Review of “Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings”

This book did some wonderful things to me. It dispelled philosophical dogmas. It validated vague feelings I’ve had about academia, especially about art history. And, most importantly, it connected me with the stories of fellow weepy art-lovers.

“Pictures and Tears” contains, among other gems, the letters and stories of thirty-odd people who have cried (or wanted to cry) in front of paintings. If you’re an art-lover or weepy person — especially if, like me, you’re both — go read it. I’m giving it five stars; I want Goodreads to recommend more books like this. And now I’ll write a largely critical review… because that’s easier.

Elkins turns the question “Why do people cry in front of paintings?” on its head, asking instead: “Why do so many people fail to cry in front of paintings?” He spends a chapter discussing the “Stendhal syndrome” — a putative condition in which the sufferer (usually a visitor to an Italian city) is so overwhelmed with art that she becomes physically ill. Elkins brilliantly argues that we should define the complementary “Mark Twain malaise,” a hypothetical illness befalling those who fail to have any reactions whatsoever to art (named after a recorded failure on Twain’s part to be moved by the Last Supper).

Elkins makes a compelling case that our aesthetic responses fall on a continuum — and that we have no general reason to prefer moderate — or boringly average — responses. He also makes it evident that sometimes expertise can get in the way of raw emotional experience, thus calling into question an assumption common among philosophers: that expertise sets a standard for “best” aesthetic experience.

He also skilfully deflects worries about the “subjectivity” of tears. Several of the stories people sent in involve tears which at first seem to be only about the crier but on closer examination turn out to be a strong reaction to publicly ascertainable features of the painting. In one such story, a woman paints a picture of an empty bed. Her husband doesn’t think twice about it, until she has an affair. Then it takes on a harrowing significance, and he weeps.

At first, you might think that his response has nothing to do with the “aesthetic” features of the painting. It doesn’t even really matter that the thing which triggered his tears was a painting — if he’d chanced upon his wife’s hairclip, he might have dissolved into very similar tears. The painting was just a trigger — or so the thought goes.

Of course, the man’s response is a poor metric of the painting’s worth. He’s in no position to have the sort of “disinterested” response which could be a mark of such worth, and we shouldn’t conclude from his tears that he’s in front of a harrowing masterpiece. In that sense, his response is “subjective.” All the same, the response is hardly defective. In fact, you might argue that he understands the painting in a way in which we’re not privileged to. I doubt his wife created the painting for the purposes of disinterested contemplation; instead, it’s an expression of a concrete human experience. And the painter’s husband has insider information about the significance of this experience; after all, he’s part of the story the painting tells. As Elkins points out, any painting of an empty bed is bound to be emotionally charged (and in this way the painting is more than just a hairclip, a trigger for his response) — and our protagonist is uniquely placed to feel a particularly intense version of this emotional charge.

Elkins, then, exorcises dogmas about “the” privileged appreciative attitude towards paintings, whether that attitude be the “disinterested” one, the emotionally average or stable one, or the most theoretically, art-historically informed one. Unfortunately, in the process he succumbs to two equally misguided dogmas. (Both concern the apparently “non-cognitive” nature of tears.) The first is the dogma of the “ivory tower of tearlessness,” according to which learning too much art history inevitably covers you with “intellectual armor” preventing you from getting too emotional in front of a painting. Art history not only can get in the way of emotional responses; it almost inevitably does. The second, related, dogma is the dogma of the incomprehensibility of tears: while you may be able to understand something about why someone is crying, incomplete comprehensibility is a defining feature of tears. In the remainder of the review, I’ll argue that Elkins was wrong to accept these dogmas; they’re part of the misguided conceptual package which he rightly discards.

Elkins takes the letters he received to be evidence for the existence of the “ivory tower of tearlessness” — they demonstrate, he thinks, that art historians are overwhelmingly unlikely to be moved by paintings. I’ll argue that he bases this conclusion on faulty statistical reasoning.

Take a moment and guess: what percentage of the population has cried over a painting? What percentage has gotten emotional? Elkins estimates that “1 percent of [his] profession have been moved to tears by an artwork, and another 10 percent let themselves get emotional.” Is this less than what you guessed the base rate was — or more?

It’s more than what I think the base rate is — but my estimate hardly matters, since 1% and 10% are numbers pulled out of a ridiculously improbable hat. In the paragraph immediately preceding the one where Elkins makes this estimate, he tells us that he’d heard from “almost thirty” art historians. Seven said they had cried at paintings (but only two were willing to go on the record). Eleven said they “habitually feel very strongly about art, even though they don’t cry.” (p. 99)

We have a sample of fewer than 30 art historians. This means that at least 7/30, or 23%, of the art historians Elkins talked to had cried in front of paintings; 11/30, or 37%, feel very strongly about art, i.e. presumably, let themselves get emotional. If the 7 weepy and 11 emotional art historians are all different people (as “even though they don’t cry” suggests), then more than 18/30, i.e. 60%, of the art historians he surveyed “let themselves get emotional.” (How does this compare to your base rate estimate?) To estimate, as he does, that the emotion-rate in the art historical population is 11%, he would have had to have reason to think his sample was unbelievably biased towards weepy people.

Now we’re later told that “several thousand” saw his survey and didn’t respond. This must have led to some selection bias, since you’re probably more likely to answer a survey about weeping in front of paintings if you have a good story to tell than if your answer is a dull “no.” Even so, the weepiness rate among art historians might well be closer to 25% than to 1%. And I think you’ll agree that the general population rate couldn’t be higher than that.

So why does Elkins believe, against the evidence, that art history makes you less emotional? He may be noticing that the outliers — the people who admitted to extreme weepiness in their letters — are mostly not art historians. But that’s exactly as you’d expect, given that there are extremely few extreme weepers, and vastly fewer art historians than non-historians. An extremely weepy art-lover may be more likely to be an art historian than a random person is — but still much more likely not to be an art historian, given how few art historians there are. To think otherwise is to commit the base rate fallacy.

I know Elkins isn’t trying to carry out a randomized controlled trial — but he is trying to draw some broad conclusions from a data set which completely fails to support them (and may in fact support their negations). What I’d like to know now is: how many art historians have wept in front of a math problem?

I think Elkins’s letters reveal a troubling trend — but it’s a different trend than the one he isolates. There is no ivory tower of tearlessness — but there may be an ivory tower of tear-shaming. As many as 60% of art historians — the silent majority — may feel highly emotional in front of paintings, but most of them seem to believe that art historians aren’t supposed to be feeling this way — or, at least, that they should keep quiet about it when they do. That seven out of thirty art historians cried in front of paintings isn’t troubling; that five of them refused to have their letters published is. The most tragic character I find in Elkins’s book is the art history graduate student who asserts: “You couldn’t love a painting. Paintings are intellectual things. It’s not normal love.” From this perspective, Elkin’s belief that art historians are unemotional is part of the problem, not the solution.

The second dogma — the incomprehensibility of tears — reveals that Elkins’s exchange of the question “Why do some people cry in front of paintings?” for “Why don’t others cry?” is only partial. He’s still fundamentally a non-weepy person puzzling about weepers. This is revealed in what he finds puzzling: he asks “what could it mean, I wonder, to cry because I admired a novel? Could I ever cry because I regretted what a fictional character had chosen to do?” I’m puzzled by his puzzlement (especially at the second variety of tears).

Elkins’s favorite example of tears which don’t make sense comes from one of the letters he received, whose author “cried at the Louvre in front of Victory. She had no arms, but she was so tall.” He makes a big deal of the “but” here, claiming that there couldn’t be a reasonable contrast to be drawn between having no arms and being tall. Now his correspondent ends up agreeing with him that her tears didn’t make sense, so I’m on shaky ground here — but so tall/no arms strikes me as a perfectly reasonable contrast to draw. We have a monumental, empty victory which doesn’t have arms with which to do things of real, human value. Perhaps her human arms have been replaced by wings — empty, dangerously beautiful ideals. I could go on. Only the weeper knows which story best captures her tears — but there are plenty of perfectly comprehensible stories to choose from.

The two dogmas interact: if tears are utterly mysterious, non-rational things, then knowledge — in particular, art-historical knowledge — is at best irrelevant and at worst damaging to emotional experience. But take the story of the man who cried in front of the painting of an empty bed. His tears weren’t the result of an immediate, non-cognitive experience. He cried, in part, because he had knowledge about the painting. Now his knowledge was of a particularly immediate, first-personal kind (he knew not only that the painter had had an affair, but that his wife was the painter who had an affair), but it’s still a piece of knowledge about the history (art history, even) of the painting. If his wife’s painting ended up in an art gallery, my emotions could only benefit from an art historian telling me this story.

A final reason for tears whose comprehensibility Elkins rejects reveals that he is under the spell of a final aesthetic dogma: the dogma of the irrelevance of beauty. On the last page, he describes a passionless art-goer (the person you wouldn’t want to become if you take tears seriously), saying “The eye is rebuffed by the dim canvas, and keeps falling back into the lazy chair of clichés — “How beautiful,” people say without thinking how flat that sounds.” Now “it’s beautiful” can certainly be a cliché, a vague term of praise for when you don’t know what to say. But Elkins is forgetting that many of the protagonists of his story have used the word “beautiful” in a very different emotional register. “I cried because it was so beautiful” is a sentiment which recurs in the letters again and again.

Elkins dismisses this as a comprehensible reason for tears, since “in the art world, beauty is nearly a synonym for pallor. Saying that an artwork is beautiful is a bit like calling someone “nice”: it means that stronger, more definite qualities are probably missing.” He’s revealing his true stripes when he says “in the art world.”

The ivory tower of tearlessness is also an ivory tower of beautylessness. And, as with tearlessness, I think the art historians are not a different species from us naïve beauty-lovers — they’re just a little more repressed. Those who do admit to crying because of beauty say it with an awareness that they’re up to something controversial. Robert Rosenblum is a trifle apologetic: “I have truly gasped (jaw dropped, breath caught, etc.) from the sensation of what I guess we might still call Beauty, or some other kind of magic in art.” Tamara Bissell, who bravely countered that poor grad student’s contention that you can’t fall in love with a painting, said that the Friedrich painting which made her cry “was very quiet and very beautiful.” She’s defiant: “she said the word “beautiful” very carefully.” In the art world I wish we had, she wouldn’t have to be defiant.

Beauty, like tears, is nothing to apologize for. There may certainly be more to a tear than beauty — but sometimes “it was so beautiful” really is a complete and satisfactory explanation. Strangely, Elkins accepts “I cried because I felt the presence of God” as a comprehensible explanation — but not “I cried because it was so beautiful.” He says of words like “the uncanny” or “the aura” that “each word is a strategy for not quite naming God;” I’m more inclined to think that “God” — a retreat into organized religion — is a strategy for not quite naming beauty.

In one of the letters, a woman cries in a Hungarian gallery. The guard says, “quietly and sympathetically,” “szép-szép.” “Szép” is the only Hungarian word known by the author of the letter; it means “beautiful.” The guard understood something Elkins pretends not to: few things are as comprehensible as tears because of beauty. Just look at this little boy crying because a chihuahua is so beautiful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6r9c...

“Szép-szép:” the sound of tears falling.

Originally published at www.goodreads.com.

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Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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