Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2009). Staring: How We Look. Oxford University Press.

StaringKeywords: Staring; the gaze

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of English and Bioethics at Emory University, where her fields of study are disability studies, American literature and culture, and feminist theory.

Her work develops the field of critical disability studies in the health humanities, broadly understood, to bring forward disability access, inclusion and identity to communities inside and outside of the academy.

She is the author of Staring: How We Look and several other books. Her current book project is Habitable Worlds: Disability, Technology, and Eugenics. See more details at:

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Staring is ‘An anatomy of staring’ (p. 9). Drawing on examples from art, media, fashion, history and memoir,  Garland-Thomson tackles the human stare. In the first book of its kind, Garland-Thomson defines staring, explores the factors that motivate it, and considers the targets and the effects of the stare. Featuring over forty illustrations, Staring advances new ways of thinking about visuality and the body that will appeal to readers who are interested in the overlap between the humanities and human behaviours.

Garland-Thomson critiques the act of staring, within the contexts of difference and disability. She analyses the ‘contradiction between the desire to stare and the social prohibitions against it… (p.6). She writes:

To dissect staring, the book approaches staring from a distinctly social model [of disability], using several analytical instruments: the social sciences of visual communication, interactionism, cognitive and social psychology; the history of visuality and curiosity; and most of all the humanistic disciplines of philosophy, disability and feminist theories, ritual and performance studies, and literary criticism. (p.10)

 Garland-Thomson explores the act of staring at difference using art works as case studies to illuminate her points. She does not critique or analyse visual arts narratives of disability outside this framework, ie. she is not writing as an art historian but more as a sociologist of difference.  She surveys the act and implications of staring across many areas eg race, death, violence etc. 

In doing so, she adopts an interdisciplinary methodology, using ‘scenes of staring that serve as case studies. These scenes take the form of narrative accounts, artistic representations, photographs, films, and performances.’ (p.10), and announces that her analysis is ‘ stalwartly humanistic in its approach. Its perspective is more that of the literary critic and philosopher than the historian or social scientist’ (p.10).

The thrust of Garland-Thomson’s thesis is evident in the following excerpts:

‘We stare when ordinary seeing fails, when we want to know more. Staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story.’ (p.3)

‘Expectations about the ways bodies should look and work affect how we see each other as well.’ (p.37)

‘Extraordinary-looking bodies demand attention. The sight of an unexpected body—that is to say, a body that does not conform to our expectations for an ordinary body—is compelling because it disorders expectations. Such disorder is at once novel and disturbing.’ (p.37)

‘Furthermore, social scientists agree that disability is a visual cue for lower expectations and discomfort for those who identify as nondisabled.’ (p.38)

'The goal of observation—of staring for the sake of knowing—is to make the unknown intelligible, to incorporate the unusual into our understandings of the usual. This process has a strong visual component. Accumulating knowledge has two visual aspects: observation and display.’ 

‘The turmoil that looking away brings has led several artists to ponder staring relationships in their work. In 2005, the portrait painter Doug Auld created ten paintings of young people significantly disabled by burn injuries.’ (p. 79-80)

‘Auld uses the familiar conventions of traditional portraiture—such as realism, texture, color, pose, and likeness—to portray very unconventional subjects. The jolt of these portraits of burn survivors comes from showing us a kind of person we rarely see. As portraits, the paintings announce that their subjects are worthy of public commemoration, important enough to look at, even beautiful.’ (p.80). Garland-Thomson continues her detailed discussion at some length. Useful and provocative. See in particular discussion by Auld on page 81

She discusses the works of artist, Chris Rush, and his

‘portrait series of ‘unusual children and adults’, most of whom are people with disabilities, that was exhibited at a Brooklyn Gallery in 2006. Rush’s drawings are studies from life done at a facility for disabled people where he volunteers …. posing them with great dignity. Rush’s pictures navigate between us and them, attending carefully to the visual relationship by gratifying our ‘deep curiosity’ while at the same time inviting ‘empathy’ and ‘sensitivity’’ (p.81). ‘They show what to many of us is the ‘strangeness’ of disability in the familiar frame of a portrait’ (p.82)

She writes of his work that he confers 

‘dignity on people whose differences draw stares is the challenge to which these portraits of disabled people rise’ (p.83).

Garland-Thomson’s book is powerful, rich with insight, and beautifully evocative. She shows us how to think and write about visual arts narratives of difference—including disability— by example; her writing is moving, thoughtful and respectful.

Munsterberg, Marjorie (2009). Writing about Art. 
  • a useful reader for the novice art student. While I am a competent writer with a solid track record of publications, I am discovering that how we think, talk and write about "art" (specifically, the "visual arts") is a whole new genre of discovery (and potential contest).
  • I've just read the first 32 pages which tackle topics such as:
    • visual description, ie to describe what the writer sees. This description will include an explanation of the subject, the materials of the work, the size of the work, the colours used, how the media are applied (lightly, densely, in swooping brush strokes of ink, short stabs of graphite, etc) and the emotional impact of, and/or intellectual response to, the work (p.4 ff);
    • ekphrasis in which "The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present" (p.8ff);
    • formal analysis, ie "an explanation of visual structure, of the ways in which certain visual elements have been arranged and function within a composition". Roger Fry, British art critic, an early leader of the language of formal analysis sought to "escape the interpretative writing [emphasis added] of Victorians like Ruskin" (p.13) Elements of analysis include colour, line, light and dark, volume, mass, plane, and composition (p.14) See Fry's analyses of Cezanne's work for examples;
    • stylistic analysis (p.21ff). "Style refers to the resemblance works of art have to one another" (p.21). We can talk and write about personal style, and period style, but Munsterberg advises shying away from the term "realistic" style as she argues that this word does not explain how the illusion of what the artist has achieved. (I'm not persuaded by her claim just yet; it seems a bit hard line).
    • the artist's biography (p.28ff). This issue is of particular interest to me apropos the theme of identity politics in the visual arts, and art-making including (indeed, especially) drawing. Munsterberg writes "assumptions about the relationship between the life of the artist and his or her art can change the way the art is interpreted" (p.32). I agree. In particular, I argue that if the identity of the artist is framed exclusively within the context of his or her disability or illness, their work defaults to being "therapy" or "remedial art" or "disability art". In my personal experience, it seems to be extraordinarily difficult for the "average person" (and I realise that I am at risk of being polemical here) to detach from their ableist approach to the art work and to regard it on its own merits (again, another contestable term. I aim to develop clarity about my assertion /putative hypothesis in the coming 12 to 14 weeks of this semester, and beyond).
Milam, Jennifer. 'Understanding Life Drawings' in Maloon, Terence & Raissis, Peter (eds). (1999).  Michelangelo to Matisse: drawing the figure. Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. pp.39-48

Milam's essay is one of six essays in a catalogue of the 1999 AGNSW exhibition of drawings which aimed to scope

'three great stories: the revival in the Renaissance of the classical nude, with its pagan and Christian heritage [establishing the] role of the human figure in western art; the emergence of drawing as an independent artform; and the manner in which the art of drawing, particularly of the human figure, has developed alongside, and as a reflection of ...dramatic social changes in Europe' (p.8).

Milam's essay attends to the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries when 'drawing from life was a fundamental skill for the artist' (p.39), an animating force for the course, Interdisciplinary Drawing, albeit with divergent and competing approaches to the meaning of 'skill'. Milam's thesis that this skill 'resulted from the value placed by Renaissance theorists on the depiction of drama and narratives' (p.39) startled me, causing me to reappraise my misgivings about the anonymity of the professional life models in class (as demonstrated by my unwitting reluctance to provide the life model with facial features: see example below).

Life modelx3-monoprint
Their props and postures are not merely schticks to test our drawing skills; they also provide storied possibilities for what we see before us.

Milam observes that

Old Master drawings ... [are] often less a record of what the artist saw than traces of creative transformation ...(p.39)

In her essay, Milam further observes that it is difficult to determine whether a drawing 'is indeed from the live model' (p.40ff). She notes how 18th century artists would spend years copying from other works of art, and from two and three dimensional models in order to build up the 'visual vocabulary required to invent nude figures in complex poses' (p.40). She offers illustrative examples from the exhibition. Differences in style (eg. directness, realism, practicality, coherence)  arose 'as much from the artist's approach to the body as [from their] manner of practice' (p.41).

Significantly, 'institutionalised practices of drawing ...[were] as much about controlling imperfections and normalising vision as it was an attempt to capture natural effects' (p.44). This inevitably leads me to ask 'To what extent did this institutionalisation of drawing practices inhibit or influence the visual narratives of disabled bodies?'

Milam concludes her essay with a discussion of the role of the live model in 'the practice of teaching art' (p. 45 ff). She notes that 'From the beginning, drawing from life generally meant drawing the male body' (p. 45); 'women [were] prohibited from posing in the nude' in the French and Italian academies (p.45); 'stories of sexual interaction between male artists and female models [were] not uncommon (p.45); and 'the idealised male body was held up as the standard model of perfection' (p.47). Such standardisation made artistic innovation difficult (p. 47).

Milam's nod to the latent sexualisation of the artist's relationship to, and perception of, the life model is explored in more depth in an essay by:

Margaret Mayhew (2008). The Naked And The Blind; Exploring the Badness of Life Drawing.

In her 2008 reflective commentary essay as an art practitioner, art teacher and theorist, Mayhew considers 'badness' in life drawing through several perspectives of transgression.  They include the:

  • taboos arising from the naked body such as voyeurism, sexuality and sexualisation, erotica and porn,
  • aesthetics of the drawing itself ie the perceived level of demonstrable skill or otherwise in 'reproducing' the likeness of the life model, and
  • practice of life drawing, ie the discomfort of adhering to or following life drawing as a studio or teaching and learning practice ('a banal observational exercise' p.9)

Mayhew comments on the ambiguity or absence of critical theory pertaining to racism and sexism in the aesthetics of visual culture. She closes her paper with a call to arms, proposing that life drawing needs to

expand our understanding of the human body to include the emotions, movements, desires, reactions and failures passing between those drawing and those being drawn ...

However, it needs to be said that 'badness' in the 'gaze' is not exclusively vested in issues arising from sexuality, ie., as taboos arising from the morality or otherwise of the sexual gaze and sexual desire. Questions of discomfort, voyeurism, and the like also pertain to 'staring at' or 'gazing at' people with disability; people from diverse cultures; and elderly people. It would be interesting to explore and contest such transgressions in the safety of the life drawing studio or class.