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The Unlikely Science of Accidentally Destroying Art

Talking to a kinesiologist about clumsiness and fighting our accident-prone tendencies, especially around art.

by Giaco Furino
Aug 30 2015, 12:30pm

Picasso's Le Rêve (1932), via Wikimedia Commons

Clumsy folks the world over are cringing at the just-released footage of a young Taiwanese boy’s million dollar stumble. While visiting a museum in Taipei, the boy triped and planted his fist through a 350-year-old, $1.5 million dollar painting by Paolo Porpora. Restoration of the painting is already underway, and the museum says it won’t charge the boy’s family for damages, but it still leaves a sickly feeling in the guts of the stumbling, bumbling, and clumsy the world over.

This isn’t the first time a major and/or expensive piece of art’s been destroyed by someone’s lack of coordination. In 2006, Nick Flynn visited the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge where he tripped over his shoelaces, down a flight of stairs, and into three Qing Dynasty vases, worth tens of thousands of dollars. Hotel and Casino magnate Steve Wynn, also in 2006 (what a bad year to be a historical work of art), accidentally put his elbow through Le Rêve, the famous Picasso portrait he owned. Insured though these famous works may be, there’s nothing more terrifying than that sickening moment right before you accidentally punch your way through a masterpiece.

Terrified we might someday destroy a precious artwork ourselves, The Creators Project reached out to Dr. Charles (Buz) B. Swanik, Associate Professor of Kinesiology & Applied Physiology at the University of Delaware. Dr. Swanik’s studies previously focused on clumsiness and how the brain interacts with motor control. We wanted to get a grasp on what it means to be clumsy, what factors contribute to clumsiness, and how we can fight our naturally accident-prone tendencies. Luckily, Dr. Swanik was happy to help.

We asked Dr. Swanik if “clumsiness” is the official term for this type of accident. “No. [Laughs] I think that we would just use a term like uncoordinated to define clumsiness. When you try to measure this you’re really measuring biomechanics. You can have good biomechanics or poor biomechanics.”

Dr. Swanik elaborates on what happens when you smash your fist through a million-dollar painting, “What’s really causing something like clumsiness or being uncoordinated is the result of very complex decisions made in the brain and the muscles, and the interactions between the two.”

So, why do some people tend toward clumsiness? “The two things that come up most often that would predispose a person to these episodes of clumsiness is one: distraction.” Dr. Swanik suggests that the best ways to avoid distraction are by putting down distractors like cell phones and to, “practice being more vigilant. Focus on what you’re doing presently and don’t let your mind wander and be consumed with things in the past, or too far into the future.”

The second major factor contributing to clumsiness is, according to Dr. Swanik, stress. “What happens when you’re stressed is that your attention changes. You really can’t focus on your environment like you should be able to.” Stress actually physiologically changes you: “Your vision changes, your vision becomes a lot more narrow. You actually lose peripheral vision.”

Too much stress can also lead to variations in muscle tone, which Dr. Swanik explains results in mixed messages from the brain. “Your brain sends a certain-sized stimulus to muscles that produce coordinated motion, and if your muscle tone changes, then all of a sudden you get a bigger response from some muscles and maybe a lesser response from others. What your brain planned to do is different from the result that you’re getting. It’s almost like sitting at a red light in a car. If you rev the engine and then suddenly let go of the brake then you take off really fast. But if you were sitting there idle and the engine is quiet and you slowly press the gas, you’ll have a nice smooth taking off motion. So stress has very complex things like that can create clumsiness.”

So if you’re worried about smashing an Ai Weiwei or punching a Monet at your next visit to a museum, don’t stress. Take a deep breath, be aware of your surroundings, and best keep your hands to your sides, just for good measure.

Monet's (un-punched) Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat (1874), via Wikimedia Commons

Clumsy enough to punch a hole through a masterpiece? @hazardbuzzard studies motor control and can help!

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