Callous Viewers and Heart-Wrenching Art.

We’re not supposed to be callous toward art.

And yet, we are, especially with art that is meant to and was created for the purpose of welling up emotion within our spirits.

Rogier Van Der Wyden, The Descent from the Cross (Detail), 1435.

I suppose this has to do with modern society. Emotional response and emotion itself were so entrenched into Early Modern society that emotional reactions to works of art may seem silly or far removed from us. Yet paintings of this time, especially but not solely religious paintings, were created to provide viewers with visual representations of stories, legends and events in Catholic hagiography and history. Paintings and sculpture were a way to depict abstract concepts, glorious miracles, and ancient legends in an easily accessible and understandable manner. Be these subjects represented in allegory, exaggeration, or realism, they are meant to invoke emotion when the viewer ponders the scene before them. Mythological scenes might stir up joyous, mischievous, or giddy feelings, while more somber religious scenes may cause the viewer to be awestruck, sorrowful, thankful, or reverent.

James Elkins wonders about our modern lack of emotion when viewing art, and set out to determine what people of the past have cried about when viewing art, and why emotion is so pent up today. He penned these words in the forward to his 2001 book, Pictures & Tears:

Our lack of intensity is a fascinating problem. I’d like to understand why it seems normal to look at astonishing achievements made by unapproachably ambitious, luminously pious, strangely obsessed artists, and toss them off with a few wry comments. … If paintings are so important – worth so much, reproduced, cherished, and visited so often – then isn’t it troubling that we can hardly make emotional contact with them? … Few centuries, it seems, are as determinedly tearless as ours.

I have yet to finish the book, but his forward struck such a chord with me that I am eager to read his conclusions. He sent out letters, posted ads, and emailed contacts to find out who and why people cried in front of paintings. He got responses from an overwhelming number of people, including art historians. Pictures and Tears reminds me of a post I wrote, On the Power of Aesthetics and Artistic Intent, and how art is made to effect its viewers. Elkins’ book made me think about the paintings I’ve shed tears in front of while I stood and stared into the canvas. Most recently, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Prodigal Son (1876) moved me to tears. I’m well versed in the story, and something about the way he painted the son, curled up, naked and alone, in the dirt, cradling himself, just ruined me – in the middle of the National Gallery, no less. But location and others aren’t important in such experiences. All that exists are the tears, myself, and the painting. I had a similar experience in the Borghese Gallery when I saw Caravaggio’s David and Goliath. The painting is so close to my academic heart and my research that finally seeing it in person was overwhelming. Part of me was sad that I couldn’t pick it up, run my fingers along the canvas, and stick my nose closer to see every crack and brush stroke (don’t tell that to any art conservationists!), but most of me was just relieved to be standing in front of it at last.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Prodigal Son, 1876.

How about you? Have you ever shed tears in front of a work of art? Why or why not? Are we supposed to have emotional reactions to artwork?