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.

Rather than being a function of my education, knowledge or disposition, my mutism might alternatively result from something in the object itself. It might most properly be understood to tell me that I am not in the presence of an artwork. There’s no agitation, ergo there’s no art. This conclusion has merit if we hold to the view that artworks are distinct from other objects in the world on account of the particular kind of experience they elicit. According to this view, it is the ‘aesthetic’ or ‘affective’ experience which indicates that you are in the presence of a genuine artwork. This, however, is a very unsatisfactory way of resolving the question, ‘is this thing an artwork or not?’ For the upshot is what analytical philosophers call the ‘aesthetic attitude’, which says, bluntly, that anything may be an artwork when perceived by someone holding a particular attitude. Since I can’t check on your current psychological state and know whether or not a painting by Kandinsky gives rise to an agitation of mind in you, I have to take your word for it. And that opens up the floodgates, allowing anyone to claim anything and everything to have the status of art. If I say I am moved to ecstatic wonder by Big Brother, who is to gainsay my aesthetic experience? The beef cultural conservatives have with this is that it dilutes culture, if culture is understood to be the realm of the aesthetic. In the case of Big Brother it leads to a ‘culture war’ over evaluation and since, according to the ‘aesthetic attitude’, there doesn’t seem to be any ground on which to base evaluative statements about works of art, it becomes possible to pass judgments of value on anything I deem to be such a work (by dint of my own psychological alteration from everyday perception to something more rarefied). So we arrive at the (for the conservative, woeful) position that Homer is no better than hip-hop.

The culturally progressive proponent of the view that anything can be art may be delighted at the freedom this gives us and the seeming democratisation of the realm of culture, but the observation which follows on from there – that art is merely ideology – offers cold comfort, leading the progressive to conclude that there is no such thing as art, only people’s interests, desires and beliefs.

Recently, a new departure has been tried in connection with these well-worn arguments (in point of fact simply a return to an old departure first embarked on in the 18th century, when these matters were discussed in relation to the notion of beauty), which seeks to get into better focus what ‘agitation of mind’ might consist in. One way of defeating the argument that evaluative statements regarding artworks are ungrounded would be to assess the form and quality of aesthetic experiences. Although it’s clear that some agreement would be necessary about how to evaluate that form and quality – is a ‘strong’ reaction better than a ‘weak’; how does one measure the strength of a reaction; and would what is strong to me be equally so to you? – there is merit in opening up this avenue of inquiry. At the very least, as Hume knew, we seem to have no great difficulty in agreeing which things taste bitter and which sweet. So, in recent philosophical forays into the aesthetic, taste has once again been subjected to analytic scrutiny, and what causes an affective response in a viewer, listener or reader has been the object of critical debate. One of the ways this inquiry progresses is by placing our reactions to works of art in the same orbit as emotion. Since we talk of our responses to, say, painting in terms common to the vocabulary of emotion, there would seem to be good reason to set off down this path.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be rather rockier than we might have predicted. Once we start trying to think sensible thoughts about emotions we can get rather emotional. The problem is that emotion is weird. Why do we cry at weddings or blush when unexpectedly praised in public? Part of the weirdness seems to lie in the outward manifestation of an internal feeling: the body exposes a mental state. And one can often be surprised by one’s inability to control the exposure of what feels like a private experience. This may well be culturally and historically specific. According to Tom Lutz’s Crying (1999), the earliest written record of tears being shed is to be found on Canaanite clay tablets dating from the 14th century BC. These give us a picture of an ancient ritual in pre-Hebrew Canaan in which an entire tribe would remove themselves to the desert each spring in order collectively to cry. The ritual lasted for several days and what began as moaning slowly mutated into whimpering, then wailing, before arriving at full-blown hysterics and finally laughter. This then dissolved into giggles, at which point the participants were ready to resume everyday life.

But it isn’t just the public – visible, audible – envelope of the emotion that seems to be out of control; it is also the interior agitation. Perhaps this is why philosophical approaches to emotion seem to miss their target. Broadly, these have tended to proceed on one of two fronts. The first sees emotion in terms of feeling, and at its core is a sensation or set of internal feelings; the second attempts to link emotion to a particular kind of thought or judgment. The ‘feeling’ approach removes emotion from intentional acts – as if we were at the mercy of some other agency – while the ‘thought’ approach gives very little regard to the physical aspect of emotive experience. There would seem to be good reason to suppose an intentional aspect to emotion – emotions are directed at something, they are about something – since this helps us distinguish emotive states from other bodily sensations like hunger or pain. It also helps build a bridge between emotion and reason and thereby grants some dignity to emotive feelings (they are not simply the result of an overheated animalistic passion). But at the core of any sensation we might identify as emotion there lies this agitation, which appears to us as excessive or beyond conscious control. Emotion seems to be involuntary; its habitus lies deep in the human condition, like a trace of an earlier instinctual basis for our interaction with the world. It is this involuntary aspect which seems to link it to affective responses to art. At first sight, then, it is surely a good idea to inquire into whether or not artworks do prompt emotive states, and this is what James Elkins has done.

Elkins, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, is the author of a good number of books on the visual arts, and is clearly an informed and sympathetic viewer. The New York Review of Books ran a small ad asking anyone who had cried in front of paintings to write to Elkins; he collected the responses (some of which appear in an appendix to the present book) and began reflecting on his own history of responding to art. He admits to never having cried in front of a painting – the closest he has come was when, as a boy of 13 or 14, he frequently visited the Frick Collection in New York and became mesmerised by Giovanni Bellini’s Ecstasy of St Francis. There are touching pages describing the power of this image (some beautiful passages on its chromatic registers) and the resulting fascination the young Elkins developed for the painting. But not a tear in sight.

Elkins decided to visit the Rothko chapel in Houston since, although ‘there is no survey to prove it . . . it is likely that the majority of people who have wept over 20th-century paintings have done so in front of Rothko’s.’ He booked a flight and went to see the octagonal room, which is dedicated as an interfaith church in a quiet neighbourhood of the city. The ‘paintings looked worn and flat and dull – like pots scrubbed too hard with steel wool. They were weak and frail, like that dusty black fabric that is stretched over old audio speakers.’ Boredom was one of his initial responses and after some time inspecting the large canvases he felt great fatigue.

The next morning he decided to talk to a number of the attendants and guards, some of whom had been at the chapel for a decade or more, and he also read through the old visitors’ books the chapel has kept since it was dedicated in 1972, which include more than five thousand entries. As one might expect, the comments he first noticed chimed with his own experience of being unmoved by the paintings, but soon enough he discovered evidence for his lachrymose theory. Many of the most deeply felt visits were recorded in very brief statements: ‘Once more I am moved – to tears’; ‘A religious experience that moves one to tears’. Some aim for a more poetic touch: ‘Tears, a liquid embrace’.

Elkins points out that Rothko’s paintings are almost unique in 20th-century art in attempting to convey, or indeed construct, private religious experience. Rothko commented in 1957: ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.’ And, according to Elkins, people have been weeping in galleries and museums ever since when confronted by these darkly moving paintings. But, try as he might, weeping eludes Elkins – the closest he gets to an excessive or out-of-control moment is when, having been inspecting one of the canvases at very close range, he ‘began to get a little dizzy’.

In the rest of the book Elkins wonders aloud about his inability to cry in front of pictures – perhaps it’s a déformation professionelle – and weaves a series of by turns touching and revealing narratives around the topic of tears and painting. Throughout, he remains quietly sceptical of his own project, announcing at one point that he had nearly given up after receiving a letter from E.H. Gombrich. This letter, in a slightly abridged form, comprises the ninth segment of correspondence reproduced in the appendix.

Gombrich, it appears, never wept in front of a painting and ‘hardly ever laughed’, in spite of the fact that, as he points out to Elkins, he spent some considerable part of his career on the history of caricature. But what caused Elkins to become even more despondent was Gombrich’s citation of a passage from Leonardo da Vinci to the effect that it is impossible to make people weep over paintings. As Elkins remarks: ‘What more is there to say after that? How could anyone cry unless they’re a bit off in the head?’ Well, he persevered, and in a curious way the persistence pays off since it illustrates, far more effectively and in much more down-to-earth ways, the difference between an emotive response to a work of art and an affective one.

According to Elkins, a sculpture by the American artist Ed Kienholz had to be removed from permanent display in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art because, on seeing the work, visitors were unable to prevent themselves vomiting. Such an extreme somatic response to a work of visual art is clearly unusual – although works deemed to be provocative may often cause serious consternation in the viewer and lead to strenuous physical responses (art vandalism is more prevalent than one might believe) – but it falls within the same orbit as the emotive response Elkins attempts to track. Artworks may, of course, bring us to tears – Elkins has documentary evidence that this is so – but such responses are unusual and in most cases feel inappropriate. They get in the way of an aesthetic response, an engagement with the ‘artness’ of the work, its aesthetic form and register. And very often they stand in the place of such an engagement – for some people they may be taken to be exactly aesthetic encounters. But they aren’t; they are emotive engagements which are, at best, simulacra or virtual aesthetic responses.

Elkins would not agree with me here. For him, the reason we don’t cry in front of paintings is not because of the category confusion between an emotive and an affective (in the sense of aesthetic) response, but is, rather, the result of a tradition of understanding works of art (started by Kant) which sets such objects ‘apart from the rest of the world, dedicated only to the pursuit of beauty, and without any use except a kind of pale aesthetic pleasure’. This so-called Kantian version of the artwork has, according to Elkins, coloured the subsequent history of painting and its reception. He notes wistfully that ‘Art museums . . . teach viewers to look without feeling too much.’ He may be right about this – there clearly is a cultural and historical dimension to the practice of viewing paintings, and museums and galleries participate in shaping it – but the view that it can all be laid at Kant’s door, which Elkins distances himself from to a certain degree, retails a version of the aesthetic that has received too much air play. It’s time we pressed much harder on the ‘agitation of the mind’ associated with aesthetic experience and, following the spirit of Elkins’s project, ask not why we don’t cry in front of paintings but about what happens on those rare occasions when our mutism suddenly finds voice and we glimpse what it is that is distinct about art. I think that amounts to being moved, but not to tears.