Dr. Ann Fox
Professor of English
Zoe Bock ’22
The Deliberative Curation Project in ENG 271: Disability in Literature and Art grew out of a number of things: my own longtime work as a curator of disability-related artwork and interest in disability aesthetics; my discussions with Lia Newman, Director of the Davidson College Galleries about how we might invite students into the collection more efficaciously; and my discussions with Dr. Van Hillard, Chair of the Writing Program, about the importance of teaching students deliberative skills in such a contentious time.
In the first half of the semester, six groups of five students each went into the Davidson College art collection and looked through work in storage. Their goal was to choose an artwork that they could present to the campus as an example of disability aesthetics. Disability aesthetics is a critical approach that values depictions of disability as well as disruptions of normalcy and proportionality in modern art. It stresses that disability as an aesthetic value undergirds modern and contemporary art. This meant students were essentially re-reading the collection through the lens of disability theory as well as thinking about how they might translate those ideas for the general public in an accessible way.
Students chose two works: Larry Rivers’ Blue Collar Holiday and Robert Lazzarini’s Untitled I-III. Their reasons for doing so represented two ways of approaching disability aesthetics. The Rivers piece shows the fragmented body of a laborer; while not a literal depiction of disability, its use of a fragmented body juxtaposed against images of the industrial age suggested to students a critique of utilitarian ways of regarding bodies: as a depersonalized, disposable commodity. The Lazzarini is a more abstract image of disability, in which an Old German text already in the collection is distorted and “cripped”—made both unreadable, but also into something new and interesting.
During the second half of the semester, students then re-organized themselves into groups responsible for different curation tasks. In this part of the assignment, students had to carefully consider the question: how should we frame this work from a disability studies perspective? Students did amazing work in this regard: they wrote both simple and traditional wall text, accessible for multiple audiences; they created audio descriptions and Spotify playlists to create visual and aural experiences of the work; and they created a tactile model of Blue Collar Holiday. One student’s grandmother even helped us secure Braille wall labels for the work. The work is now on view in Wall atrium, with all its framing devices.
I’m really proud of the work the students did; they gave the process careful thought, attention, and care. I think they showed what it means to think about art from a disability perspective, a diversity approach that needs more emphasis on our campus today and every day. Their work forms a sharp retort to the traditional narratives of overcoming, pity, cure, and charity that often dominate how Davidson publicizes its own disability narratives on the College website. Our students are leading the way: they show what it means to learn in innovative ways by using the College art collection, and what it means to transmit knowledge that values disability by bringing their own learning to public audiences. This project could not have been done without their enthusiasm, as well as the particular support of Lia Newman, Thomas Epenschied, the Library, and the Makerspace.
Before taking ‘Disability in Art and Literature’ with Dr. Fox, I had neither learned about disability aesthetics nor interacted with the Davidson College art collection in the VAC. I have never been a huge fan of art museums and have struggled in the past to know how to analyze and approach art pieces. This project challenged me to analytically engage with art and helped me realize that, when I applied concepts from class, I was fully capable of doing so. My group was even able and excited to draw out the disability aesthetics in an image of rocks. For me, the two coolest parts of this project are the disability affordances that some of my peers created (e.g. a partially 3-D printed, tactile version of one of the works that looks impeccably like the original) and the interdisciplinary nature of the project– an English class took us into the VAC, and now the work is being presented in Wall, which seems like the perfect process for liberal arts students.