Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Partitioning the Prosthetic: Olympiads, Crips & Vandals


Guest Post by Kadie Groh

“There are certain metaphysical rules internal to art that stand in the way of its ability to change perception [of the body and aesthetics]. The most stable and intrusive ones, of course, have to do with the habitual expectation that art object and world will correspond in some degree of mimetic exactitude because they compel audiences to reject or correct wayward representations.”
Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics, page 85

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In this post, I use the term “impairment” to reference bodily differences (specifically amputated limbs) rather than “disability.” I am one of many current disability scholars who believe that “impairment” is only concerned with the physical body and non-normate (normate meaning able-bodied) types of embodiment, whereas “disability” is a state of oppression on top of impairment, imposed by State legislation, built physical environment, and social structures. “Disability” causes non-normate (i.e. impaired) bodies to be at a significant disadvantage -- a disadvantage that would not exist were social structures altered.

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On the "Whole" Subject of Art

“Cognitive dissonance is a good way of putting it. In my mind, there is an image of an Olympic-level runner. He is a human thoroughbred, powerful and graceful, like Michael Johnson, the world-record holder in the 400 meters. Oscar is certainly powerful, and graceful in his own way, but I could not look at him and say: this is the highest order of the human form. You can’t. There’s something missing. So I had to adjust my mind and say: this is also a runner, possibly an Olympian, and regard him on his own terms.”
Michael Sokolove, New York Times, “The Fast Life of Oscar Pistorius”
On Oscar Pistorius, the first double amputee to run in the Olympic Games 

Classical art, especially sculpture, traditionally attempts to show the human form at its most perfect. The corporeal ideal is part of what establishes aesthetic standards for the art world, and those aesthetics transfer out of the art world and into the world of the living. 

From the practice of “contraposto” (a particular stance in which the bodies are posed--think of Michelangelo’s David for a good example) to the practice of showing nude or partially nude bodies (indicating the importance of the body itself, not its adornments, in establishing beauty standards), classical sculpture represents the ideal body. The ideal is “whole” in that it has no visible physical impairments. This concept of “whole” art has informed the concepts of beauty; this influence continues today with television, print media, the fashion industry, etc.

The Olympics (also a classical invention) are intended to show human bodies as close to physical perfection as possible. They are an opportunity to see exactly how close to ideal a living human body (as opposed to a sculpted one) can get. The competition is a forum that highlights the nebulous margin between art and athletics, between artistic and living ideal. The Olympian archetype, as Sokolove succinctly describes above, exists as the exemplary human--the ideal or “whole” body type. In the Olympic Games, we have the opportunity to see life imitate art.

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Re-Markable Disability: Deconstruction

“[Vandalized sculptures] have nothing to do with disability. Rather, their shattered form invokes the idea of disability. We know that they were not conceived as such. They were conceived as able-bodied, and we see the perfect image evaporate before our very eyes.”
 Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics, page 92

Athletics and sculpture are two fields in which the ideal body is not only an ultimate goal, but the standard by which other bodies outside the realm of art and athletics are inevitably judged. However, art often does not represent anything attainable by living beings. Sculptures of humans are often not to scale or skewed to make them more aesthetically “perfect” depending on their size and the angle from which they will be viewed (again, Michelangelo’s David is an example of manipulating perspective and scale).

Despite the imaginary ideal “whole,”evidence of impairment continues to emerge in both the genre of sculpture and in athletics, constantly challenging the idea of a whole body. Often, time, transportation, and general wear-and-tear contribute to statues losing parts--usually arms. The Venus de Milo, for instance, represents a whole-turned-fragmented sculpted body. 

When Yorgos Kentrotas discovered the statue in 1820, it was actually in more pieces than it is now--her torso and legs were separated from one another. Kentrotas also found pieces of one arm and one hand nearby. By contrast, some structural changes in sculpture are the result of vandalism: In 1972, László Toth struck Michelangelo’s Pietá repeatedly with a three-pound hammer. The Madonna lost a nose, in addition to sustaining damage to her arms and left eye. 

Art vandalism (or its gradual deterioration) and human amputation represent for the able-bodied community (and members of the art community who desire able-bodied sculptures) a shift from whole ideal to fragmented object. What we hold up as the absolute epitome of physical ability and beauty, classical statues and Olympic athletes, are contrasted by “broken” bodies; those bodies challenge the whole concept of a bodily ideal. And this year, Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter from South Africa, became the first double amputee ever to race in the Olympics. 

Vandalized art and impaired athletes challenge our conception of aesthetics and athleticism, and therefore “wholeness;” impairment also calls into question the seemingly stable identities of able bodies, as well. Chipped, worn, broken, or vandalized statues forces viewers to acknowledge what much of the able-bodied community and the medical model adherents so badly want to deny: 

Able-bodiedness is less a default as just another condition of humanness. There are many manifestations of embodiment, all appearing, evolving, growing, shrinking, disappearing, or going unnoticed within us and at the surface of our bodies. 

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Aesthetic Prosthetics: Restoration

“Should the Olympics and other “able-bodied” competitions be open to amputees? The science, in simplest terms, attempts to compare the real-life Oscar with an imagined, able-bodied Oscar. How fast would he be with biological legs? But of course, no such person exists.”
Michael Sokolove, New York Times, “The Fast Life of Oscar Pistorius”
On Oscar Pistorius and Paralympian “crossovers”

Prosthetics are a means of “rehabilitating” vandalized art & disabled athletes—and of rethinking both.  Restorers of statues like the vandalized Pietá use resin to fill in or replace damaged parts. Sketches and speculations abound as to what Venus de Milo’s arms would have looked like--these mock-ups serve as hypothetical prosthestics. For amputee athletes like Pistorius, there are particular prosthetics for use in their respective sports, Pistorius’ being carbon fiber running legs.

A conflict arises from this, however. As Tobin Siebers writes, “Restorers often insist that artworks, once damaged, cannot be returned to their original condition. The future authenticity of the work somehow relies on preserving its status as disabled.” (Disability Aesthetics 93). When impairment occurs, a whole (the ideal body) transitions to a fragment. Language surrounding augmented bodies fixates that somehow the prosthetic-restored body remains fragmented. 

If we follow the logic of art restoration practices, vandalized art and impaired bodies were hypothetically created to be whole but became fragmented; however, restored art is not whole again. The impaired body is simply fragment + prosthetic, the prosthetic being a necessary but foreign addition which can never be fully incorporated into the body physically (and therefore conceptually and ideologically). 

What might promote this conflict is that the fields of art and athletics constantly identify prosthetics as such, re-separating part from pseudo-whole, while also imagining the impaired object or person as they “should have been.” Siebers points out that the restorer of the Pietá repaired the statue with a resin that had “high fluorescence, so that the exact location of the restored areas could be easily pinpointed by ultraviolet light and removed at any time” (Disability Aesthetics 93). 

The concept of showing and reinforcing the removability of the prosthetic is evident in much of the Olympic press coverage of Oscar Pistorius. There is a shockingly high amount of footage featuring Pistorius preparing his running prosthetics, strapping them on, adjusting them, removing them again, etc. Those viewing a restored body--whether living or art--want to know beyond any doubt what is “real” or original, and what is an addition.  There is an ableist fear of being duped by a restoration or a prosthetic user adept at “the masquerade,” as Tobin Siebers calls it. Viewers need to see the transition from fragment to pseudo-whole and back again, for repeated reassurance.

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Vandalizing Olympus: Athletics as Performance Art

“The act of vandalism changes the referential function of the artwork, creating a new image in its own right. [...] First, the act of vandalism is an act of creation because a new image comes to life. Second, if a new image is created, it is potentially the case that a new referent also emerges.”
 Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics, page 83

Paralympians and other athletes with prosthetics represent several paradoxes having to do with visibility, wholeness, subject-hood and inclusion. They highlight the conflicts inherent in imagining an ideal body; expecting that ideal to exist and perform in particular ways (and calling that hardly-attainable ideal the “norm”); and thinking of prosthetics as simultaneously inadequate and over-enhancing. 

Legislation regarding prosthesis contradicts the less-than-whole image of athletes like Oscar Pistorius: In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body for athletics, amended its competition rules with a ban on “any technical devie that incorporates springs, wheels, or an other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device” (144.2). The ban effectively prevented athletes with prosthetics from entering able-bodied competitions, regardless of how their performance (in Pistorius’ case, his race times) matched up with international minimum requirements. 

Asserting that athletes with prosthetics have an “unfair advantage” over their able-bodied competitors seems to imply that while amputees are fragmented bodies compared to the ideal, they are also more-than-whole because the prosthetic is a restoration plus. Thanks to Oscar Pistorius, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has since gotten rule 144.2 revoked, but doubts about the authenticity and equality of prosthetic users remains for much of the sporting world.

And that is a good thing. The desire to erase the apparent difference of athletes with prosthetics should be avoided. “Overstated differences [in the form of impairment] serve as small conspiracies against oppression and inequality. They subvert existing social conventions, and they contribute to the solidarity of marginal groups by seizing control of stereotypes and resisting the pressure to embrace norms of behavior and appearance.” (Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory, 119).

Call Oscar Pistorius and his carbon fiber running legs the three-pound hammer of the Olympic Games. This is a vision of vandalizing the ideal and then reimagining what it means to be whole and what it means to be human. As living bodies, we are all conglomerations of parts for a purpose, constructed and sometimes reconstructed. Some of the parts are made of flesh, and others are not; some were attached to us at birth, and others are prosthetics created for us. Regardless, bodies that disrupt the ideal and the fantasy of stable embodiment are not, in fact, fragmented, but new and different wholes.

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Kadie Groh is a graduate student of Disability Studies & Early Modern Literature 
in the George Washington University English Department.

2 comments:

  1. Congratulations and thanks for such an insightful post! Your voice and hard work are duly appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent! Very interesting analysis of impairment in the context of the Olympics!

    ReplyDelete