Monday, January 19, 2009

Christina's World Wasn't

Well knock me down. I was browsing on Patricia Bauer's blog as I do every day, several times a day - no one in the blogging word updates as often as Patricia does. She keeps me current on what's happening in the disability world, she is one of my several blog heros. I popped onto her blog on Sunday and read an article about the death of Andrew Wyeth and information regarding the picture 'Christina's World'. I loved that picture the first time I saw it. There was something in it that spoke to me, something deep - art, like dogs and little kittens, have entry to parts of my heart kept barred to everyone and everything else. That picture was one such picture.

When I first read about the picture being of someone with a disability and Mr. Wyeth's desire to paint someone who may be 'limited physically but not spiritually' I was tremendously moved. Mr. Wyeth was able to see that disability didn't reduce one's humanity, didn't take away one's spirit ... no, instead disability can do quite the opposite.

I shouldn't have kept reading.

Then I read that Christine Olson "refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone. It was dignity of a particularly dour, hardened, misanthropic sort ..." and the meaning of the picture changed for me. I had always seen Christina's World as being huge - limited only by imagination. I saw her aloneness as momentary, that her world was just there ... just there at the top of the hill. It was a beautiful image to me. It spoke of hope to a singluar and lonely boy .. who wanted a world waiting at the crest of the hill.

But now, I see her world as so small. Her refusal to accept the use of a wheelchair, to drag herself around, to accept nothing from no-one. I see a world limited by inablility not disability - two wildly different things. This painting, suddenly, became incredibly sad, unbearably tragic.

Years ago I remember hearing Paula Poundstone (whatever happened to her?) doing stand up comedy and talking about how, when we flush the toilet, small droplets of feces drift upwards into the air. Then after a dramatic pause, she said, "You can be too well informed."

That's kind of how I feel about this painting now. I'm too well informed about it, I will have to look at it and look at it and look at it again, to see if what I saw is still there, if what I needed to see was still available to me ... I suspect it is not.

Christina's World ... could have been, but wasn't, beautiful. Let that not be said of any of us, for any reason.


rickismom said...

I never realized that this painting had anything to do with disability. I always thought that it was about a yound lady exploring the world. As I read Bauer's blog and the part about this woman "refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone." it rang a bit sour.
Your point is well-made and quite valid.

Anonymous said...

I'd never seen that painting before and it is odd but there is a part of me that can understand her and would seek to be the same. Totally self sufficient and beholden to no one. It must be my age but I would gladly forget "society" and move to be more independent. Raising my child on my own, growing my own food, doing without and moving on.

Perhaps that is why I have been ill again recently, totally dependent on others to do the things I usually do, having to use a wheelchair again and at times it's felt as though I was kicking against a wall screaming for my independence back.

A humbling lesson - for me - for no one is totally self sufficient, we weren't designed to be. Perhaps I will learn my lesson this time as clearly this poor woman never did. Pride can be a very destructive thing.

steph said...

re: Paula Poundstone- we catch her often on National Public Radio's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

To me, because I see a wheelchair as a critical tool of independence for people who need it, I too consider it sad and very self-limiting when someone who could so clearly benefit from a wheelchair flatly refuses to consider it, ever. Think of all the places she could have gone to and explored, or all the activities she could have participated in, if she had chosen to use the wheelchair -- not necessarily full time (if she were that determined to move around, even part of the time, on her own terms ... or if she simply wished to build more physical exercise into her routine to the extent that she could) but at least to reach places that would be impossible without it.

I've never needed a wheelchair, though I have gone through short periods in which I have needed crutches or a cane (have been using a cane for the past two weeks, in fact), and cannot imagine giving them up just for the sake of ... what? Pretending to be "normal" or pretending to not need certain tools just because other people don't? A water faucet is a tool for bringing water to our homes to save us the labor of carrying it from the local river, well, or water pump. If tools make us dependent, then should we all give up water faucets and return to the days of fetching water? What, really, makes a wheelchair so different from all the other tools that both people with disabilities and without them use every day that it must be abhored at all costs?

But the second part -- preferring to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone -- I see a little differently. I think that speaks to the very human instinct to assert our own autonomy (in the sense of making our own choices, and having those choices be respected) even in situations where we might not necessarily be "independent" (here I refer to the extremely narrow and limited sense of being able to tend to our own physical needs, without intended implication for other forms of "independence" such as those referred to when we speak of autonomy).

I think a great many of us would be prepared to make some fairly large sacrifices, including the risk of reducing a certain quality of life in certain specific regards (e.g., materialistic), for the sake of the greatly increased quality of life that comes with autonomy. I can see where a person might prefer to live in a home that speaks of extreme poverty--but have the power to make their own decisions about how to lead each day--rather than be dependent on someone else's whims and control for whether their decisions will be respected that day.

No, a person should not have to "live in squalor" in order to assert their autonomy. I think the work that you do every day, Dave, is very much about supporting the rights of people with disabilities to have a decent standard of living without having to sacrifice their autonomy to do that. No either/or choice. We all deserve to have both. I don't know when this painting was made, but this woman obviously didn't have a Dave (or a Joe, or any of your co-workers, or the people you have trained) standing by her as her advocate and ally.

But in a world in which people were or are forced to choose between squalor with autonomy, versus a more comfortable environment but with loss of freedom--I think her choice to grasp whatever narrow freedoms she can wrest from a world that builds limitations all around her, and then hold fast to those freedoms by sheer strength of will in an environment that does not ordinarily allow for the idea that people with disabilities are not content with anything less than full autonomy ... I think that is a beautiful thing.

RusW said...

Having hailed from generations of New England families from Maine and New Hampshire myself I am not surprised that Christina Olson wanted to do things her own way. I think it is unfortunate when people won't use assistive devices that might enhance their quality of life but I accept these differences.
I was surprised to see the reference to "squalor" in Patricia Bauer's blog post. I'm not sure where that reference comes from.

The Olson home is part of the Farnsworth Museum, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. I think depicting someone who thinks differently as living in dirty, squalid conditions is wrong. Maybe if Christina could turn around you would see the face of a determined 55 year old woman with a "Live Free or Die" attitude. (the body of the figure was actually Wyeth's wife, the arms are Christina's)
For a really well balanced bio of Christina Olson I would suggest this web page;

RusW said...

Whoops. My attempt to leave a link in the previous post got chopped off. Lets try this.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Thanks RusW, I found the article insightful and appreciated the reference.

PatriciaEBauer said...

Hello, Dave. Many thanks for the kind words! I'm glad to know that you're reading along.

I'd like to add a little clarification to the conversation here, if I might. In your post, you alluded to two quotes about Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World" that you had seen on my website. Both were sourced on my site, with links provided to the originals.

The quote that used the phrase "limited physically but by no means spiritually" came from the explanation of the painting that appears in the online catalog of the Museum of Modern Art.

The second quote, and the one that has raised concerns among readers, was the following: "To him she was a model of dignity who refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone." That sentence was excerpted from the New York Times obituary of Wyeth, dated January 16, 2009, and written by Michael Kimmelman.

What I'm attempting to do on is give people a sense of what the mainstream media is saying about disability-related issues. I draw on a wide range of sources, and include in each post a summary of the original item, a short excerpt and a link that allows readers to access the original item in its entirety.

The excerpts on my site do not necessarily represent my personal opinions or viewpoints, unless noted.

Anonymous said...

May I point out that pre-1968 wheelchairs were heavy clunky things that were designed more to be pushed by someone else than to be propelled by the owner? Maybe she just had more independence and mobility crawling. Maybe she would have looooved an electric wheelchair, and, had she had one, would have gone hell for leather around those rural roads creating another sort of scandal. Or not.
Anyway Dave, I-wasn't-going-to-say-anything-but every time I see a picture of you with a small, beloved child in your lap, I find myself thinking that I don't know when I've seen something more beautiful.

shosha said...

I identify with Christine, with her longing.
I first experienced this picture when I was about 14 and first using a wheelchair. Using the wheelchair was freedom. My alternative and usual situation was at home, alone, bedridden the family burden. Now I am 60 and again, nearly bedridden.

But the wheelchair had social consequences: Others often did not see me as human. I have two indelible memories: My younger sister was pushing me as we shopped for the family groceries. I was happy to be out and "useful" for once. At the check-out the cashier looked at me then asked my sister, "Does she talk?" My sister was about five years younger than I but she responded "Why don't you ask her?" The moment between the question and my sister's answer seemed an eternity. She restored my dignity with her answer but I was learning about how harsh the world is toward weakness.

The other time, also shopping, also with my sister, we were waiting for mum to pick us up. A lady on the street came up to my sister - she was probably nine or ten at the time. The lady started to speak with my sister and to praise her for looking after the likes of me. Again my sister's attitude assured my validity, but the words of the stranger still ring deeply. While praising my sister, to whom praise was due, I existed only as the burden, the facilitator of praise.

In between these brief times "out" I lay in bed at home, alone, paused, longing. Christine has always validated me and my hope. Longing is rich, pregnant, filled with life. Each day I lie in bed, sit in my chair "longing". Could one call this our gift, our charism?

Poor Pothecary said...

I agree with Andrea. Because Wyeth is so iconic, I don't suppose his interpretation of Olson's life is much disputed, but "masochistic stupidity"is the first phrase that to my mind. Even all those decades ago, there existed wheelchairs that were a better option that than dragging yourself along the ground (I particularly remember those bathchairs propelled by two levers, which provided very efficient road travel for anyone with decent upper-body strength).

I can't pretend to fully understand how people feel about being wheelchair users, but it is quite a common syndrome to resent, at some level, permanent dependency on physical or chemical aids to coping. Many diabetics feel it about insulin injection, schizophrenics and bipolar sufferers about mood-stabilising drugs.

Olson's attitude about being "beholden to anyone" sounds as if it came in part from another very common ethic, the working-class shame at "accepting charity" - which is creditable when kept within reason, but can become perverse when it makes people reject the help from friends that's a normal part of being human.

Anonymous said...

I too,always thought Christina's World referred to a daydreaming girl on a summer day. However, all of these comments about Miss Olson's refusal of a wheelchair are maudlin.Look at the landscape in the painting pinheads! She lived in the country going from farmhouse to farmhouse to see her friends. A wheelchair was impractical.
If you want to bemoan Christina's pig-headedness, consider her refusal to be examined by doctors while she was young.

Morikahjo said...

I love this picture. To me, it's about a girl who's life seems a bit small, so she goes into the fields up to a certain point (but not to far) so she can be alone....but she knows that whatever or whoever she is running from can still find her.

That, or it's about a young girl who runs off intoa field to await her young lover, Johnny. They spend the only time together that they can find, and they PRAY that her father does not find them out there together! *hide the shotgun!*

JRoundtree said...

I've always loved this painting, but never knew what it was "supposed" to mean. To me, Christina was an abused adolescent or young woman, hiding in the field, (where there was no real hiding place or shelter) fearful of returning to the house. It was a terrifying and disturbing painting, but moved me nonetheless. I think I'll keep my own interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Its odd to read that so many saw 'hope' in the painting. I first saw it and I saw steel to withstand imprisonment.

It expressed what I cannot, as a disabled person whose life so far has been encapsulated, not directly by disability, but by the laws, attitudes and connotations which ironically shroud and obscure the reality of 'my disability'.

I am able to do much and the label should, at least I logically deduce, serve as a means to simply explain an otherwise complex and endless list of things I must do differently to the majority (or otherwise simply not do at all). And yet, the 'label' places me within a system of 'how to deal with disabled people', a world in which -with 'my disability'- I cannot live without dragging myself through the hurdles which are said to be there to aid me.

I beg, please, do not reduce Christina down to being simply 'proud', or at least do not feelher refusal to accept the specific 'help' offered to her was a refusal to accept help altogether or to want it. If someone is drowning and refuses to be pulled onto a pirate ship that does not mean they wouldn't accept a life jacket.

I look at her and I see someone screaming for help without the means to even scream, to be heard.

There is an attitude that to refuse help or honestly admit that that 'help' would actually only worsen your quality of life is ingratitude. Hence, those who need help are at the mercy of others who have what they don't and can then decide what they want, are willing or should give - how the person needing help should live, should be...they disable the person, often, as much as enable them.

I refused the help offered to me because the sacrifice was too big; it would cost me my values. And having all the wordly goods and ease of movement and hygene and no physical pain means nothing if I have all that instead of my sense of who I am, my soul.

And even in the gutter, smelling like death with seemingly nothing left and no one wanting to come near me because I cannot present myself how others feel I should, my values, my integrity remains with me...and, as far as I see it, my dignity too.

Think about that and look at Christina.

Anonymous said...

When I first saw "Christina's World" my thought was "something terrible is happening in that house' I saw the girl in the painting as a runaway. While I appreciate what the artist "intended"... Art allows us to interpet the work as "we see it", I think its a very powerful image.

Christine R. said...

I think the way you see it now is the way it was intended to be seen. The house is so distant, I always wondered if someone had carried her outside for the day. Now I know she would not have allowed that, and that she will struggle back to the house on her own. And even though the house is so distant, she has done it before and will do it again. Distance, isolation, and an iron will.

Christine R. said...

Part two: Too me it is obvious that a wheel chair would not have been operable over a rutted dirt road or grass. It would have required someone to push it.

Amanda Forest Vivian said...

Hi Dave, I've been reading your blog for a few years but I'm not sure I ever saw this post--I just found it when googling the painting. I don't think it is sad--tough, maybe, but not sad. We can't know for sure what Christina was like and I don't know where the quote is from about her dignity being "dour and misanthropic" but I think there's other ways to look at it. I'm Autistic, have some Problems In Living, & probably would not quality for services due to not having an intellectual disability (it's a long story, if I'd begun receiving services at a young age I'd probably still have them, but not a lot was available when I was growing up). My parents & I disagree on a lot of things, including what kind of help I need or whether my judgment is okay or not, etc.--so it was always very important for me to live separately from them and not rely on their help, because I wanted things to be how I wanted.

I know some Autistic people with needs similar to mine who got married at a young age and their partner helps them--which is great if it works, but not something that has happened for me. Plus I worry about the potential consequences of becoming dependent on a partner if they become abusive or I just don't want to be with them anymore. I don't see it as bad for someone to have support, in fact I work as a PA myself, but I have a particular love & sympathy with Autistic (and otherwise mentally disabled & crazy) people I know who have had to work out a life without formal supports, while not depending on someone they don't like or trust.

Who was it that Christina didn't want to be "beholden" to? Family she didn't get along with? People from the community who wanted to be charitable but didn't show up to help her when they said they would, or tried to clean her house or bring her groceries, but ended up putting stuff where she couldn't find it or bringing food she didn't like? Maybe she wasn't mad at the idea of charity and getting help, but the reality of it. And I get the power of using a wheelchair for you and many people, but just as a wheelchair isn't bad, the way she got around isn't bad either. She preferred it and was obviously able to get places that way.

My parents had a lot to say for a long time about what they saw as the limited circumstances of my life--cutting out stuff that I couldn't do well or easily (driving, cooking, bathing often, brushing my hair, using phones) and just prioritizing a few things in life because I'm not able to manage everything most people have in their life; and working as a PA, which I love but which they didn't see as a "good job." To a big degree, they have either given up trying or come around to my perspective. I wonder what the "squalor" in Christina's house was like--was it genuinely filthy and unsafe, or did people just think her house was too messy, or that she didn't have enough furniture or clothes, or everything was on the floor because that's where she did things? If her house was just messy, plain, or different, because that's what she could manage, I don't see the problem, and I bet people wouldn't call it "squalor" if someone without a disability was messy.

Well I have sure had a lot to say here, but I love this painting and don't see much evidence for Christina's life being tragic. In my view, she was able to fight to live how she wanted.