The shake

An artist discovered he could no longer make pointillistic work: instead of nice dots he drew strokes, like those violent, elongated raindrops that strike and hurt your face. When he found his hand trembling he’d used more and more force and the result was a neurological condition called a tremor. He went to see a neurologist and was told he had permanent nerve damage. That hurt. He only ever wanted to become an artist and now he couldn’t draw a straight line or a round dot.

An out-of-doors study, by John Singer Sargent [public domain]

An out-of-doors study, by John Singer Sargent [public domain]

What should he do? Try and learn to draw with his other hand? Get medication to numb the effect? Start all over again and study something different? The neurologist had some advice:

“Embrace the shake.”

You can find the whole story on TED, illustrated with drawings and other works of art. I’d like to look at the advice to embrace his condition. The neurologist started by calling a tremor, with the associated terms: neurological condition, incurable, effects can be dampened by brain surgery or anti-convulsive medication a shake, which could mean: to quiver, to tremble, to vibrate or to rock. He effectively told the artist he should decide on the name and the nature of his problem.

I think western culture often tells us to correct a problem or, if that proves impossible, to actively ignore it. Dull the pain by taking a pill. Surgically cut a nerve that causes us trouble. If we don’t look like the beautiful people: sculpt our bodies until we do.

Meditation by the Sea, Unknown artist ca 1860 [public domain]

Meditation by the Sea, Unknown artist ca 1860 [public domain]

Eastern culture tells us to look our problem squarely in the eye and accept it. To meditate and find compassion for our own imperfections and those of others. I know I’m using bold brush strokes here, but you get the idea.

Phil Hansen tried something different. He embraced his condition: he looked at his hand as if he was a newborn baby, to discover what he could do with it. He used his trembling hand to draw squiggly lines, he dipped it in paint and used it like a rubber stamp. And then he realised that art is all about thinking inside the box.

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art,” Orson Welles

Perhaps we shouldn’t stop at accepting our limitations. Perhaps we should find ways to make them rock.


23 thoughts on “The shake

  1. Pingback: The shake « grevilleacorner

  2. Shared this post on my fb page. Hope you don’t mind, but it goes hand in hand with a number of things people are discussing nowadays. I’ll let them resonate with it as they see fit. Thanks for writing :).

  3. This reminds me remotely of a most recent non-fiction bestseller in Austria, a book on education (by a professor in genetics). He claims that we – as a society and as humans – focus too much on trying to improve and fix what is suboptimal (low grades e.g.) instead of utilizing our best skills.

  4. This is so very true…good for you bringing this up in such an inspirational way! We in the west always think we have to intervene never realizing that sometimes, things are what they are and that is good not bad! Ah as usual, you have written a superb post!

  5. Limitations are indeed the wellspring of art. Art may be about thinking outside the box in terms of breaking rules, but that’s only effective and non-anarchic if you break them in the name of some higher rule. (In Emersonian terms, when you break out of a circle that is constraining you, you do it by drawing a broader circle around you.) I think Django Reinhardt is another example of someone whose limitations led to advances that were uniquely his own and dependent on his limitations (in his case, his loss a few fingers that meant he had to learn to play guitar in a different way).

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia! I find those limitations, borders, circles, either external or internal, quite interesting. It’s like Goethe said: “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister”. Django Reinhardt is a great example of someone who transcended his limitations.

  6. This is a great post my friend. We have people running away as far as they can from small deformities, that they would do well maybe to face them and learn to live with.

  7. Very inspiring, Pipteinpteron. I watched the video after reading your post and next to “embrace your limitations”, popped up “necessity is the mother of invention” in my mind. Not only are we stuck with what we have in the box that we live in, if we are not giving up on life, we can but ‘invent’ our way forward. This is evident when you visit poor countries where people have extremely little, yet, their and ingenuity and art is ubiquitous, more so then those in the wealthy societies where invention and art is only seen in the special boxes we designate for that purpose. Very inspiring. Now I will meditate on my thousandfold limitations 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals. I’ve seen the same thing. Vietnamese welders, Thai people using colours and flowers wherever they can. The imaginative ways in which things are re-used and repaired in poor countries, just because there is no money or no shop where you could buy a new one. I like your thought about invention and art being limited to their designated boxes in wealthy societies. I hadn’t looked at it that way, but now that you mention it, I can see it, too.

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