Book Review: More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (Georgina Kleege)
Reviewed by Emily K. Michael
When a blind person visits an art museum, she is likely to encounter the staples of accessibility: brisk braille descriptions and thin disposable gloves. In the popular imagination, the blind art enthusiast is billed as an incongruous figure, or invoked, Georgina Kleege suggests, as a "tasteless joke." Kleegeís latest book More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, tracks the seeming mismatch of blindness and artistic experience. This text is an ambitious, academic dissection of the philosophies that have limited sighted understanding of visual impairment and foregrounded a vision-centered brand of accessibility.
Kleege begins her philosophical explorations with the Hypothetical Blind Man: the archetype whose blindness is congenital and complete. Without vision, the Hypothetical lacks an everyday authority, as Western philosophy elevates the association between functional vision and mental knowledge. Kleege applies this myth to artistic experience, saying, "When I claim to know something about visual art, I collide with a long philosophical tradition that conflates seeing and knowing. According to this tradition, because I am blind, my knowledge of art is merely hearsay and secondhand." The Hypothetical looms in the corner of every conversation between blind and sighted art enthusiasts. Instead of talking about art, the conversation pivots to access and authority: How can a blind person know or understand anything about art? Readers of Kleegeís Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller will remember that she tackled this discussion when describing how a young Keller was tried for plagiarism. The Hypothetical Blind Man haunted that cold auditorium where Kellerís teachers wondered if a DeafBlind girl could understand and write about visual images.
Characterized by foundational philosophers like Descartes and Locke, the Hypothetical compensates for his sight loss with tactile prowess; his sense of touch is a superhuman compensation for his visual deficit. But as Kleege points out, discussions of the Hypothetical have a luxurious after-dinner quality; they rarely lead to improvements in the lives of actual blind people. These speculations maintain a general ignorance of blind experience. Kleege argues, "the average totally, congenitally blind person knows infinitely more about what it means to be sighted than the average sighted person knows about what it means to be blind." Regardless of the varied experiences of blind people, the Hypotheticalís seeing fingers have contributed to an unnecessary emphasis on touch for the blind. Philosophical dialogues brand touch as a stand-in for vision, insisting that if the Hypotheticalís cane were long enough, he could attain a comparable knowledge of his environment. In a positive light, this tactile obsession inspires gloved touch-tours at most museums, while its negative counterpart generates common assumptions of blind people as face-feelers.
Rounding out the problems of the Hypothetical, Kleege analyzes works by Diderot, Wilkie Collins, and Raymond Carver. Diderotís Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See offered observations and contemplations based on the experiences of actual blind people that the author interviewed. Though he speculated that lack of sight might have moral consequences, Kleege suggests that Diderotís writing shows "not only his lifelong fascination with blindness, but also his willingness to engage fully with the lived experience of blindness as a way of being in the world rather than a state of deficit or lack." Diderot is not alone in thinking a lack of access to visual information always leads to a lack of empathy. Again, sight-centered philosophy has a firm hold on meaningful human experience: if the blind cannot access visual information that provokes an emotional reaction, the popular imagination bars them from experiencing that reaction by any other means.
In their literary works, Wilkie Collins and Raymond Carver step into the conversation on blindness and art. Collinsí Poor Miss Finch offers a startlingly forward-thinking narrative where Lucilla, the blind woman, is encouraged to have an unsuccessful operation restoring her sight, and is almost tricked into marrying a visual artist instead of the tactile artist she prefers. Rut rather than providing a curing tale, Collins subverts Victorian expectations. Kleege writes, "For Collins, blindness is Lucillaís true state. The operation was a misguided attempt to change what didnít need fixing. Thus it is the tactile artisan rather than the visual artist who is the better match for her."
Carverís "Cathedral" takes on a narrow-minded protagonist who is uncomfortable with Robert, his wifeís blind friend. While Collins offers a commentary on cure-gone-awry, Carverís story suggests the need for social accessibility. The narrator, unable to describe a cathedral, guides the blind man in drawing one. Here, Kleege echoes the concern of most blind readers of this story: "The reader is left with only a sketchy notion of whether this picture is worth the thousand words the narrator cannot supply, much less whether the drawing is meaningful to the blind man." The charactersí newfound ease with one another sidelines any questions about whether the drawing actually helps Robert to understand the wonder of a cathedral. Kleege offers her own solution, saying, "For me however, the best way to appreciate a cathedral is to climb its tower. The breathtaking view from the top may be lost on me, but the breathtaking climb up the spiral staircase to get there helps me appreciate the monumental scale of the structure. Also, along the way I have the opportunity to touch much.…Tracing a course of ordinary masonry or the flutes of a column reveal the quality of engineering and craft that went into construction." Kleege later expands on this brand of accessibility that allows a blind person to have a firsthand experience of art. Kleege insists that accessibility and arts education are not one-way conversations where blind people simply receive curated information from sighted experts. Blind people must be given the opportunity to enhance a discussion about art.
Kleege incisively critiques the darlings of contemporary accessibility — video description and guided audio gallery tours — but her approach is far from pessimistic. In all cases, she calls for inclusion and respect, decrying the access measures that fail to acknowledge a blind personís independent powers of interpretation and relationship to works of art. However, Kleegeís critiques are incredibly fine-tuned to the medium and genre of art. While it is important for blind people to have direct experience of tactile art, it is equally important for sighted guides to provide the visual information needed to place that art in a cultural and historical context.
Kleege explains that most art in museums includes a descriptive caption, either in braille near the artwork itself or on audio via headphones. She critiques these descriptions, which are too literal and restrictive. Often the description simply states what is on the canvas, without any aesthetic guidance or cultural context. Kleege argues, "The sighted student of art history is understood to need this supplemental information to appreciate the painting, but the blind listener to the objective description is left to imagine the painting as cut off from historical context or artistic convention." Such descriptions neglect the rich semantics of visual knowledge that most sighted visitors already possess.
The same flaw can be found in the auditory descriptions available for film. Video description adheres to a strict set of guidelines that prevents the disembodied voice from making aesthetic judgments or discussing filmmaking techniques. Kleege outlines the central problem with this practice: "The rules seem based on an assumption that a film is mostly a matter of narrative, where plot elements supersede anything to do with a filmmakerís particular visual aesthetic. The insistence on objective neutrality seems to come from an assessment that sighted viewers enjoy an autonomous, unmediated experience of visual media, which is more or less the same from viewer to viewer." Again, this brand of accessibility neglects the semantic content that vision provides. Just as the visual enjoyment of a painting does not reside in an inventory of its contents, the enjoyment of a film does not depend solely on a play-by-play of its plot elements. In both cases, the accessibility measures that are so often invoked actually re-affirm the Hypotheticalís lack of authority and the limited knowledge of the blind mind.
Kleege seeks a collaborative access to art — where blind people have an equal place in shaping perceptions about the work being created, studied, or enjoyed. In her final chapter, she enacts this practice of accessibility: she offers collaborative descriptions of blind self-portraits. She relies on her own knowledge and the knowledge of trusted friends to create descriptions that address not only the content of the work but also its place in a larger cultural and aesthetic discussion. Kleege protest the kind of accessibility that only re-segregates the blind museum-goer to an after-hours tour in the absence of regular patrons. She compels the reader to imagine an accessibility that enlarges the perceptions of disabled and nondisabled visitors in an inclusive setting: "Who wouldnít benefit from an hour-long contemplation of a single painting? Why not open up these programs to include sighted people?"
Kleegeís work is one long battle with the Hypothetical Blind Man, who only serves as a dancing bear for sighted philosophers. She insists that there is no universal "mindís eye" and reminds sighted readers that their visual access prepares them to develop aesthetic judgments. Kleege campaigns for the measures that will encourage blind people to develop a meaningful relationship with art. Ultimately, our conversations about art and accessibility must dismantle the Hypothetical, who defies collaboration, and serve the real community of artists, patrons, and educators.
Title: More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art