THE BLOG
04/04/2016 12:03 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2017

On Not Fixing What's Not Broken

What gets lost in our obsession with fixing bodies that appear different from the norm?

One answer to this question can be found in the work of Mattias Buchinger, the Enlightenment-era artist whose drawings are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 11. Buchinger excelled at micography, a Jewish art form developed in the 9th century involving the creation of designs and patterns out of minutely-printed letters. A finely-wrought portrait of Queen Anne of Britain is surrounded by an elaborate pattern of leaves, flowers, and curlicues. Look closely using one of the magnifying glasses provided by the museum, and you realize that the curls of her hair are made up of microscopic words spelling out three chapters from the Book of Kings. Equally stunning is a coat of arms featuring a tiny chalice composed of an inscription of the Lord's Prayer; a self-portrait in which the artist's locks are made up of seven Psalms and the Lord's Prayer; and a two-inch square portrait of King George I, whose face, hair, and neck are traced out in minuscule words.

These images are remarkable in their own right. They are all the more so, given that Buchinger stood just 29 inches tall and was born with no legs or hands. In addition to being an artist, Buchinger was a musician and a performer who entertained audiences with shooting, sword play, and bowling. Modestly billed as "the greatest German living," he was married four times (outliving three wives) and fathered fourteen children.

Mattias Buchinger's life and art is a testament to the astonishing variability, creativity and resilience of the human body. His story challenges the assumption that life for people with disabilities has improved steadily over time. The fanfare surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act last summer suggested that the lives of people with disabilities have never been better. Certainly there was cause to celebrate this landmark recognition of civil rights, as well as superior medical treatment and adaptive technologies that have improved quality of life for people with disabilities. But these same advances are often accompanied by the belief that we can (and should) fix and normalize the body.

In Buchinger's day, it was more common to see the wages of disease, aging and accident. Most bodies were marked by asymmetries, cleft palates, smallpox, missing teeth, arms, legs and digits. Because unusual bodies were ubiquitous, people with disabilities were more integrated into the fabric of society. This isn't to say that a man like Buchinger wasn't a curiosity -- indeed he made a living by exhibiting himself as well as practicing his art -- but he was also able to raise a family, earn a living, and become a respected member of his society.

Contemporary attempts to normalize bodily appearance and function threaten to extinguish the forms of creativity and resourcefulness exhibited by Buchinger. Nobody knows exactly how he practiced his art, although observers noted that he was capable of writing backwards, sideways, and upside-down. Some speculate that he held his pen with the knob of flesh that protruded in place of a hand; others that he used his mouth. Although he worked well into his sixties, there is no evidence that he relied on a magnifying glass to produce his microscopic texts.

If Buchinger were alive today, it is likely he would be encouraged to use prosthetics to normalize his appearance. Anatomically precise limbs may make the body appear less disabled, but are also less functional than hooks and pinchers. In some cases, such as Buchinger's, the body might do more without any prosthetics at all. For example, in Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks, we see Martha Morris, a woman with no arms, using her feet to eat a meal. Buchinger's story invites us to consider what may be lost when prosthetics serve to assuage the sensibilities of able-bodied people rather than enhance the functionality of the user.

Given Buchinger's accomplishment, does it really matter that he was disabled? Why dwell on his unusual body when his art is so stunning in its own right? Artists who are also women and people of color face similar questions. The answer is that knowing the identity of the artist and the circumstances under which he created enhances, rather than reduces, the meaning of a work of art. In Buchinger's case, we might speculate on how he worked not in spite of, but because, he was disabled. Perhaps his small stature led him to value the delicate and the miniature. And perhaps being underestimated because of his unusual body led him to create an art where all was not immediately visible to the naked eye.

The Wordplay exhibit acknowledges Buchinger's disability without allowing it to overshadow his accomplishments. It highlights his remarkable talent by putting his art alongside that of other micrographers from the Middle Ages to the present. Showcasing Buchinger in this way attests our own contradictory moment, in which we are at once more inclusive and accepting of disability than past generations and, at the same time, more intent on normalizing and perfecting the human body. His is a cautionary tale about what might be sacrificed in our pursuit of the latter.