She is an old woman. A double amputee with age spots and flaking skin. Would she attract your attention by that description? Would you seek her out? Probably not, yet millions travel to the Venus de Milo every year, sometimes crossing the world to view her at the Louvre. It’s interesting that though she is broken we consider her a masterpiece because of her beauty and antiquity. But also because her brokenness lends an air of mystery that leads us to want to engage with her. So we stand in front of her and silently wonder.
Contrast the reaction to the Venus with how society views the flesh and blood “broken.” Pro Infirmis, a Swiss organization for disabled individuals, created a video titled "Because Who Is Perfect? Get Closer." Mannequins, modeled after the disabled, were placed in storefronts in one of the world’s most glamorous shopping districts in Zurich. They were stooped, had crooked spines, and were missing limbs.
The project sought to challenge society’s view of what is beautiful and to showcase the disabled; the often invisible among us. It’s a double paradox, that when we do “see” the disabled, we both stare and turn away from them. We stare because we’re curious. But why do we look away? Because the world is broken and we keep expecting it not to be; because disability is a painful reminder of suffering; because it mirrors and reminds us of our own internal deformities?
There are different responses to the displays in the video. The models are clearly pleased with their mannequins. They caress them, hug them, and one model gives his mannequin his prosthetic and shoe. They contemplate how the public will respond. One model says, “the people passing will be really irritated.” The public reacts diversely. Some glance and look away. Some look pensive, perhaps realigning their own ideas of beauty. One tries to shape her posture into the same twisted angles as one of the mannequins. This was perhaps the best response: a spontaneous gesture of empathy, a simple attempt to experience life as one of the models.
Walt Whitman writes, “Agonies are one of my changes of garments,/I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”1 This is the flame Pro Infirmis hopes to light. To see the invisible, not with pity, or just compassion, but with an empathy that leads to engagement. The video hopes to do what Ralph Ellison attempted in The Invisible Man, to bring song from where we don’t expect it, to “make music out of the invisible.”
The Venus de Milo is one of a handful of masterpieces at the Louvre before which people spontaneously stop to stare.2 While stopping to stare at the disabled cuts across all societal norms. What is the best way to empathize? What does it mean to get closer?