Admit it, we’ve all cried at the movies. Many have cried at the end of a book. And some may have even cried at the cancellation of their favorite TV show (OK, so I’m stretching the category a bit here). But how many of us have cried in front of a painting in a museum? That is the subject of a book I recently borrowed from the library purely because I found its unconventional subject matter intriguing. It’s called Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings by James Elkins. Elkins claims that we have lost touch with our emotional reaction to paintings, and whereas previous generations had a highly emotional relationship with art, the past 100 years of art history have been the driest in terms of tear-duct/facial interaction.
One of the things I loved about this book is that it is a non-academic humanist look at art history by an academic. Elkins wrestles with the idea of art criticism caught between intellectual distance and emotional investment, and wonders if the two approaches had to be mutually exclusive. Are they not both valid? Time and again he runs into the problem where other academics and art historians simply wouldn’t talk to him. And many of them who did talk to him wanted to remain anonymous so as not to ruin their credibility. He constantly heard the following reaction, slightly paraphrased by me: “Crying (and other more base human reactions) are not a proper way of interacting with art. In fact, the phenomenon doesn’t even deserve to be studied.”
But study it he does. Being an academic, Elkins has loved paintings for all sorts of reasons, but has never cried in front of one himself. So the phenomenon is not foreign to him, but at the same time he is too knowledgeable in art history for a painting to catch him unaware in that welling-up-weepy way. So he decides to ask other (normal-ler) people: “What paintings (if any) have you cried in front of, and why (or why not)?”
I won’t go into them here, but it turns out there are many reasons, and some of them are enlightening while others not so much. Though not perfect by any means, I really enjoyed this book because of its unconventional treatment of its subject. Another book comes to my mind when speaking of books that think outside the box, Freakonomics (though I could write a whole blog post on why I disliked that book). To this end, I will pose a question: “What books have you read that treat a subject in a completely new or unconventional way?” Alternately, you may also answer Elkin’s question: “What paintings (if any) have you cried in front of, and why (or why not)?”