Thanks to the achievement of political and cultural activism, the term “disability” has gained more and more attention in society over the last decades. Nevertheless, the definition of disability as a social and cultural construct remains problematic. The human body represents a constant subject of artistic representation across all epochs and cultures as well as the fundamental medium of art production and reception. The arousing debates around the politics and the social condition of the body with functional diversity underscore the importance of rethinking the body and its historically constructed unity also inside the art historical research.
How can disability studies help us to rethink the body across art history? What kind of social challenges do bodies with functional diversity put on artistic institutions, such as galleries and museums? How does the depiction of functional diversity stimulate artistic creativity and question normative definitions of art?
Hendrick Goltzius, Goltzius’s Right Hand, 1588, pen and brown ink on paper, 23 x 32.2 cm, Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
Image Description: An ink drawing of a hand made to look like an engraving. Some of the fingers are curved inward or possibly amputated, whereas the middle finger is stretched out stiff. The artist’s signature is prominently placed below.
The first aspect of the project focuses on the “visibility” of functional diversity as well as of disability as a social condition. The research examines means and forms through which functional diversity visually manifests itself, for instance how artists have made the diversity of their body into the subject of their work or what kind of traces this diversity leaves in their works. By concentrating on its representation across different times and cultures, the project also asks about the visibility of disability as a cultural construct. It explores the rise and circulation of stereotypes and measures the impact that the visual representation of functional diversity has had on its historical and social perception. The goal is to develop adequate methodologies, concepts, and vocabulary that can help to thematize disability within the art of historical research.
Functional Diversity as a Challenge to the Understanding of Art
Traditional art historical narratives tend to underscore the celebration of the artist’s mental and physical skills as the conceptual basis of historical definitions of art. In the early modern artistic vocabulary, the ability to perform the act of creation finds a reflection in categories such as Kunst-Können, destrezza, bravura etc. intended as expressions of the uninterrupted unity of the idealized body. And yet many premodern artists seem to have engaged with the depiction of functional diversity as a means to question not only aesthetic ideals, genre conventions, or the normative construction of the pictorial space, but also to rethink the work of the artists themselves. The project aims to examine visual means, techniques, and materials used by artists to represent bodies with functional diversities and their epistemological and aesthetic access to the world as a powerful means to test both the possibilities and the limits of art.
Image Description for the below images
Three images enclosed in blue frames are aligned in a row, separated by blue vectors. From the left to the right: Lorenza Böttner and Johannes Koch: Without Tile (ca. 1983). This photograph in black and white shows the artist, Lorenza Böttner, a white disabled woman with a black dress. Her medium-tone hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She stares at a paintbrush that she picks up with her right toes bringing it close to her eyes. In the centre, a work from the "Contact" series, 2015–16 by Park McArthur. It shows a sculpture made of a thin metal tray nearly overflowing with single-use items in colorful packaging. It is displayed on a white plinth. The third picture on the right is the Self-portrait as a Deaf Man, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ca. 1775. It shows the artist himself from the waist up wearing a dark brown jacket with white ruffled shirt beneath. Set against a black background, the viewer's eye is drawn to the light shining on his face and gray hair. His left hand is raised and cupping his left ear making it appear as if he is struggling to hear something.
Image Description for the below images
Three images enclosed in blue frames are aligned in a row, separated by blue vectors. From the left to the right: A portrait by Panteha Abareshi. It shows a woman with white and black hair and blue eyes. On her upper arms are attached two adhesive bandages. She is wearing a black oxygen mask and is holding with her left arm a yellow, green and red oxygen tank. On its right bottom, a tag reads "help". Two syringes' needles pierce her ears. In the centre, Shannon Finnegan, Do you want us here or not (MMK), 2018. It shows a cushioned bench that says, "It was hard to get here. Rest here if you agree." The text is white on blue with the wooden parts of the bench painted blue too. The cushion painting has a texture that makes it look almost velvety. The third picture on the right is Collapsed Cane, 2018, in steel, aluminium, rubber and lacquer, by Jesse Darling. It shows an extended curved cane. The base stands upright and the hand grip rests on the ground.
Image Description for the below images
Three images enclosed in blue frames are aligned in a row, separated by blue vectors. From the left to the right: a white hand grabbed by another white, is touching a marble wall; in the centre the Portrait of Nano Morgante by Agnolo Bronzino, 1552. It shows a naked white little man before the hunt. He is holding aloft a brown owl to be used as a bait to capture a jay that is flying in the air on his right. A duo of swallowtail butterflies cover his genitals; the third picture is a view of Park McArthur's Ramps, 2014, Essex Street, New York, from above of temporary ramps of different sizes and materials in a loose grid on a black concrete floor. One small weather-worn wooden ramp leans against the room's white wall.
The Access to Art and the Politics of Inclusivity
Ensuring equal access to art represents a fundamental goal for most artistic institutions. The project addresses the rethinking of space policies and communicative practices through the inclusion of different notions of body in museums and other artistic institutions. It examines the reception of the most recent discourses around disability, accessibility, and their function as a stimulus for creativity in design and architecture as well as in the shaping of exhibition spaces. A further important aspect is represented by the role of mechanical and digital technology is opening new dimensions and possibilities for engaging with art. This inquiry should underline the importance of accessibility as a form of political and social inclusion, with a particular focus on the art system and its mechanisms.
Lecture Series: Care, Disability and Art
This lecture series invites artists and researchers who engage with the social and political dimensions of care at the intersection of race, gender and disability in art and art history. This interdisciplinary approach will be reflected in the themes presented, such as speculative access, crip time, and the critique of the construction of normative bodies. In addition to the conjunctures between contemporary art history, disability theory, feminist and queer approaches, as well as postcolonial perspectives, the sessions will open up new discursive avenues for questioning the representation of the body and its relationship to a more informed and responsible framing that supports experiences of “complex embodiment.” The aim is to introduce a new language and methodology to consider how disability aesthetics informs art critical discourse and production.This interdisciplinary lecture series is organized by the research group “Rethinking Art History through Disability” at the University of Zurich, in collaboration with the Master Fine Arts at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK. The course will include a mix of in-class and online sessions. Closed captions will be provided. For any other access needs, please contact Virginia Marano (email@example.com).
The sessions will take place on Thursdays, from 18:15 to 20:00, approximately every two weeks. The dates are March 2, March 16, March 30, April 20, May 4, May 11, and June 1. More information will follow soon.
Teaching + Activities
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Virginia Marano is a doctoral candidate at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the aesthetic of dislocation in the works of Jewish women sculptors in Post-war New York, previously assimilated to feminism but not yet connected to the question of exile. To conduct her doctoral research, she was awarded an ESKAS doctoral scholarship (2018–2021) and a FAN Grant (2021). In 2022, she was a SNSF Doc.Mobility fellow in the Art History Department at Hunter.
Charlotte Matter is postdoc researcher at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Art History, where she coordinates the specialized Master’s program in Art History in a Global Context. Her doctoral thesis explored the use of plastics in art of the 1960s and 1970s from a feminist perspective. Her current research interests include collectivity in art and intersectional approaches.
Laura Valterio is research and teaching assistant at the University of Zurich and at the Bibliotheca Hertziana Max-Planck Institute for Art History in Rome. Her PhD project explores the history of seventeenth century Italian painting from the point of view of raw materials as well as their role in the dialogue between painting and other media. She was a graduate fellow at the NCCR eikones – Iconic Criticism at the University of Basel.
Max Kohler Stiftung