Why is it that for most of us the experience of viewing great paintings has become such a quietly subdued and internal affair? Unlike centuries past, in which a great painting could provoke tears, fainting, even paralysis, today we tend to gaze briefly, assess coolly, and move on. The more informed we are by tours, labels, and catalogs, the less we are apt to be open to the visceral impact of a raw emotional response.
Art historian James Elkins sees this detachment as a true loss in contemporary culture. To that end, he has written an intriguing and eccentric book designed to examine the experiences of people who have been moved to tears in front of paintings.
"Pictures and Tears" is an investigation into the power of art to make us cry. Along the way, Elkins provides a lesson in art history, art appreciation, aesthetics, and philosophy.
His book is fascinating and provocative, if sometimes overly heady for the casual reader. Even those with a keen interest in art may get bogged down. However, like his previous book, "How to Use Your Eyes" (reviewed Nov. 30, 2000), Elkins makes a dazzling case for taking a closer look. He contends, "Paintings repay the attention they are given.... The more you look, the more you feel."
Posting inquiries in newspapers and journals, Elkins received more than 400 responses from people who had cried in front of paintings (32 are reprinted in the appendix). He admits that sometimes tears are merely "little pellucid drops of salty water, that come from an unknown place and don't mean anything that has a name." However, he uses the criteria of tears as the best visible example of when someone has been moved, providing external witness to internal response.
Nearly half the respondents claimed they cried because a painting was too full, too overwhelming, or because it was too empty, dark, and painful. From there, the encounters began to diverge, and Elkins's exploration alternates chapters of lively anecdotal experiences of specific paintings (seven color plates are included) with essaylike reflections on those experiences. He explores the historical accessibility of art and relates incidents of "hysterical tourism" in which visitors to the great European museums experience emotional overload, prompting heart palpitations, swooning, uncontrolled sobbing. (Even now, the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence admits dozens of patients each summer "suffering from ailments brought on by the local art.")
Elkins doesn't dismiss these experiences, but he goes beyond those whose strong reactions are fueled simply by disturbing, provocative imagery or by a volatile state of mind. He examines the role of faith in the power of religious images to stimulate an empathetic response, also providing a thorough and vivid description of the effects prompted by some nonrepresentational work, most notably Mark Rothko's dark color fields for Houston's Rothko Chapel.
He also revels in the mystery. His delight in the incomprehensible, the inexplicable, is a large part of the book's charm.
Elkins makes a strong case for rejecting audio tours and museum guides in viewing paintings for the first time, postponing intellectual understanding for a more immediate, visceral, and personal response. He offers eight suggestions for viewing that could transform how we look at any work of art. In short, viewers should come to art with heart and mind more open to emotional experience than cursory intellectual assessment. "A tear is always mingled with a thought," he writes, "and the most interesting thoughts are the ones that aren't quite dry."
Karen Campbell is a freelance writer living in Boston.