Why We Weep

Peter de Bolla

  • Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings by James Elkins
    Routledge, 272 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 415 93713 2

What are experiences of artworks like? Kant’s Critique of Judgment is relatively clear on this point: aesthetic judgments prompt what he calls an ‘agitation of the mind’. How agitated should it be? Is one kind of agitation, say frustration at not being able to understand a work, equivalent to another, say a feeling of joy or wonder? Does the absence of agitation signal something of importance in respect of the artwork, or is it merely an indication that my perceptual faculties are not tuned in? Some days I may get all choked up listening to Mahler; on others I seem to be indifferent. An answer to the question with which I began might be closer to my second response to Mahler’s music, since the most common feeling on encountering an artwork is, in actuality, nothing.

If I try a little harder to characterise this feeling, however, ‘nothing’ seems not quite to convey the sense I have of disempowerment. It’s more like being left without the means for articulation: being struck dumb. Yet I know, as all practised viewers, listeners or readers know, that this won’t do. For a whole host of reasons – the need to make sense of my everyday experience of the world; the demands of social interaction, which may often require me to speak the dumbfoundment I experience; even the base desire to compete with my coevals or outperform my interlocutors by proving that I have something to say (and something intelligent to boot) about a work of art – accepting that there may be things whereof we cannot speak doesn’t seem to pass muster.

It might be that this feeling of ‘mutism’ is merely an index of one of two things. In the first place, it might indicate that I am not very good at appreciating artworks, or certain kinds of art. I can blub away with the best of them in the final act of Otello, but can hardly understand why others wish to claim that Stockhausen writes music. I’ve encountered very few people who would claim never to have experienced something like Kant’s ‘agitation of the mind’ when exposed to certain objects which for the time being we’ll call artworks. And there seems to be some merit in the thought that no one person would be capable of responding equally well to every kind of artwork. While I am illiterate in respect of dance, for example, I seem to have a particular proclivity for the visual arts.

And then there’s the question of training. Perhaps, through repeated exposure and dedicated attention, I can improve my responses. Perhaps, through practice, I can ward off the demons of mutism. Again, my own experience bears this out: when I was younger I found it difficult to discover much of interest in some forms or works, whereas now I can breeze into a show of abstract painting, say, and find much to comment on. It may equally be the case that without some prior exposure to a form I simply don’t register an example of it as an artwork (as with Stockhausen). And it also seems to be the case that some kinds of knowledge (though not all) help me to get started in my response.

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