Academic Spotlight
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Talking Bodies: Sociologist Studies Art's Role in Health Movements


Story posted January 31, 2008

Social scientists have long studied illness, medicine and social movements connected to health. Much of that research has centered on access to health care, or studies of specific diseases among different populations.

Bowdoin sociologist Susan Bell has taken a more innovative path. Although she is most well known for her work in the field of narrative studies, she is among a handful of social scientists helping to develop methodology for what is termed the "embodied health movement." This is the study of grassroots social movements, such as breast cancer awareness, that arise from individual illness narratives and often grow in scope to challenge existing medical practices and funding priorities.

In a surprising twist on her discipline, Bell has turned to analyses of works of art to guide her in her research. In recent publications in journals including Health, Sociology of Health and Illness, and Qualitative Research in Psychology, Bell has made a case for incorporating the analysis of visual narratives into sociological work as documents and barometers of human experience.

Art and Social Change 2008 Speaker Series
All talks take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Beam Classroom, Visual Arts Center.

Feb. 6, "Just Art," Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Harvard University.
Feb. 13, "The Iconoclastic Project," Jon Calame.
Feb. 27, "Local Histories, Public Art, and the Creative Process," Anna Schuleit, painter and installation artist.
April 2, Patty Chang, performance artist.
April 9, "Giving Children a Voice Through Photography," Nancy McGirr, founder of Fotokids (presented in coordination with kNOw Poverty Week and co-sponsored by the Community Service Resource Center.)

"Works of art can anchor social movements," says Bell, Bowdoin's A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences. "Think of the AIDS quilt, or the Clothesline Project that is used to bring attention to issues of sexual assault and domestic violence against women. Images can be a powerful way to signal, engage, shock. People respond viscerally. It opens up a conversation."

It's a conversation that will spread across the Bowdoin campus during the Spring 2008 semester, as Bell and Bowdoin Visual Arts faculty members Mark Wethli and Mike Kolster co-present a cluster of courses and lectures that explore overlapping intersections of art and social movements as part of the Visual Culture in the 21st Century initiative. (See sidebar of events.)

Bell might not have developed this new strain in her research had she not encountered the photographs of the late British photographer Jo Spence—who is the subject of several of Bell's studies.

It was 1996. Susan Bell had taken a quick detour to visit Spence's archive during a research trip to England, hoping to get background on the feminist photographer, whose works would be included in her Bowdoin course called Constructions of the Body.

Spence photo
Return to Nature, Jo Spence, 1991-1992, Cibachrome, 27 7/16 x 39 3/16, Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

"The photographs were huge and riveting and disturbing," remembers Bell. One shows Spence caught in the vice grip of a mammography plate; another shows her standing with left breast marked X for amputation. "They are shocking," says Bell, "but I liked her humor. I liked the way she used photography in many different settings. If somebody else's photography had presented itself to me, I don't know whether it would have had the same impact."

Bell ended up arranging the loan of the 20 Spence photographs for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, where she collaborated with Curator Alison Ferris to mount an exhibition of Spence's works in 1998. Eventually, the photographs were donated to the Museum, where they now are an important part of its collection of works on paper and are the largest archive of Spence's work in the U.S.

floating skeleton
Skeleton with Camera, Jo Spence, 1991, Cibachrome, 11 5/8 x 15 11/16, Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

"I never imagined I would take part in curating an art show," says Bell, "but I have learned that in developing a new research project I need to go to what draws me in. Spence's photographs did. I began to study the history of photography and learn more about this person and where she figured in relation to other photographers and feminist artists."

Through Bell's research on other feminist artists dealing with breast cancer, she began to view their works as acts of storytelling, not unlike oral or textual descriptions of illness recorded by researchers in the field.

"Just as interviews can be understood as narrative accounts in which people tell stories," notes Bell, "artists and photographers tell stories with pictures and works of art. In my study of narratives I blur the lines between words and pictures and ask what visual images can do when words aren't 'enough' to make meaning of experiences."

As the breast cancer-awareness movement shows, says Bell, social movements are consciously using images to attract attention and support. "Making breast cancer art involves making breast cancer visible ... it raises the cloak of silence. In this respect it confronts stigma and increases public awareness. This is true for many works of art that deal with illness. They become points of contact. People see them and sometimes say, 'Horrible!' and move away. Sometimes they're drawn in and become involved."

The challenge for social scientists, notes Bell, is to develop a vocabulary for incorporating visual methods into analyses of disease regimes—or other social movements—particularly at a point in history where human society is so enmeshed in the visual.

"It's the role of sociologists to assess and shed light on the relationship between individuals and their larger social circumstances," she says. "I am interested in what works of art do and how stories can be told visually. What kinds of spaces they create in which viewers can engage in a conversation or relationship with the work and the maker of the work. And ways in which they can galvanize larger social movements."

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