Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What to Read on Art, Aesthetics, and Disability

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Painting of a woman in a wheelchair with the open ocean visible from her balcony. Several objects float or fall from above onto the balcony.
Riva Lehrer, “Susan Nussbaum” (1998) [source]

It’s back-to-school season. For those of us who work in education, that means thinking about readings, syllabi, course design, and all that exciting stuff. For others, it means less outdoorsy vacation time and more indoor activities. No matter which group you fall into, we thought some reading recs might be nice.

This year we are introducing a reading list on art, aesthetics, and disability.

All of the items below are linked. Still, some of the articles and book chapters are paywalled. But those of you who have university subscriptions or are otherwise resourceful should be able to access a good deal of the pieces.

This list has also been organized so that it’s easier to jump into. As in, it’s not just a long list of readings. It’s a long list that has some sections and notes, too! Within each section, authors are listed in alphabetical order by last name. It also has a bonus section of art by disabled artists that you can engage with alongside the readings.

And for previous lists of this kind, see our Gender-Balanced Syllabus Guide and BIPOC Reading List.

As always, additions and comments are welcome.

Introductory Readings

These readings are suitable for a beginning audience. They don’t rely on much by way of background, and many are first-personal accounts.

  • Robert Bogdan, Picturing Disability
    A collection of essays and historical photographs of people with disabilities. Clear historical approach, including chapters on circus and spectacle photography, medical photography, advertising, and art photography. Reads like a nice museum show catalog.
  • Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, About Us
    A collection of essays by a wide variety of disabled authors about their experiences, many of which have aesthetic and artistic import.
  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring
    A comprehensive examination of staring – why we stare, when, and at what. Disability as well as other case studies discussed. Topics include: the experience of staring and being stared at, staring back, etiquette and norms governing staring, and different parts of the body we tend to stare at.
  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography
    Similar to but less comprehensive than her book Staring. But it’s essay-length.
  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Disability and Representation
    A very short essay about disability representation (both in the figurative sense and in the artistic sense). Its importance, how it has changed, and how it could continue to improve.
  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Picturing People with Disabilities: Classical Portraiture as Reconstructive Narrative
    A close analysis of portraiture, and how it can use its status as a traditional fine art form to render disabled subjects with respect and humanity.
  • Sara Goering, “Disability, Internalized Oppression, and Appearance Norms
    A short essay about why and when people choose to “fix” their appearance, connecting sexist and ableist appearance expectations.
  • Harriet McBryde Johnson, “The Art Object” from Too Late to Die Young
    A recounting of the author’s experience having her portrait taken for the New York Times Magazine cover.
  • Georgina Kleege, Sight Unseen
    A book of essays about the author’s own blindness. Kleege, also a disability scholar, includes chapters about representations of the blind in literature and in painting, the phenomenology of blindness, and her experience of reading.
  • Petra Kuppers, Studying Disability Arts and Culture
    Very much a textbook. Useful to use, or at least for ideas for those teaching disability aesthetics. Contains a wealth of examples and possible exercises.
  • Carolyn Lazard, “Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice
    “An accessibility guide geared toward small-scale arts nonprofits and the potentially expansive publics these organizations serve. It details specific ways in which disabled people are excluded from cultural spaces and offers possible solutions to those barriers.” Available as both PDF and audio.
  • Riva Lehrer, Golem Girl
    A memoir. Lehrer, born with spina bifida, talks about the relationship between her disability, artistic creativity, and sexuality.
  • Microsoft, ft. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Inclusive Design Subject Matter Expert Series featuring Rosemarie with audio description
    A six-minute video where Garland-Thomson discusses accessibility and inclusive design.
  • Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics
    A modern locus classicus about disability in modern art and culture. Argues that modern art has been successful by embracing disability as beautiful. Chapters cover: aesthetics and what it means to be “human”, the conflict between modern art and Nazism, the culture wars and contemporary trauma art.
  • Tobin Siebers, “Disability Aesthetics
    A short essay that predates and covers many of the same ideas as the above book. A kind of manifesto for disability aesthetics. Discusses vandalism and damage to artworks, modern art, and disinterestedness.
  • Anita Silvers, “From the Crooked Timber of Humanity, Something Beautiful Should Be Made!
    A short essay about the “connection between medicine and beauty”, exploring ways in which medical professionals can promote seeing beauty in disability, and thereby advance inclusive justice. Not to be confused with Silvers’ other, similarly-titled essay.
  • Anita Silvers, “From the Crooked Timber of Humanity, Beautiful Things Can Be Made
    An examination of how portraiture can be, but isn’t often, used to value anomalous (e.g., disabled) subjects. Key example is cubist portraiture.
  • Marta Tafalla, “Anosmic Aesthetics
    A discussion of anosmia (the inability to perceive odors) and its effect on aesthetic appreciation, arguing that there is some loss, but defending the compensating role of imagination.
  • Marta Tafalla, “Smell and Anosmia in the Aesthetic: Appreciation of Gardens
    An argument that smell is important to appreciation of gardens. Engages with Kant and formalism.

Intermediate Readings

These readings are suitable for a more advanced audience. Someone with at least a bit of background in philosophy, disability, art, and the humanities won’t have much trouble. In terms of syllabus construction, these readings are better for upper division courses.

  • Aili Bresnahan and Michael Deckard, “Beauty in Disability: An Aesthetics for Dance and for Life
    An examination of dance, especially ballet, and how to replace classical ideals of beauty with a new model more suitable for inclusive beauty standards for movement and dance. Engages with Burke.
  • Lennard J. Davis, The Disability Studies Reader
    A reader that includes several essays of interest to those in art and aesthetics, including chapters on representation, public statuary, photography, design, poetry, and ideals of beauty. Difficulty of chapters varies, but most will fall in the intermediate range.
  • Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph Straus, The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies
    A collection with many pertinent essays, covering topics like d/Deafness, castrato, vocal damage, and assistive technology.
  • Blake Howe and Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, “Colloquy: On the Disability Aesthetics of Music
    A collection of five short essays on a range of topics at the intersection of music and disability. Some of these are a bit more advanced.
  • Georgina Kleege, “Blind Self-Portraits: Remaking the Image of Blindness
    A one-hour talk posted to YouTube, given by a blind disabilities scholar. Discusses portraits and self-portraits, both historical and contemporary, and how representations of blindness have changed.
  • Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance
    A monograph covering a vast range of performances of disability, inside and outside of the art world. Topics include freak shows, medical operating theaters, visual art, digital technology and the internet. The first half or so is at the intermediate level; the remainder will be helped by background in phenomenology and poststructuralist theory.

Advanced Readings

Insiders and professionals may want to check these out, too.

  • Benjamin Fraser, “Signification and Staring: Icon, Index, and Symbol in Visual Media” from Cognitive Disability Aesthetics
    An essay on the representation of cognitive disabilities in film. Some advanced film theory terminology.
  • Bill Hughes, “The Constitution of Impairment: Modernity and the Aesthetic of Oppression
    A paper about the modern non-disabled gaze and the oppression that it constructs. (See also Hughes’ other work for more general background on disability studies.)
  • Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation
    A monograph that looks at “aesthetic nervousness”: the “unease and moral panic” precipitated by the encounter and inclusion of the disabled in literature. Covers a wide range of examples, including Greek and Yoruba literature, Beckett, Soyinka, and Coetzee. Suitable for those familiar with some postcolonial theory.
  • Keri Watson and Timothy W. Hiles, The Routledge Companion to Art and Disability
    A collection of 23 essays, all of which are relevant to the present list. Many (but not all) are a bit more challenging. Chapters include: several different historical analyses from across the globe, analyses of how art contributes to ableism and existing norms – and how it can counter those standards. Many essays engage with a specific piece of art history, whether particular artists, artworks, or localized movements.

Artists

Here is a list of disabled artists whose work you might look at and think about (or teach alongside) these readings.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven, music
  • John Lee Clark, poetry
  • Chuck Close, painting
  • Clare Cunningham, dance
  • Jess Curtis, dance
  • Sean Forbes, music
  • Jerron Herman, dance
  • Frida Kahlo, painting
  • Christine Sun Kim, drawing, video, performance
  • Carolyn Lazard, performance, photography, film, sculpture
  • Riva Lehrer, painting
  • Aaron McPeake, sculpture
  • Claude Monet, painting
  • Frank Moore, performance, writing
  • Carmen Papalia, performance
  • Bill Shannon, dance
  • Alice Sheppard, dance
  • Katherine Sherwood, painting, mixed media
  • Sins Invalid, a performance project led by Patricia Berne and Leroy F. Moore Jr. 
  • Kurt Weston, photography
  • Paul Wittgenstein, music
  • Stevie Wonder, music

2 Comments

  1. This is so helpful! Thanks for the awesome resource!

  2. I don’t understand how/why disability enters this post. I guess things are just more cross-disciplinary now? Art was not part of the discussion, necessarily, when advocacy for persons with disabilities was part of my job description, fifteen years ago.

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