04/29/2013 10:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are We Thinking of Art All Wrong?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

It's easy to think of works of art as direct descendents of their maker. We look at "The Starry Night" and we think of van Gogh, hunched over his easel, alone in his room. We go to the opera and think that Natalie Dessay sang a beautiful aria, but don't necessarily think about the technician working her spotlight.

Artists experience the world through their senses, and produce their art using their hands, their voices, and their bodies. But they are not the only ones involved in their creation. -- Laura Cococcia

The thought that artistic geniuses create alone doesn't just extend to "high art," either: Beyoncé was responsible for that passionate wonderful show; Spielberg was the one who made that movie great. When we take the mental shortcut of thinking about artists as solitary creators, what we're doing is putting both the art and the artist on a kind of otherworldly pedestal, distancing them from the rest of us mere mortals. We do the same thing when we think of art as a completely cerebral or imaginative process.

Not so. Artists experience the world through their senses, and produce their art using their hands, their voices, and their bodies. But they are not the only ones involved in their creation. As a collective, we easily assign the most pronounced artists with the credit -- just as we would the leader of a company.

But, perhaps we, as a collective are thinking about artists in the wrong way. Think of how physically taxing painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel must have been; think of how many assistants and workmen must have been needed to complete it. Someone, surely, had to get the ceiling there to be painted on in the first place.

These were my thoughts and questions after watching entrepreneur, philanthropist, and part-time miracle worker Mick Ebeling's incredible TEDTalk, "The invention that unlocked a locked-in artist." Ebeling describes how he and a team of what he describes as "hackers and programmers and conspiracy theorists and anarchists" programmed a device that allows paralyzed people, to draw using their eyes. Some of the ingredients? A pair of cheap sunglasses from the Venice Beach boardwalk, an LED light, and some copper wire.

It's a bit more complicated than that, of course, but what could be more artful than making something amazing out of nothing? What could be more artful than creating an artist's tool? So, what makes the story in Ebeling's TEDTalk so uplifting is, for me, twofold. It's a testament to how collaborative art is and can be, and a reminder of how our bodies, not just our minds, create art.

Consider the art of graffiti, a topic I became more familiar with at TEDxWomen 2012 and the example highlighted in Ebeling's talk. The art of graffiti is an incredibly physical one -- have you ever watched someone create graffiti art? It looks like a dance, punctuated with short bursts of energy and long sweeping gestures that create elegant lines. When we look at the process of making graffiti art this way, it's even harder to imagine what it must have felt like for Tempt to deal with the paralyzing symptoms of ALS. Stuck in the island of his own mind, in his paralyzed body, there were seven whole years where he was unable to communicate the vision still actively living inside his mind. The frustration must have been acute.

That sense of frustration is what inspired the chain reaction of collaboration and generosity that allowed Ebeling's team to produce something as amazing as these glasses, which allowed Tempt to draw again. It proves again that art can't happen on an island: In Tempt's case, this was literally true. Ebeling's talk doesn't comment on the extent to which the artist was able to participate in the production of the tool that would give him his artistic voice back again. However, it's true that in terms of physically putting all of the pieces together, it was the team of programmers and, as Ebeling somewhat comically but truthfully states, Ebeling and his family, who really gave the gift of creation back to the creator. They did it by using not only their minds, but their hands, too.

When Tempt shows his art now, he has an entirely new range of experiences to draw from. Tempt uses his eyes to draw now, the very tools he used in the first place to see the world and give a reflection of it back through his hands. He also knows that a group of people were so dedicated to giving him back his ability to create that they did what was thought previously to be impossible. That kind of ingenuity and invention is an art, too.

The next time we find ourselves thinking of the solitary genius, or attributing great works to a single person, take a moment to think about the other people who work with and inspire the artists. Artists are not solitary beings, even in Tempt's extreme case of being unable to communicate at all without a great deal of effort for a whole seven years. Consider the model in the Renoir painting. Consider Hemingway's conversations with Gertrude Stein. Consider the hacker giving the graffiti artist back his art. It gives new meaning to what it means to create.

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