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  • Writer's picturePeta

Disability Representation In Art With Associate Professor Keri Watson

Disability Representation doesn't stop at television, movies and media it also includes art. This week Peta sits down with Associate Professor Keri Watson to understand how disabled people have been represented and how interpretation and symbolism have changed over time. 

Connect with associate professor Keri Watson: 

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


References for this conversation: 

Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane -

Beggars Who Get About on Their Own in Bordeaux -

How Monet’s artistic vision shone through ailing eyes -

Ann Millett-Gallant -

Panorama Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art -


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast answering our questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta and I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. If you've listened to this podcast for a while, you know how much I value disability representation. One area of disability representation I have never thought about until recently is disability representation within art. I got so obsessed with this concept in how well represented. I wanted to speak to someone about it and have a really deep, thoughtful and knowledgeable conversation with someone that could better explain it to me. So today I have Professor Keri Watson. She's absolutely lovely. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. You'll be able to hear the excitement in my voice, so I hope you do too. So without any further ado, let's get into it.


Keri [00:01:13] I am Keri Watson and I am an art historian in Orlando, Florida.


Peta [00:01:21] Obviously, disability has always been present in our society in some form or another. Has it always been shown in art, or has it gone in and out of favour? Tell me about a brief history of how disability has showed up in art.


Keri [00:01:36] Disability is part of the human condition. And so and the human body is a very popular, thing to have in art. And so we see in most art, for most cultures from most time periods, representations of both abled and disabled bodies, even invisible disabilities, which can be challenging because art we think of at least visual art, we think of visible, bodies. But, certainly invisible disabilities are represented as well. There are, you know, I think ebbs and flows. So, for instance, we think of classical Greece as being very interested in idealism. So these idealised bodies. But then in Hellenistic Greek art we see older women and people with physical, differences. We also see a lot of bodies, used metaphorically. Of course, disability is something that is often referenced in the Bible. So we see disability used in a variety of ways. There and then even with the scientific revolution. Right. The enlightenment thinking there becomes also an obsession with kind of codifying and typifying and, categorising. We have disabled bodies in, early indigenous art, in Venezuelan art and Chinese art, in Indian art, in Australian art, Aboriginal art. So, yeah, I think because art is interested in the human condition and disability as part of the human condition.


Peta [00:03:13] And do you think the disability condition is unique in the fact that art in the past has often used disability to convey a message, rather than reflect maybe an individual experience? Do you agree with that?


Keri [00:03:30] Well, I like in literature. I think that oftentimes disability becomes a metaphor for other things. A way to, represent something, whether it is for good or for evil. Right? Kind of stereotypes. Some religious paintings like Healing the Sick. And then the kind of subtext of that, of course, is that healing would be the goal, right? And that the illness or disability would be connected to sin, in some way. But at the same time, I do think there are instances where, representations are more about individuals. I think the issue with art, of course, is that art is often about symbolism, right? Whether it's a symbol for beauty or pain or suffering or heroism, or some, you know, moment in time that is somehow enabled to capture a whole historical narrative. Art has to rely on symbolism because you're telling a whole story, you know, on a, on a single sculpture or canvas. And, yes, I mean, you're right. I think that art and stories and the way we interpret them, right, not just when they're made, but how they're interpreted differently over time is impacted by our values and beliefs.


Peta [00:04:57] Obviously, I come from a lens of being, an Australian white woman, being loosely raised under Christianity, very, very loosely. So my understanding of how disability has been reflected in other religions and other arts of other countries is very limited. So if you could educate me and the audience about how other non-Western societies and communities have reflected disability, I would love to hear that from you.


Keri [00:05:29] It's very interesting. Sometimes it's similar and sometimes it's different, of course. Right. So there are traditions where, you know, maybe someone who has seizures or epilepsy would be considered, holy, like the spirit is capturing them. The spirit is moving that person or being a seer or, shaman, or a religious leader because of that. So being very revered. But at the same time, as part of that reverence, also being kind of an untouchable. Right, and being removed. And interestingly. If your mobility would be affected and then you would need to be carried. That could be an elevation of status, right? Which I think is really, fascinating. Representations of people with dwarfism in Indian sculpture. is another one that over time has been both considered a positive thing. And then also, a less positive thing, you know, or something that, would be in, in needed, in need of, fixing or curing or, overcoming. I think it's interesting to see, in artwork the way that, you know, over time things are represented differently. And but it's a challenge for sure. You know.


Peta [00:06:58] Absolutely. And I think that's why having these conversations are really important. And hopefully, you know, it allows people to go, oh, maybe, maybe disabled people should be reflected in a different way. And the past is the past and we shouldn't change the past, in my opinion. History is history. But I'm also interested to know, you mentioned before that people with hidden disabilities have also been represented. Do you have any examples for us to go and have a look at?


Keri [00:07:34] Some photographs that I've written about that Margaret Bourke White took at Letchworth Village in New York, which was primarily people with cognitive, disabilities. So, so that, would be an example. I'm also thinking about that. There could be all kinds of examples in art that we wouldn't know necessarily. And by the same token, the number of artists who, you know, famous artists who have either at some point in their life had some sort of disability or always had. But we don't talk about that. So thinking of like Frederic Edwin Church, the 19th century landscape painter, who was certainly, very much, physically disabled at the end of his life. Someone like Frida Kahlo, who we talk about a lot, and who included, her disabilities in her paintings. So gives us this kind of opportunity to engage in that. But. But someone like Georgia O'Keeffe, who, spent some time, in, what I guess then was called an asylum or a solarium or something. And, and wrote letters with Frida Kahlo and they talked about, depression and, but we don't really talk about that when we look at her paintings of flowers or landscapes. Or someone like Monet or Turner who were losing their eyesight at the end of their lives. And others and many others. And I think part of it is that we tend to think about idealism or like, that someone at their peak, at the height of their career. And maybe we need to spend more time attending to the whole life. Right? And the whole career.


Peta [00:09:27] The person that sort of comes to mind. For me, that doesn't necessarily. Well, he he did have hidden disabilities and also obvious disabilities was Vincent van Gogh. His paintings really transformed as his psychosis changed his, outlook on life.


Keri [00:09:48] Yeah, that's a great example. We were actually just talking about this, in my art history class this morning with my students, and we were talking about this idea of, painting painters or artists often being kind of considered to. You know, be related to like kind of madness or genius, right? And, deep feeling. And so one of the students who was a painter, and most of the, the students were painters said, well, I think that, artists sometimes feel more deeply right. And so they're able to create something that, taps into something that other people can appreciate. Van Gogh. What an what an amazing artist who, unfortunately, didn't live to see how, you know, popular, but become, just an amazing artist. But that really suffered trying to grapple with, with life. And you're right. They do. Some of them look very happy, and some of them are very sad. Right? You can really feel the emotion, in his paintings.


Peta [00:10:57] I would love to hear your opinion on which sort of art should be displayed, or whether all art should be displayed. The the piece for me that comes to mind, and it is a triggering, title in itself is portraits of the insane. I'd love to hear your perspective on how these sorts of pieces should be consumed.


Keri [00:11:23] Yes. So, Jericho, this series, right, of, the portraits, made at the one of the first, psychiatric hospitals in, in France. And he collaborated with, psychiatrist. This is like the birth of psychiatry, to make those portraits. And again, this idea of, wanting to classify. The idea that you could tell. Right. If the person through the painted portrait. Right, that the artist would be able to capture, some sort of something. My students and I were also just talking about that, right? Like, what do you do with paintings where the models obviously didn't have really agency over their depiction? Yet much of this painting or photographs or artwork tells us so much about a time, and a place and as you said, like, what do we do with the past, right? Or the complicated past? And I agree with you that I think we those paintings exist. And. They are an important part of, you know, the history of of romanticism, a French Romantic painting. Should we be making paintings like that today? No. And I think what it is a benefit there is that also having more access to art and art education for people with disabilities. So people have agency in their own self-representation. Right? So the more we kind of integrate society and provide opportunities of, for community building, it's not only a benefit to the person with the disability who then can be an artist or a writer or whatever it is that this person wants to be. You can de-stigmatize. You can, remove some of the fear or anxiety that goes along with, people's just apprehension about physical or psychological or cognitive difference. It's interesting that artist Jericho was. He was at that psychiatric hospital as a patient as well. So it's a complicated story, right? He want he had his own kind of feelings of wanting to, even maybe know himself better through the that painting process. So. So while it can look, very exploitive and that, of course, the titling is not great from today's standpoint, right? The words are challenging. You know, we have to have these community building conversations, right. Like this one where it's, you know, I don't like that. That bothers me. Well, tell me more about that. You know.


Peta [00:14:30] This might be a tentative connection, so bear with me. But one of my favourite pieces that I've found that depicts disability and in its own sense, the title isn't great, but it's Beggars Who Get Around On Their Own In Bordeaux. I feel that title has agency. Yes. It's not saying that disabled people, you know, are kings and queens, there were beggers in this context, but I was really interested and happy to see somewhat of a positive portrayal, particularly given that this piece is quite old still.


Keri [00:15:10] Yeah. And so Goya, who did that? I, I believe it's an etching or maybe it's a drawing. But I agree with you. I really like that, that work, that representation, because he does seem to have such agency. Right. Who the man is. He is a wheelchair user. But he's kind of has his hands on the wheels, and he's looking out, at the viewer and just kind of, like, ready for action. That's what what you feel like, right? When when you look at it. And Goya, of course, was also someone who, was, deaf, he became deaf after having an illness in middle age. And then, had also, depression.


Peta [00:15:55] When people were starting to depict disability more readily in a positive, light, positive perspective with their negative consequences to the artist. How did society react to disability being reflected in a positive way?


Keri [00:16:15] Well, I think the most famous examples are probably like Alison Lapper and Mark Quinn, making work, in the case of her self-portraits, for Trafalgar Square. People didn't feel that it should be fair. So public and large. Right? Or with Mark Quinn or Joel Peter Witkin, people who maybe don't identify as having physical disabilities themselves, but certainly make what I think we could call positive representations of people with physical difference. They also are sometimes, you know, accused of maybe being too in your face or. So those big debates are, what, from the 90s or early 00's and now today. Looking back, it feels weird that that would have even been a problem.


Peta [00:17:15] I've really enjoyed spending my time with you today, Keri. My last question to you is for those of us who are, art novices. Are there any disabled artists that you would recommend we become more ofay with?


Keri [00:17:32] Well, so historically we've talked about some of them, right. So Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh and Goya. Probably even Caravaggio. I actually think historically, if we look back, we would find all kinds of, of, disability in artists that maybe it isn't always talked about. And then, some contemporary artists, working today. Rivera's work is amazing. The sins invalid, which is, collective, is a great group. There was just a wonderful, exhibition at the Ford Foundation of, Art and disability, and we did, a special, colloquium about it in, the Journal, Panorama, the Journal of the Historians of American Art. And that journal, Panorama is an online digital, free access, open access journal. And, I was really excited that we did this whole suite of essays about, contemporary artists with disability engaging with, bodily difference. So I hope maybe you're listening as well. We'll look for Panorama. And again, it's the journal of the, Association of Historians of American Art, and it's free and online and open access. I'm always looking, for, new artists also, Ann Millett-Gallant is one of my friends who is also an art historian and an artist who, I love her work. And I'd love to see what she's doing and what she's up to. So. Yeah.


Peta [00:19:20] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. This week's episode was a prime example of why I love my job. I get to deep dive into topics I would never otherwise have the opportunity to do. Thank you so much, Keri, for spending the time to better educate me on how disabled people have been represented throughout time in art. If you did enjoy this episode, can I encourage you to leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify, or share the show with a friend who you think might enjoy it? Thank you again for listening. And until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge Bunurong and Wurundjeri  people of the Kulin nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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