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The Limits of Artistic Expression
And our constant underestimation of artists' capacity
Eckert, who began to lose his sight in his twenties, explains in the article, “There is a section of the brain that's not being used when you're blind.” He adds, “(But) your brain is ready to (redirect) that capacity. So, for the past 20 years, I've been actively rewiring my visual cortex through sound, touch and memory inputs.”
He describes his process of creating images this way:
"You come to understand the 'sound signature' of an object. Take a stop sign, for instance. A stop sign shimmering in the wind vibrates and (projects) this image that oscillates. At first you can't hear the pole holding up the sign ... but it has a sound shadow that's many feet long. I actively listen to things, and then go up to touch them so I can relate the sound shadow to what that object actually is. I'm slowly building a language of sound to associate with the objects. Like a bat, I can use my voice to echolocate my model. In (my pitch-black studio), I layer light, measuring what I've done until I'm satisfied with the image in my mind's eye.”
Reading about Eckert made me think of Grant Achatz—the owner and head chef of Alinea, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world—whom I’ve always regarded as a conceptual artist whose medium happens to be food. In 2007, Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 mouth cancer, given a choice between having the lower part of his jaw (including most of his tongue) removed, and certain death. He decided to go home to die, because it was preferable to living a life that didn’t include eating and tasting and doing what he loved.
Soon after, he was contacted by two doctors working on an experimental treatment that would spare him major surgery but involved a grueling schedule of chemo and radiation. During the course of that treatment—while Achatz was still running the restaurant full-time—he discovered that he had lost his sense of taste, unsure if it would ever return. “How can you be a chef, how can you be a cook, and not be able to taste?” he remembers asking himself, as he recounts in the Netflix documentary Chef’s Table.
He started working from home, drawing his ideas for new dishes on paper and sending them to his kitchen. Dave Beran, Alinea's sous chef at the time, says they developed a system to describe and discuss different elements of taste: "If a pickle's a five and bread's a one, how acidic do you want it?"
Achatz recalls a lightbulb going off then: "For the first time ever, I think I can be a chef without being able to taste. Because it's up here," he says pointing to his head, "not here," he adds, pointing to his tongue. Beran saw the shift in him. “This is gonna sound weird,” he says of his boss, “but I honestly think [that] him being sick taught him how to be a chef.”
When we, as a society, imagine artistic expression as having a one-to-one correlation with certain senses or abilities, we develop a false set of rules around creativity:
One needs to be able to see to be a photographer.
One needs to be able to taste to be a chef.
One needs to be able to hear to compose music.
One needs to be able to walk to be a dancer.
These self-limiting beliefs not only underestimate what the human animal is capable of when guided by a desire to create, but they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about where and how art is generated.
That which originates in the soul or the heart of a person has countless paths into the hearts and souls of other people.
We know from Eckert—as well as many other blind and visually impaired photograhers—that you don’t, in fact, need sight to make photgraphic images. You can construct them out of sound and touch and memory.
We know from Achatz that you can create symphonies of flavor in your imagination without ever being able to taste them. Just like you can create actual symphonies, as Beethoven did, without being able to hear them.
We know from dancer/choreographer Alice Sheppard, as well as members of the growing movement of disabled dancers, that you don’t need the use of your legs (or other parts of your body) to be a dancer. What is dance, afterall, if not the expression of emotion through a human vessel? Who decided that the vessel had to look or function a certain way in order to be able to do that?
Perhaps we place these artificial limitations on art because its expansiveness and limitlessness frighten us. Or maybe it’s because we just can’t comprehend all the possibilities of artistic expression.
To my mind, art is simply a desire made manifest, a soul’s cry made audible, a hope possible, a longing visible, a feeling tasteable, a beautiful madness tangible. If I know only one thing to be true, it’s that the creative force is more powerful than any other force in the world, and it will always find a way.