Pathologies, Punchlines, Power: The Medicalized Body, Humour and Art, August 2022

Wednesday 10th August 2022, 16.00 to 17.30 BST / 11.00 to 12.30 EDT.

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This panel addresses the transhistorical use of visual humour in medical contexts. The use of humour in healthcare is its own rich and controversial topic, but as scholars working with visual culture, we will examine the ways in which medically adjacent humorous art communicates a particularly embodied and abiding form of humour. 

Katie Snow will present on late-eighteenth-century caricatures of breastfeeding women. Christine Slobogin’s paper will examine the role of visual humour in the plastic surgery wards of mid-twentieth-century Britain. And Laura Cowley will speak on the use of humour by self-identified disabled artists from the turn of the twenty-first century. The range of these three papers show how, historically, visual humour has vacillated between degradation and empowerment. It can be used by those with medical or social power to put others down or as a way for those with traditionally less social and medical agency to take some of that power back. This prompts the question: does humour equal power? 

There will be plenty of time following these talks for a discussion of the power dynamics of humour, and how certain types of jokes – such as those described by the “incongruity” theory of humour – can contribute to the othering of medicalized bodies. We are also interested in discussing the iconography of what is “funny” about ill, injured, transgressive, or disabled bodies: where did these tropes in visual humour come from, how have they been subverted, and how can we dismantle their mythologies?

These papers all draw from British visual culture, but the broad ideas of humour as a locus and medium of power look outwards to medical art and visual culture globally.

About the speakers:

Dr Christine Slobogin is an art historian working within the medical humanities whose postdoctoral research has been funded by the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund and by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (PMC). From January 2022 she will be a Visiting Early Career Research Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester, researching the history of visual medical anonymity. Her research on empathy and plastic surgery photographs and drawings has been published in Medical Humanities and she has a chapter forthcoming in an edited volume published by Bloomsbury on British humour during the Second World War. She is also the Co-Convenor of the PMC’s Early Career Researchers’ Network and Newsletter Editor for the College Art Association-affiliated society Historians of British Art. 

Dr Katie Snow is a medical historian specialising in visual cultures of the late eighteenth century. Having been awarded her PhD in 2021, she is currently working on a monograph which examines representations of the breast in Georgian graphic satire. Her research on violence, women’s bodies, and the French Revolution has been published in Women’s History Review. In 2021 Katie held an Early Career Award at the University of Glasgow, and will soon be starting a project exploring cartoons which satirise doctors and the medical profession. She has recently assumed responsibility for the Romantic Illustration Network website. 

Laura Cowley is an artist and researcher in the first year of a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. Her Wellcome Trust funded doctoral research addresses the history of polemical humour in the visual culture of self-identified disabled artists in the UK Disability Arts Movement, 1976-2010. She graduated from the painting programme at the Royal College of Art in 2021, where she was a Leverhulme Trust scholar. Her practice explores paradigms of disability, surface, collectivity and humour. She positions her research at the intersection of art history and disability studies, exploring practice-based research methods, subjectivity, emotionality and humour in the (critical) medical humanities.

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