Book of

Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, by James Elkins

It used to be a given that some paintings could and should move people to tears: it was one of the things art was for. People still weep at photographs and movies, but not, as a rule, for paintings. Elkins asks why this reaction has dropped away, and if we — including “we” art critics — have lost something thereby, if we no longer have the emotional capacity to respond to works of art the way they were intended.

Though Elkins doesn’t make the connection, I blame advertising. The world we live in is absolutely soaked in images, most chosen to elicit an emotional response. We can’t respond to images as strongly as people did 200 years ago, or we’d go insane. Fortunately, our nervous systems become adapted to the constant stimulation — but that seems to mean that certain sorts of emotional response are blocked, they’re not generally available.

What Elkins does note is that there seems to be a connection between the feeling of crying in front of a painting, and religious feelings. The only 20th-century art work that seems to have brought significant numbers of people to tears is the Rothko Chapel, and those who do weep describe their feelings as religious — a religious feeling, purified of any particular religion.

actual post date: Nov. 18, 2009

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  1. By A sentimental vision on January 2, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    [...] Village Marriage, by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. This painting used to move people to tears; it was one of the most popular works of its [...]

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