The history of gesture: from Renaissance elbow to Trudeau shrug
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, August 28, 1999)

A few years ago, a Baltimore art historian named Joaneath Spicer came up with a phrase I expect I'll cherish forever -- "the Renaissance elbow." She wasn't suggesting that the Renaissance created a new kind of elbow, the way it created new kinds of art. She was explaining that, in the Renaissance, portrait painters began to depict men who used their elbows to make themselves impressive. Spicer was using art to advance a subject on which everyone is something of an expert and most of us are also pretty ignorant: the meaning of gesture. We all make gestures and we all understand them at some level, but we lack the language to talk about them. Computer scientists, bounding ahead of the rest of us, are now teaching computers "gesture recognition," so they can respond to the wave of a hand.

The word "gesture" means the expression of a thought or feeling by the movement of hands, arms or body. People have been studying it for millenniums, and modern social scientists have often tried to analyze the way individuals and cultures make themselves understood physically. As early as 1930, one scholar called himself a "gesture-theorist." In recent decades, we have learned to speak of "body language," and we have books such as Desmond Morris's Gestures. But the subject remains vague and scattered, partly because there are few trustworthy accounts of the gesture in history.

Spicer's article, The Renaissance Elbow, appeared in a collection of essays, A Cultural History of Gesture, edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Spicer explained that, in the Renaissance, artists began painting men with "arms akimbo" -- hands on hips, elbows bent outward. It began in Italy, like so much else, and spread north between 1500 and 1650. It became part of the body language of self-possession and a newly developing form of individualism, the prerogative of princes and other grandees. It signalled boldness or control. When artists in the Netherlands began to use it, they produced what Spicer calls, in another admirable phrase, "an explosion of male elbows."

About the same time, Renaissance authors were writing of gesture as a matter of civility and national pride. A book on manners published in England in 1540 advised readers not to shrug their shoulders, "as we see in many Italians." By then, it was already assumed that southern Europeans gestured far more than northerners, an idea still widely believed. To put it in extreme terms: Northerners gesture only when words fail them; southerners speak only when gestures fail them.

On television last season, one of the last episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street turned on gesture. Detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) guessed that a husband and wife with British names were actually Italian Americans, like himself. They gave themselves away by their gestures, he said. For instance, the man clasped his hands as if in prayer while expressing pity or sorrow. Falsone wondered why they were denying their Italian connection. He discovered they were in the witness-protection program.

TV news has done its best to freeze the gesture. Newscasters are told to avoid it, if they don't know instinctively that it's wrong. Even a showboat such as Geraldo Rivera doesn't gesture much. Some people talk with their hands and, if you see them in close-up on TV, it looks as if a bird is fluttering through the foreground of the picture. I'm one of them, unless I remember not to be, and when I see myself on TV, my flailing hands sometimes look ridiculous. The philosopher Allan Bloom was an even more enthusiastic gesturer and, when I interviewed him on TV, it looked like coverage of the qualifying round in the world hand-waving championship.

We often study the gestures of politicians, in the hope (usually vain) of understanding what lies beneath their words. John Kennedy's jab at the camera was emphatic without being threatening, and seemed natural. Richard Nixon flung both arms into the air with his fingers in a V-sign, producing a hideously robotic effect. The best TV performance of Senator Edward Kennedy's life depended entirely on gesture. At the 1980 Democratic convention, he was acknowledging defeat but doing it defiantly, insisting he remained true to his principles, whatever they were. After each major point, he stepped back slightly and gave a heavy, emphatic nod of his gigantic head. It was eccentric, and for that reason unforgettable. Bill Clinton has perfected the two-arm handshake as a gestural performance: He shakes your right hand while grabbing your arm with his left, subtly indicating the degree of warmth by where he places his left hand (the higher it goes, the more it resembles a hug).

Jean Chrétien has developed a gesture of true originality: When the cameras switch on in the halls of Parliament, he immediately bounds up a flight of stairs. That gesture says he's both busy and youthful; it also evades the questions of reporters. Lester Pearson brought an unusual tic to his speeches. At a crucial moment, he would hold his hands straight out, as if he were lifting an invisible cardboard box onto a shelf just above his head. His arms rose as if controlled by strings from above.

Last fall, a piece in The New York Times declared that the shrug is a gesture back in fashion, proving that Pierre Trudeau was far ahead of his time. He was such a famous shrugger that Walter Stewart called his 1971 book Shrug: Trudeau in Power. That shrug was considered eloquent even though no one knew precisely what it meant at any given moment. It carried any one (or perhaps more) of several messages: "I don't know what you're talking about." "You are bothering me." "That subject is so unimportant that even I don't know anything about it." Or most often: "Actually, I don't care what you think." Perhaps the true essence of successful gesture is a carefully measured ambiguity.

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