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Judith Scott - Touching to Feel

An Active Mind's picture


I became interested in Judith Scott’s (1943-2005) artwork after reading Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedgagogy, and Performativity. The front cover of the book features a picture of Scott, who is a textile artist, embracing one of her pieces. The image has always stayed with me—maybe because of how human the inhuman blob of string, fabrics, and yarn seems; how it cradles Scott’s own body. Touching Feeling is a book that explores what scholars are now calling “affect”—the “force relations” that are “found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, non human, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variation between these intensities and resonances themselves” (Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers”).  Sedgwick is particularly interested in exploring the “affective” connections between emotion and texture.  

 Affect, Pedgagoy, and Performativity (2003)

Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedgagoy, and Performativity (2003)

Scott was deaf and suffered from Down syndrome and when she was seven, her parents placed her in the Columbus State Institution because she was believed to be “ineducatable”. Her twin sister, Joyce Scott, decided to move Judith closer to her in California and suggested she attend the Creative Growth Art Center. After taking a fabric arts course, Judith began wrapping materials around different objects—first starting with sticks and then moving to a greater variety of shapes and sizes (Wikipedia). 

I come to look at Judith Scott through both a queer studies and disability studies lens. Sedgwick, one of the founders of queer studies (along with Judith Butler), offers a “queer” interpretation of Scott's work.  Sedgwick is particularly interested in “queer” as meaning “besides” and we certainly see Scott leaning “besides” her sculpture in the photograph. Sedgwick writes, “Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations” (8).  From her description, "besides" seems to very much encompass the way we talk about disability.  Do the "non-disabled" identify with the "disabled" body, do they desire it, differentiate themselves from it, warp it?  Could talking about disability in relation to the term "besides" illuminate the societal systems and structures through which we relate to/navigate issues of disability?   

I’ve thought a lot this semester about invisible vs. visible disabilities and how a reliance on sight can be problematic in terms of interacting with others. Scott seems to resist our urge to see and instead asks us to touch. When describing Scott’s relation to the sculpture Sedgwick writes, “Through their closeness, the sense of sight sees to dissolve in favor of that of touch” (22). Scott comes to disrupt the gaze and direct our attention instead towards feeling. 

Judith Scott Untitled, c. 1990's Twine and multicolored yarn construction 8 x 36 x 25" Collection American Folk Art Museum, Gift

Judith Scott Untitled, c. 1990's Twine and multicolored yarn construction 8 x 36 x 25" Collection American Folk Art Museum, Gift

Sedgwick is bothered by the spatiality of “exposure” and “hiddenness” and writes, “I have tried in this project to explore some ways around the topos of depth or hiddenness, typically followed by a drama of exposure.…the irreducibly spatial positionality of beside also seems to offer some useful resistance to the ease with which beneath and beyond turn from spatial descriptors into implicit narratives of, respectively, origin and telos” (8). The website that features much of Scott’s work and biography is interestingly called “Hidden Worlds.” But Sedgwick would tell us to abandon this language of "hidden" and "exposed" and instead consider what types of intimacies and emotions emerge from laying “besides.”  The notion of "origin" is always problematic when we consider how often things are evolving and changing based on context.  Many people consider Scott's Down syndrome to be the origin behind her work, but this too becomes problematic. Can we come to separate Scott's artwork from her disability?  

Judith is considered to be an “outsider artist.” The term “outsider art” was coined by Roger Cardinal, an art critic, in 1972 as a synonym for the French “art brut” (rough or raw art) that was created by French artist Jean Dubuffet “to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture.” Often “outsider art” is used to describe those who “have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions” (Wikipedia). On the Hidden Worlds site, it says, “It is most commonly the outcome of an innate creative passion that consumes and dominates the lives of artists with disabilities or mental illness.”  Is the label of Down syndrome in relation to Scott's pieces restricting? We learn in literature to resist the “intentional fallacy”—projecting author’s own possible motives onto the text itself.  Should we do the same with artwork?  

Because of the emphasis on her deafness and Down syndrome, Scott does sometimes seem to fall within the category of “super crip” stories. Her sister says, "What I find so amazing and remarkable about Judy is that she survived everything. And she not only survived, she has come to show that someone who has been written off by society, one of the throwaways, can come back and show us that they are capable of being remarkable" (Hidden Worlds).  Again, as Sedgwick would suggest, her sister's statement that Judith has "shown" the world that she's worth something despite her Downs syndrome is not really what Scott's work does.  Her work isn't about "exposure", but relations--the relations between Judith and her sister Joyce, the "disabled" and "non-disabled world."  

"Non-disabled" individuals struggle to understand mental disabilities because they remain largely absent from the visual field—there are no crutches, scars, or amputated limbs to signal disability.  But Judith Scott renders her own mental disability both physical and tactile.  Texture and touch become a access point to these disabilities and provide a sort of intimacy among all individuals--regardless of disability, gender, race, etc.  I would argue that Scott's artwork, through feeling, prompts access to empathy and mutual understanding.  In the documentary: “Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott”, the man interviewing Scott begins to feel her artwork, trying to discern what lies beneath the threads and fabrics—wood, a cone, and a box. He says he wishes he had an x-ray machine to see beneath the clothes' and strings' surface.  Scott refuses access to the interiority of her sculptures and asks us not to see, but again, to feel.  But Scott's creations refuse any  sentimentality; her works are not soft, but rough and perhaps even uninviting and suggest the struggles of trying to really lay "beside", to really engage with others.

Sedgwick, by the end of her life, also became disabled. She suffered from breast cancer before passing away in April of 2009. In describing what women are advised to do to check for potential lumps on the breast, she writes in her introduction to Touching Feeling, “Women who do breast self-examination are occasionally taught to use a film of liquid soap, a square of satiny cloth, or even a pad of thin plastic filled with a layer of water to make the contours of the breast more salient to their fingers” (15). She implies that a distance from the self is the best means of feeling the self. Perhaps its only by placing intermediaries between one another—intermediaries marked by touch—that we’re able to sympathize, or perhaps gain insight not necessarily into "hidden worlds", but merely other worlds, other ways of living? 





An Active Mind's picture

Conceal or Reveal?

Anne and I talked a lot about touch versus sight (or the gaze).  We wondered, is touch more fearful than sight?  Is fear about distance or intimacy?  Does touching become a form of knowing?  

In our discussion, I brought up Kathryn Bond Stockton's (another queer studies scholar) theorization of clothing in her book Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame, where she argues that clothing is not a covering (as the dictionary tells us), but an exposure; it reveals an individual's sex on the surface of their garment.  I tried applying her theory to Judith Scott's work and wondered, how might her wrapping of fabrics around different objects become a form of exposure?  How might the threads and fibers become an actual divulgence of her own mental disability? 

Perhaps in concealing our own illnesses, we in fact reveal them, making them more prominent (more bizarre, etc.) in their secrecy.  In not hiding them, we come to conceal these disabilities because revealing becomes a form of normalization and a resistance to shame.  This reveal to conceal comes to blot out disabilities entirely as they become just as valid as pre-inscribed norms.  The same could be said for "coming out" about sexuality, which again links queerness and disability.  I don't know if this makes any sense!