Seeing and Believing: Art, Vision, and Identity in The Case of the Colorblind Painter

As a child, I had very poor eyesight and had to wear glasses. When I had eye surgery in 2015 to correct my vision, it was a major change in my life. Before the surgery, I couldn’t really conceive what it would be like not to wear glasses. For about a year after the surgery, I still thought of myself as a person who wore glasses. Despite my clear vision, I would forget that I did not need them. It felt like my identity was in flux since wearing glasses was central to how I thought about how I looked. I didn’t miss my blurry vision, but seeing the world without a lens in front of it took a lot of getting used to.

 

In The Case of the Colorblind Painter, Oliver Sacks tells the story of Mr. I, who must reinvent his identity as a person and an artist after a serious accident leaves him colorblind. Sacks complicates the idea of disability by examining how Mr. I’s opinion of his vision and himself changes in the years after his accident. Because Mr. I is an artist, his ability to paint, and therefore his sense of color, is central to his identity. His loss of color vision is especially traumatizing because he not only has to adjust to a new physical reality, but also to a new mental one. He is forced to reevaluate not only his view of himself as someone who is visually-impaired, but also his opinion of what sort of painter he is. During the first few years after his accident, Mr. I’s artwork reflects his struggle to live in a world without color.

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A painting done by Mr. I about two months after his accident (In An Anthropologist on Mars)

Because, for the first few weeks after his accident, it is unclear whether Mr. I’s colorblindness is due to psychological factors, he is stuck in a sort of limbo. He does not know if he is a person who temporarily cannot see color because of his brain’s reaction to the trauma of the car accident or if he has permanent achromatopsia.[1] Once doctors determine Mr. I’s condition is the latter, Sacks focuses more on how Mr. I’s disability affects his life than on how Mr. I thinks of himself. Mr. I is consumed by the physical changes in his world and by the tasks he can no longer complete, such as picking out his own clothes.[2] Mr. I’s art provides the best reflection of how his identity has literally shattered. The fractured images in his painting reveal that Mr. I thinks of himself as broken. He cannot reconcile his new physical reality with his identity.

 

During this period, Mr. I is most at peace when he does not have to think about how his life has changed. For example, Mr. I begins to sculpt.[3] Because this is an art form where color is less significant than painting, he is able to feel secure in his identity as an artist. Mr. I’s sculpting also hints at his eventual reconciliation of his colorblindness with his identity. While Mr. I’s colorblindness will always affect some parts of his life, color is superfluous to his ability to create beautiful art.

 

As he begins to recognize the ways in which his achromatopsia improves his vision, such as in dim light, Mr. I becomes more accepting of it. However, his real breakthrough occurs when he sees a sunset, and instead of focusing on its greyness, he sees how it looks like a nuclear explosion. He realizes that he is the only one able to see the sunset this way. His sense of loss at the lack of color in his world begins to disappear. He stops focusing on what he has lost, although he continues to prefer going out at night, when his vision is similar to normally-sighted people.[4]

 

After this point, Mr. I’s achromatopsia begins to be a part of his self-identity and not just something that has happened to him. His art reflects this. In his artwork from before the accident, there are few bold lines and colors shift into each other. The effect is chaotic. After Mr. I becomes comfortable with his changed vision, his artwork changes completely. It is more geometric and there is a greater attention to detail. There are no fragmented lines. When he uses color, it is more economical and carefully considered. The effect is bold and confident, reflecting Mr. I’s faith in himself. According to art critics, this artwork is better than Mr. I’s previous work.

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A painting done by Mr. I before his accident (In An Anthropologist on Mars)
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A painting done by Mr. I two years after his accident (In An Anthropologist on Mars)

With the exception of the week immediately after his accident, Mr. I’s vision mostly does not change over the period covered in the story. However, when asked if he would prefer to be “cured,” Mr. I’s answer shifts from yes to no. This change has less to do with Mr. I’s actual vision and more to do with how he thinks about it. He has been forced to think of himself in a new way, to “construct his own sensibility and identity anew.”[5] Ultimately, Mr. I’s accident does fundamentally alter his artwork and his identity, although his fears of negative changes are not borne out.

 

[1] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 17.

[2] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 7-8.

[3] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 15.

[4] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 14, 37.

[5] Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, 35, 39.

4 thoughts on “Seeing and Believing: Art, Vision, and Identity in The Case of the Colorblind Painter

  1. You make a really interesting point about how a person’s identity can change throughout the course of their life and how that can sometimes be a difficult adjustment. I’m kind of going through the opposite of what you went through after your eye surgery; I’ve only worn glasses full-time for the past 6 months, and I only wore them for reading for a year before that, so I’m still adjusting to thinking of myself as a person who wears glasses. I imagine that for someone like Mr. I, because of how abruptly his vision changed, it would be even more difficult to reconcile his new reality with his identity.

  2. I found this particular story to be interesting. The fact that Mr. I eventually conquered his fears and began to build around his newfound disability is extremely inspiring to me. I can’t imagine losing the sense that initially allowed me to follow my passion. As someone who does not have vision problems, I enjoyed your personal reflection on this topic.

  3. I like the interplay explored in this story between ability/disability, identity and creative output, and that you further examine here. Not only does his new colorblindness inhibit his former output, it presents opportunities for new output. It makes me wonder if creative output is contingent on how creators view themselves and how integral is identity to that process. A very interesting read!

  4. I like how Sacks complicates the narrative surrounding disability. People with impairments learn to (or have always) functioned in society, even though society does not always make it easy to function. This book impressed me because it constantly focused on the person and not always the impairment. It was much more of a study on human strength in my opinion rather than an insight into the medical conditions.

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