Art History and Disability

Disability in Art History


This class will look at examples of the disabled human body as it has been represented in art history. What does it mean to be human? How is the body used and represented in visual culture? How are formations of disability articulated in relation to ideas of normality, hybridity, and/or anomaly, and how do artists use visual culture to affirm or subvert notions of the normative body? From Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Diego Velázquez to Marc Quinn and the Chapman brothers, artists have included images of the disabled body in their work. Other artists, including Orlan and Stelarc, have used their bodies to push notions of normality.

This lesson plan explores the body in visual culture to uncover the ways in which bodily difference is and has been articulated physically and theoretically and demonstrates the ways in which disability, like gender, race, or sexuality, is a cultural construction. This lesson includes artwork from across stylistic and historical periods in order to demonstrate the ways in which disability is historically and culturally contingent. Considerations include the changing role of images of the body in visual culture and the place of those representations in society.

Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just a few artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.


  • Historical Representations of Disability
  • “Freakshows,” Power, and Privilege
  • Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

Chronologically, “disability studies” emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, and “body art” was established as a category of contemporary art in the 1970s, but disabled bodies occur in art dating to at least the 1st century CE. Still, a class on the disabled body might come quite late in the semester, after looking at other issues of identity, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. A lecture on “Disability in Art” can be a good opportunity to reflect on a central narrative of art history—representation of the human figure—and to reflect on the ways in which art contributes to and challenges the construction of normative culture. Disability studies offers an alternative methodology and point of departure for the study of the body in art history.

Consider past material covered with the class—how has the body, both abled and disabled, appeared within the course? Why do we tend to ignore the disabled bodies that appear in works such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)? How much have we learned about the lives and impact of people with disabilities throughout history? Why might that be?

Ableism is defined in disability studies as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. The ableist views able bodies as the norm in society, implying that people who have disabled bodies must strive to become that norm. Disability is thus held as an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity; disability is seen as a “bad” thing that must be overcome. Use this definition to prompt a discussion about the ways ability bias has impacted art making and the ways it can affect our understanding of history. Ask students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the above questions, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of works that include representations of disability. Consider the biases of historians who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568.

Some background readings for teachers that are both foundational disability studies texts and that address various applications of the topic outlined above (historical representations of disability; the “freakshow” and issues of power and privilege; and the body, performance art, and the posthuman) include:

  • Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
  • Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  • Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  • Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York: Times Books, 1994).


Disability has always been part of the human condition. Throughout history, people with disabilities have often served as visual and cultural objects, rather than as active participants in and creators of culture and media. People with disabilities have not typically decided how they would be portrayed in art, nor have they participated in the creation of the art objects in which their bodies appeared. Instead, artists and authors have used various disabilities to convey ideas about evil, suffering, grace, and human nature and to reinforce stereotypes about disability.

Disability is a subjective, corporeal, and complex sociocultural construction. Looking at disabled bodies in art history offers significant insight into the various ways in which art can support or subvert the construction and performance of normative values. Recognizing the ways in which art performs disability ultimately challenges one-dimensional understandings of disability and art.

The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in one hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:

  • Polykleitos, Doryphoros, marble copy of bronze original, c. 450–440 BCE
  • Old Market Woman, 150–100 BCE
  • El Greco, The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind, 1570
  • Mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (1180s)
  • Luttrell Psalter, 1325
    • Man with crutches
    • Crippled child
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars, 1568
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple, 1659
  • Francisco Goya, Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux, 1824–7
  • Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane, 1822
  • Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film,Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Francis Galton’s Composite Portraits (published in The Photographic News)
    • “The Jewish Type,” 1885
    • “Health, Disease, and Criminality,” 1885
  • Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Albrecht Dürer, frontispiece to Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1490–1500
  • Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, 1645
  • Lavinia Fontana, Antonietta Gonzalez, 1656
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Myrtle Corbin, c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Eli Bowen “The Legless Acrobat,” c. 1880
  • Charles Eisenmann Studio, Charles B. Tripp, c. 1880
  • Marion Post Wolcott, Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, 1939
  • Ben Shahn, Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, 1938
  • Russell Lee, Untitled, Donaldsonville, Louisiana, 1938
  • Reginald Marsh, Sideshow Sign at Coney Island, c. 1939
  • Eudora Welty, Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair, c. 1939
  • Diane Arbus, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, New York City, 1970
  • Diane Arbus, Untitled, 1970–71
  • Otto Dix, War Cripples, 1920
  • Otto Dix, Scat Players, 1920
  • Orlan, Self-Hybridizations, 1994–Present
  • Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98
  • Lisa Bufano, Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, 2013
  • Matthew Barney with Aimee Mullins, Cremaster 3, 2002
  • Mary Duffy, Performance, 1995
  • Venus de Milo, 130–100 BCE
  • Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
  • Jake and Dinos Chapman, Übermensch (Portrait of Stephen Hawking), 1995

Old Market Woman, 100–150CE.

Historical Representations of Disability in Art History

What does the Classical world’s preference for idealism tell us about their ideology? Aristotle (384–322 BCE) believed, as did many in Ancient Greece, that men were the most highly evolved beings, and that women were an evolutionary step below, representing “the first step along the road to deformity.” Aristotle recommended euthanasia for “deformed children,” writing, “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” Although Hellenistic art includes representations of “grotesques,” the elderly, and children, there were few representations of disability in the Ancient world. Ask students to compare and contrast Classical idealism in the Doryphoros and Hellenistic naturalism in the Old Market Woman and the ways in which stylistic preferences relate to societal values. Could the preference for naturalism and the inclusion of subjects with disabilities, including the elderly, the blind, and the lame, indicate tolerance or even respect for people with disabilities?

The rise of Christianity led to more depictions of people with disabilities, because in the New Testament, Jesus is frequently credited with showing kindness and performing miracles to cure people who were lame, blind, and otherwise disabled. These miracles were often depicted in art, for example in El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570) and the mosaics at Monreale Cathedral (Palermo, Italy), which show Jesus healing lepers.

Ask students to consider the ways in which the idea of “curing the sick” and Biblical miracles contributed to the historical understanding of people with disabilities and their place within society. For instance, the Church’s interest in disability was based on Jesus’ role as a miraculous healer and as a spiritual “physician.” Monks and nuns followed the seven “spiritual works,” which involved feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, visiting them when in prison or sick, and providing counsel and burial services.

“Spiritual works” may have been necessary at a time when much of the population, if they survived disease, famine, war and pestilence, would have had some degree of impairment. In Medieval England, the ‘lepre’ (leper), the ‘blynde’ (blind), the ‘dumbe’ (dumb), the ‘deaff’ (deaf), the ’natural fool’ (a person with a learning difficulty), the ‘creple’ (cripple), the ‘lame’ and the ‘lunatick’ (lunatic) were highly visible presences in everyday life and are represented in manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter.

How do these depictions of people with disabilities as part of the fabric of everyday life differ from representations of miraculous cures? Christianity could be used to elicit empathy and support the humane treatment of people with disabilities, but it could also be used to support the belief that people with disabilities were cursed by Satan, and that their disability was a result of sin. As such, people with disabilities were often considered unclean and forced to live in exile. When traveling through a town, people with leprosy were required to ring a bell, alerting others to their presence.

At the time of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, persons with developmental disabilities were treated as subhuman organisms. Martin Luther (1483–1546) denounced children and adults with cognitive disorders as “filled with Satan.” Luther advised that children with severe mental retardation be drowned, because they lacked souls. Similarly John Calvin (1509–64) argued that people with disabilities were not among those predestined for salvation.

As the authority of the Roman Catholic Church diminished, many of the charitable services it provided ceased to exist. The poor and misfortunate, without the refuge of the church, became increasingly homeless at a moment of rapid growth in urban centers. In the city of Paris during the early 1500s, approximately one-third of the population resorted to begging as a means of survival. Many people with disabilities survived as mendicants, as pictured in The Beggars, by Pieter Bruegel (1568).

Christianity, then, often viewed disability as either a sin on the part of persons with disabilities or their families. However, they were also sometimes represented as an act of God for some divine purpose. In the first case, people were punished and excluded from society. In the second case, they were viewed as divine and considered holy. Perceived as sinners or saints, persons with disabilities were usually kept separate from mainstream society and their disabilities were thought to serve some divine purpose.

Have students compare and contrast Rembrandt’s Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple and Goya’s Beggars Who Get Around on Their Own in Bordeaux in small groups. Ask them to list their similarities and differences. What sorts of ideas and stereotypes about people with disabilities do these representations construct? What emotions do they evoke?

Both images feature a man with a disability. In Rembrandt’s piece, there are two other characters as well: St. Peter and St. John, who stand over the “cripple” (the commonly accepted term of the time) in an attitude of benevolence and authority. In the biblical story, faith and divine intervention bring about a cure of the man’s disability.

Goya’s drawing focuses more closely on the disabled individual, a beggar riding in a wheelchair. The subject appears dirty and disheveled but also actively engaged in the world. Even the work’s title emphasizes mobility and independence. Goya’s beggar looks out of the piece at the viewer and is portrayed as an active person, whereas Rembrandt’s cripple sits passively, his back to the viewer; he waits to be healed so that he can then take part in the world around him.

Why are the two images so different? Is it because one is based on a religious theme, and the other focuses on contemporary nineteenth-century society? Might the circumstances of the artist’s lives impact their constructions? In 1792, Goya lost his hearing and had been deaf for thirty years when he made this drawing. Ask the class to discuss whether Goya’s deafness may have influenced his attitudes about disabilities? If so, how?

Building on, but diverging from the religious model that saw Jesus as the “spiritual physician,” the medical model of disability emerged in the nineteenth century and classified disability as an impairment, as something wrong with the body. Following the rise of modern scientific medicine and the professionalism of the discipline, doctors during the nineteenth century developed concepts of “disease” and “injury” to refer to deviations from normal body functioning. Disability became something to be healed by science rather than religion; it became a medical rather than a religious or social issue. Persons with disabilities became patients needing to be cured. By defining people by their disabilities rather than as full human beings, the medical model fosters classifications, dependence on professional care, and often involves painful treatments.

The medical model also lends itself to eugenics and Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, promoted by the nineteenth-century philosopher and political theorist Herbert Spencer, held that the theories governing the evolution of biological species—the “survival of the fittest”—held true for individuals and social systems as well. This belief helped to justify forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, and the incarceration of individuals with developmental disabilities in institutions. These “patients” often became subjects of artists and scientists who were interested in classifying people by type and appearance.

Among the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault’s greatest achievements are his Portraits of the Insane. There were ten of them originally, but only five have survived: A Woman Addicted to GamblingA Child SnatcherA Woman Suffering from Obsessive EnvyA Kleptomaniac, and A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command. In contrast to his teacher Jacques-Louis David, who had privileged heroic and athletic bodies in his Neoclassical paintings, Géricault, and others of his generation, created sensitive portrayals of suffering bodies that sympathized with victims rather than celebrating heroes.

The fear of persons with physical deformities has long been popular in the media, with figures such as Quasimodo, Captain Hook, Dr. Strangelove, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. In addition to typecasting persons with disabilities as villains, this stereotype contributes to the fear of persons with disabilities living in the community. Students might be asked to discuss representations of people with disabilities in popular films such as: Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda in the 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Stereotypes were reinforced through quasi-scientific theories like eugenics. During the “genetic scare” of the 1920s, people with developmental disabilities were often the objects of fear, believed to be driven by rage and intent upon harming others. “Ugly laws,” which made it illegal for people with visible disabilities to be seen in public, were passed across the country, many of which were not repealed until the mid-1970s. Twenty-eight states adopted statutes that sought sterilization, marriage restriction, and institutionalization of the disabled, and eugenicists advocated euthanasia for disabled infants. People with disabilities were systematically incarcerated, as well as subject to deportation under immigration law. Following the increased demand for segregated housing brought on by prejudicial medical diagnoses and public discrimination, states began building residential institutions at a rapid pace. Francis Galton, the father of the Eugenic Movement, used Composite Photographs to justify his belief in grades of humanity.

Eugenic research had a direct influence on attitudes toward people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. As American professionals were calling for sterilization, Nazi Germany was blaming people with disabilities for wasting valuable resources. At the outbreak of World War II, Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled. The Nazi euthanasia program was instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life”; over 200,000 people with disabilities were killed during the holocaust.

There are similar concerns today in the bioethics community over Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” the suicide of Brittany Maynard, the fashion for “designer” babies, and the widespread acceptance of abortion of fetuses with possible cognitive or physical disabilities. Students might be asked to discuss: Who decides what constitutes a “life worth living?” How do media representations of ideal bodies influence our notions of what makes life worth living?

Lavinia Fontana, Antoinetta Gonzalez, 1656.

The “Freakshow,” Power, and Privilege

During the fifteenth century, people with physical and mental disabilities were boarded onto ships and exhibited for money before being abandoned at far-flung ports. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools (1490–1500) depicts the lives of people with cognitive disabilities aboard such a ship.

In 1494, German satirist Sebastian Brant adapted Platos’ allegory of the ship of fools into a popular book that featured woodcut illustrations by Dürerand was the inspiration for Bosch’s painting by the same name. The allegory features a vessel without a pilot that is populated by deranged, frivolous, and oblivious inhabitants who are seemingly ignorant of their course. A parody of the Church’s “ark of salvation,” Ship of Fools inverted societal norms and critiqued the church’s mores and authority. The book became extremely popular, with six authorized and seven pirated editions published before 1521. Court fools were allowed to openly critique hierarchical societal structures, so by writing his work in the voice of Saint Grobian, whom Brant created as the patron saint of vulgarity, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.

In the introduction to Michel Foucault’s Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Jose Barchilon writes of the ship of fools:

Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then “knew,” had an affinity for each other. Thus, “Ships of Fools” crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.

Fools were also viewed as popular “pets” in the royal court, and dwarfs were featured in the work of Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velázquez.

Velázquez painted many portraits of dwarfs, including his Portrait of Sebastián de Morra (1645), which can be compared to the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of ten-year-old Antonietta Gonzalez (1595), whose father Pedro, “The Hairy Man from Munich,” was the first documented case of “werewolf syndrome” or hypertrichosis (as it would be called once the fantastic ailment was scientifically and clinically classified by doctors in the early twentieth century).

What sort of life might these people have led? Are these portraits sensitive and humanizing, or do they contribute to the subordination of people with disabilities?

Although people with disabilities had been exhibited on “ships of fools” and at court, the heyday of such practices came with the opening of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1841. During the 1840s the term “freak” came to refer to “a monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species; a living curiosity exhibited in a show.” This definition owes its place in the English vernacular to Barnum and his American Museum (1841–65), which relied on sensational exhibits to draw crowds.

The use of the word “freak” in this part of the lecture and in the scholarship is a conscious choice based on several factors. First, freak is the vernacular of the carnival and is thus historically based. Second, many have offered the word as one that has been reappropriated and inscribed with power, much like the word “queer” has been embraced by the LGBTQ community as well as academics performing queer studies. Moreover, the term connotes the absence of known categories of representation—it is outside representation if you will. The use of this word offers a theoretical discussion point for the class.

In Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, gender theorist Judith Butler has theorized the body as a discursive space, a text, where cultural and heterosexual hegemony exerts power. As she argues, identity, class, race, sex, and gender are socially constructed and thus performative. In many ways “freakiness” is performative, even when people are displaying their actual physical bodies. Photographs are also performative, so “freak” photography is compelling, not just in the sense that we are drawn to look—to stare unabashedly if you will—without the fear of getting caught (disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has theorized the “stare” in lives of people with disabilities), but also in that photographs are conscious constructions not just by the subjects, but also the photographers and the mores of society acting upon their representation.

At the same time, however, there are opportunities for rupture—places and moments where expectations are not met, where the bodies and the photographs of those bodies do not perform the way the viewer or audience might expect. These photos then, especially in the case of portraits, allow people with disabilities to challenge normative ideologies, to construct their own personas, and to create expanded discursive spaces.

Charles Eisenmann was a professional portrait photographer who made cartes de visite, or calling cards, for his exceptional clientele. He kept a studio in New York’s Bowery district, which in the 1880s was home to a mix of artists, performers, and prostitutes, close to Barnum’s American Museum. The performers used the calling cards as marketing and promotional tools. Eisenmann also sold them as collectibles to people who often assembled them into albums. He also kept his own archive. Here are some examples of his studio’s work.

Myrtle Corbin was billed as “the 4-legged girl from Texas,” a popular attraction for Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and Coney Island. One of the most popular sideshow freaks, she earned as much as $450 dollars a week (that would be about $14,000 per week today). At the age of nineteen, she married a doctor, with whom she had five children.

Eli Bowen was a tumbler and strong man who toured Europe with Barnum. He was applauded internationally for his extraordinary routine during which he climbed a thirteen-foot pole, then swung around the pole holding his body parallel to the pole with one hand. He married and had four sons. He took great pride in his family and the majority of the photos featuring Eli feature his family as well.

A skilled cabinetmaker, Charles B. Tripp incorporated intricate wood inlay designs into his cabinets. In 1872, he joined Barnum’s circus and worked in his traveling World Fair for almost twenty-five years, then worked another twenty-five years with other circuses including Ringling Bros. In his acts, he performed such tasks as penmanship, portrait painting, and paper cutting. At the turn of the century, Charles became interested in photography and was known as “The Armless Photographer.” He worked as staff photographer to the Barnum circus and also taught others in the show photography.

Eisenmann closed his studio in 1898 after Barnum closed the American Museum and the sideshow went on the road. The traveling sideshow became a popular form of leisure and entertainment during the Great Depression, and several artists including Reginald Marsh, Eudora Welty, and the Farm Security Administration photographers Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott took photographs of the sideshow performers or the banners that advertised the acts of the sideshow.

The FSA collection in the Library of Congress contains about 180,000 images, but only 713 of these were taken at fairs. It appears that only Delano, Rothstein, Lee, Shahn, and Post Wolcott covered the fairs for the FSA, even though these fairs exhibited the products of the farms the FSA was aiding, and fair coverage would seem to fit FSA head Roy Stryker’s mandate of “introducing America to Americans.”

This may reflect attitudes toward persons with disabilities in the 1930s. During the 1930s, people with disabilities faced significant segregation and oppression. Considered by the medical and political establishments as “unfit” for normal roles in society, disabled people were excluded from jobs provided by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration programs, which, according to the WPA Workers’ Handbook, were reserved for “able-bodied” Americans who were “certified by a local agency.”

Of the images taken at fairs, the vast majority are of FSA exhibits, rides, or spectators, though Rothstein, Delano, Wolcott, and Shahn photographed banners, and Lee offered the viewer images of the sideshow, including one of a one-legged man biting the head off of a snake.

Ask students to discuss Wolcott’s Plant City, Florida, Strawberry Festival and Carnival, Shahn’s Sideshow, County Fair, Central Ohio, and Lee’s Untitled, Donaldson, Louisiana. How do these government-sanctioned photographs of difference contribute to and complicate our understanding of disability and its place within American history?

Other photographers of the period interested in the sideshow included Welty and Marsh. Lead students in a compare and contrast Marsh’s Sideshow Sign at Coney Island and Welty’s Sideshow Banner, Mississippi State Fair.

How does gender, both of the photographers and the signs’ subjects (“Mule-face boy” and “Mule-face woman,” respectively), influence these representations and our understanding of them?

Another photographer interested in unusual subjects was Diane Arbus. Her award-winning work has been exhibited in major shows, has earned her two Guggenheim Fellowships, and has attracted heated and divisive criticism, even after (and perhaps fueled by) her death by suicide in 1972. As she told a New Yorker reporter, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience […] Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Arbus’s photography offers the opportunity to facilitate a debate in class, as scholars are divided on the degree to which her photographs exploited her subjects.

Germaine Greer argues that, although Arbus operates within the tradition of freak photography, there is an important difference between her and her predecessors like Eisenmann. As she argued, “Eisenmann’s subjects had names, stage names and real names. The giants, dwarves, midgets, conjoined twins, bird-girls, bearded women and dog-faced boys whose photographs appear on thousands of postcards were all professionals. Often the notes on the postcards spoke of them as well-educated and happily married. Arbus’s nameless subjects are denied such confederacy and performativity. She often uses the devices of the older tradition in her treatment of otherwise unremarkable subjects. She reduced her subjects to generic phenomena by the names she chose for them: Jewish Giant, Mexican Dwarf, Albino Sword-Swallower.”

As she says, “Arbus is not an artist who makes us see the world anew; she embeds us in our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity and lack of concern. Hers is a world without horizons where there is no escape from self.” (“Wrestling with Diane Arbus,” The Guardian, 2005).

Similarly Susan Sontag suggests Arbus’s “interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe” and that her photographs are “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”

On the other hand, John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, saw Arbus as a trailblazer in a new photographic aesthetic, and Sandra S. Philips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art argues that Arbus “was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of a new kind of photographic art.”

Do these photographs do violence to their subjects, as Sontag argued, or do they offer visibility to people who are otherwise marginalized?

Stelarc, Third Arm, 1980–98.

Body, Performance, and the Posthuman

The final section offers examples of modern and contemporary artists who engage with issues of disability in their work. A significant issue in contemporary theory is the deconstruction of the embodied nature of humanism. In humanistic thought, the mind and body are separate, with the body acting as a vehicle for the mind. Information technologies, scientific discoveries, and bioengineering challenge the role of the body, yet they are unable to fully replace the human body. Moreover, war, plastic surgery, and prosthetics have had a significant impact of the role of the body as well as of representations of people with disabilities, specifically as powerful subjects in critiques of war. Take for instance the German painter Otto Dix’s critique of WWI as seen in Scat Players and War Cripples.

Just as Brant used the Ship of Fools to challenge the cultural hegemony of the Church and the Crown during the fifteenth century, Dix’s work incorporates the mangled bodies of war veterans to show the human costs of nationalism during the early twentieth century. World War I was the first industrialized war, and the mechanization of warfare had dramatic effects.

Due to increased medical knowledge, wounds that would have killed soldiers in the past now left them disfigured amputees. These wounded veterans are a recurring theme in Dix’s work. The card players, who are outfitted with crude prosthetics, represent the German elite of the Weimar era. The soldier on the right wearing the Iron Cross represents the military. Opposite him sits a figure alluding to finance and capitalism. In the middle is a figure symbolizing the old aristocracy. The card players are propped up by technology, but the painting critiques the degree to which this can be considered progress.

While Dix used amputees as vehicles to parody political leaders in a fashion similar to Brant’s Ship of Fools, others have used prosthetics to investigate difference, the posthuman, and the transhuman. “Posthumanism” denotes an interest in the possibilities of life beyond human evolution and addresses questions of ethics, justice, language, and trans-species communication. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to transform the human condition through technologies that enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacity. Orlan (Self-Hybridizations) and Stelarc (Third Arm) are two contemporary artists who investigate and push the boundaries of “humanness” by undergoing surgeries to transform their bodies into hybrids and cyborgs.

Lisa Bufano’s dance work has incorporated a variety of prosthetics and props, such as using orange Queen Anne table legs as legs and arms, as seen in Film Still from Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. Bufano was a professional dancer before she became a bilateral below-the-knee and total finger-thumb amputee due to a staphylococcus bacterial infection at the age of twenty-one. Unwilling to give up her passion for dance, she developed ways to use her work to investigate corporeal difference and sexual identity. Sadly, she committed suicide in 2013.

Matthew Barney has also expressed an interest in corporeal difference and sexual identity, which he explored extensively in his Cremaster series. This still features Aimee Mullins, who was born with a medical condition that resulted in the amputation of both of her lower legs. She is known for her work as an athlete, actress, fashion model, and proponent of prosthetic innovation.

In Cremaster 3, Barney’s character undergoes Masonic initiation. A major theme of the film is the Masonic theory that you have to lose your “lower” self in order to reach a higher level. Mullins is literally without legs — the lower self — and is depicted alternately with crystal prostheses and cheetah legs; Barney must kill her to achieve the level of Master Mason. Barney’s film is controversial and has been interpreted as alternately fetishizing and demonizing the posthuman prosthetically/technologically enhanced body.

Other performance artists have used their disabilities to challenge stereotypes and normative behavior. The Irish artist Mary Duffy was born without arms. In 1995, she did a Performance piece in which she posed in the nude and performed a monologue, during which she described the ways her body has been defined by medicine and society as lacking, inadequate, and undesirable. In the piece, she discussed her confrontations with medical and social gazes and described how they impacted her self-confidence. She used her body to invoke the famous “armless” broken sculpture Venus de Milo, and to challenge normative beauty standards.

As part of the performance, she relayed questions that people had asked her, including “Were you born like that, or did your mother take those dreadful tablets? Did you have an accident?” Duffy’s performance exposed the nude disabled body visually and artistically, as it also revealed the social practices and values that render disability politically invisible.

As a challenge to invisibility, Young British Artist Marc Quinn sculpted fellow artist and activist Alison Lapper Pregnant in Carrara marble for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The work featuring Lapper, who was born without arms and with shortened legs, has been the subject of controversy and debate by those who view it alternately as offensive or progressive. The work, like Quinn’s other sculptures of amputee models for the series The Complete Marbles (2002), adopts the idealism of Neoclassicism to critique public representations of disability.

In contrast, the Jake and Dinos Chapman’s portrait of Stephen Hawkingrejects idealism. Labeled “the most detestable, the most repellent, and the most pointless work of art” by The Guardian, this lifelike twelve-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture depicts Hawking in his wheelchair on top of a rocky mountain. Although decried by The Guardian as crude and sarcastic, Art Monthly labeled it brilliant, and some disability rights scholars have defended it as an honest portrayal that captures the reality of both the subject and the artists.

Students might discuss the politics of representation present in this piece, and debate whether it is sardonic or sincere.


Ask students to reflect on the various ways that disability has been constructed throughout history and how visual representations are powerful tools in the construction of societal values. This lecture has brought together religious and secular paintings, photographs, contemporary sculptures, performance, and digital media to examine the various visual constructions of disability and difference that they embody. If students are interested in further projects related to arts and disability, you might direct them to, an online resource. Whereas disability has rarely been a part of the American cultural imaginary, the DisArt Festival hopes to subvert normative expectations and cultivate a space where differences are celebrated.

Keri Watson (author) is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Central Florida, focusing on modern and contemporary art and issues of disability in visual culture.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

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