used to thinking of disability as belonging to all of us as educators, or as a liberating, creative force; we’re used to thinking of it as something to be cured or overcome, or even, sadly, vilified or hidden away.  But this seminar, premised on the ideas of an academic field called disability studies (with which I presume no familiarity on your part), will challenge our conventional ideas that disability equals only sentiment, pity or tragedy. Our work will first be based on the following assumptions:

  • Disability is a culture and a community, with a history all its own
  • The study of disability is interdisciplinary, relating to literature, art, medicine, history, science and social studies
  • Disability is relevant to all of us, because we all may be ourselves disabled, may know or love someone who is disabled, or at the very least, we all live in bodies that are susceptible to illness, injury or aging
  • Better understanding the possibilities disability represents makes us better able to embrace a wider range of identities and embodiments in our world as a whole.

More specifically, this seminar will be about using disability to question bodily ideals in art and literature. We’ll use works from the Bechtler as catalysts for our discussion, and we’ll also use literature and popular culture, embracing the idea that disability generates exciting new ideas about the body.  Among the notions we’ll explore:

  • How does disability undergird the construction of modern art? How do the aesthetics of fragmentation and abstraction challenge set ideas about art–and by extension, the body?  (For example, consider the work of Alberto Giacometti. He was not disabled, but his work embraces what we might call a “disability aesthetic”.
  •  How did their disabilities creatively inform the work of artists in the Bechtler collection? (For example, how did the work of Henri Matisse or Nikki de Saint Phalle get shaped by their creators’ disabilities?  How did the works in turn then push at the boundaries of how we define the body?)
  •  How can art be used to challenge old ideas about diagnosis?
  • How can disability spark new ways to conceptualize the design and experience of the museum space–and by extension, other kinds of spaces?

We will parallel our discussion of “disability aesthetics” in visual art with discussing “disability aesthetics” in literature, and how it can disrupt what we think of as traditional literary forms.  So we’ll look, for example, at the new disability poetry, in which disabled writers not only give voice to the disability experience, but do that through experimentation with form.  We will also look at how memoirs by disabled people posit powerful retorts against set ideas about bodily “normalcy.”  We will read these alongside contemporary works of art by disabled artists that are similarly challenging ideas that the body has to look a set or certain way.

Who should take this seminar?  Anyone who works in some capacity with students on ideas about body ideals; anyone who teaches history; anyone who teaches art; anyone who teaches about multicultural issues; anyone who teaches about a foreign language or culture; anyone who teaches literature; anyone who teaches science; anyone interested in social studies; anyone who works with disabled students; anyone who works with nondisabled students.

Participating Fellows