Moved to Tears

I want my museum to give me an emotional experience. I find myself returning time and again to the Art Institute of Chicago because I get euphoric while I’m there. It’s not that each piece of art is mind-blowing – there are some real duds there for sure – but just being in the presence of good art brings me pleasure. I believe it does me good, if not some outward measurable good, then maybe some inner mind- and soul-building good.

I’ve been reading a bit along these lines and discovered a book edited by James Cuno (current director of the Art Institute of Chicago and former director of the Harvard University Art Museums) entitled Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust [1]. The book deals with a number of points, some very academic, but thankfully some much more speaking to the heart.

One of the gems dealing with the latter is “Pictures, Tears, Lights, and Seats” by John Walsh, Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles [2]. In it, Walsh addresses the bare bones of art exhibition. I’m not talking about the existential questions of what is art and what does it mean to create and share it, but literally how one should hang paintings, arrange chairs and label the work so as to bring out the most emotion in those that view it. It makes for a good read precisely because it’s something most, even those that frequent museums, don’t think about; there is much advice given to both museum directors and museum goers and it ought to be required reading for both.

Because of this article, I came to the realization that I have never cried in front of a painting. It’s not that I’m macho or anything like that. I’ve got memories of letting it out to music, poetry and quite a few movies. Even one recent play brought tears to my eyes. But I’ve never cried to a piece of art and I’m not alone.

The James Elkins book Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings [3] (which I’ll admit I have not read, but was mentioned frequently in Walsh’s article) has a rather cheeky quote that sums it up: “The twentieth century has gotten us out of the habit. Weeping doesn’t fit the ironic tone of post-modernism.” In the book, Elkins chronicles 400 stories collected through submitted letters of that “best visual evidence that a person has been deeply moved” and in the process tries to understand why we in the modern times are so reticent to weep.

What would it take for me to be that moved by a work? I don’t honestly know. Maybe, like true love – and if you are a Supreme Court Justice, obscenity – I can’t know until I see it. I think it’s a worthy pursuit, however. There is something spiritual about letting oneself throw reason and analysis to the wind and succumbing to the weight of a particular moment. Damn the consequences!

[1] Princetonm, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[2] A slightly altered version of the essay is available here.

[3] New York: Routledge, 2001.


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