We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The past decade has been a good one for revelatory little books of art writing that really shouldn’t have to exist. Dave Hickey reminded the art world that it had stopped talking about beauty. David Batchelor examined the marginalization of color. And now, with Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, art historian James Elkins finds his profession to be stocked with iced-down cold fish who have long since ceased to exhibit any signs of life. Not only are academics averse to crying over artworks intended to stir such passions, they also seem unable to experience any feeling whatsoever concerning what have become to them mere objects of study. And they threaten to draw their students into their shrunken domain.

By surveying his colleagues to gather data for his latest book, Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, risked furthering a reputation as a rabble-rouser. Among the 400 replies he received were more than a few suggestions that he not pursue the project. “It will close the gates of Harvard to you forever,” warned one unnamed correspondent. Then came the strange addendum, “of course, that doesn’t mean much anyway.” Elkins leaves unexplained whether a Harvard job is no longer the plum it once was or he had already irreparably damaged his Ivy League chances with a string of books—from Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing to Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity—that, not in so many words, painted art historians as myopic and doctrinaire.

And now freakishly heartless. The seed of Pictures & Tears was planted in the classroom, with a discussion of a small show of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich at the Art Institute in 1990. Its installation was radically tendentious by contemporary standards, though not by those of the painter’s day: Overall lighting was low, the pictures being illuminated by spotlights, and Schubert impromptus were piped in. Feeling steamrollered by the dramatic trappings, most of Elkins’ grad students were fairly merciless in their criticism, but one demurred. Tamara Bissell confessed that she had been profoundly moved: “It was very quiet and very beautiful. I was standing very still. And then I felt something funny. I was just standing there, and all of a sudden tears were streaming down my cheeks. I cried hard, for a while. It was wonderful, really wonderful.”

Like the rest of his class, Elkins acted out of professional reflex, judging Bissell’s reaction to be uncontrolled and inappropriate. But her conversation-stopper gnawed at him. When he related it to a variety of friends, reactions split along professional lines. Laypersons welcomed her tears; art historians moved to discredit them. “My colleagues thought that Tamara’s epiphany was one of two things,” Elkins writes, “neither of them especially desirable: either an artificial experience brought on by the theatrical lighting and music, or (even worse) evidence of an overemotional frame of mind.”

Elkins extended his inquiries, into the literature and through a broader cross-section of viewers, and he emerged from them with accusatory fingers pointed not at Bissell but at the 20th century—and at art historians. “At a rough guess,” he writes, “I would bet that 1 percent of my profession have been moved to tears by an artwork, and another 10 percent let themselves get emotional. The remainder are professionals, in the pejorative sense of that word.” Part of the problem is that every discipline seeks to counter the most obvious criticisms of it with clumsy efforts at damage control. So you’ll find art historians, worried about the perceived feminineness of their field, struggling to turn it into a most serious business, dour and pseudoscientific.

Another part of the problem is that tears are both unreliable and somewhat authoritative, offering visible proof of deep feeling even if none is expected or desired or warranted by the material at hand. What are we to make of the tears of the distinguished aesthetician David Carrier? “I am terribly sentimental,” he admitted to Elkins, “and I have cried before even rather silly films—the one about the Jamaican bobsled team, for example, much to my daughter’s amazement.” Elkins also reports, however, that Carrier “probably hasn’t cried over a painting.”

People uninhibited by temperament or occupation who do cry at paintings tend to do so, Elkins finds, for three main reasons: (1) A painting makes a viewer intensely aware of the passing of time, while simultaneously forestalling its progress; (2) “[s]udden, unexpected, out-of-control presence,” basically “a religious feeling,” makes a painting feel unbearably full; or (3) “[p]ainful absence—whether it is of God, or grace, or just presence itself” makes a painting feel unbearably empty.

Although this essayistic book doesn’t quite do justice to its subtitle, Elkins does relate that crying over other art forms has a history of its own, with tearfulness passing in and out of fashion. “Crying had faded from view in the Renaissance,” he writes, “and it began again sometime in the late seventeenth century, in France. The first reports are about women crying when they read novels. Eventually crying spread like an epidemic through western Europe, infecting readers from England to Italy.” Tears were up for grabs in the 19th century. Elkins tells of a meeting between Beethoven and Goethe, whose writing had inspired him. When Beethoven’s playing moved Goethe to tears, the composer chastised the poet: “‘When I read your poetry,’ he is supposed to have said, ‘I am inspired to rise to its heights.’ Despite his greater age and fame, Goethe stood silently and took the rebuke, perhaps realizing the truth of it.” Likewise, writers such as William Wordsworth and Etienne Pivert de Senancour, author of the epistolary autobiographical novel Obermann (1804), sought out emotional territory where, as they saw it, tears would not suffice, and as Romanticism proceeded it became even more dry-eyed.

The psychologically obsessed 20th century frequently found room for illness where little could be found for tears. It was only fitting that Florentine psychiatrist Graziella Magherini gave a Freudian spin to the psycho-physiological maladies of art tourists that landed them briefly in her care. Her still-untranslated 1989 book La Sindrome di Stendhal named their symptoms for the novelist, who had himself experienced heart palpitations before the treasures of Florence on an 1817 visit. Although briefly controversial, the Stendhal syndrome ultimately bore little professional fruit, perhaps because, as Elkins notes, both sides in the debate were curiously quick to distance themselves from the notion that the art that had triggered the attacks really had made much of a contribution to the patients’ pathologies.

In the standard history, modernist and postmodernist art trended toward distanced intellectualization, just as the philosophical currents feeding them had, and tears were left in the dust. Elkins raises another possibility: “[I]n my experience,” he writes, “even the most stringent and theoretically informed postmodern painting is suffused with a lingering nostalgia for a time when religion could be named, and tears could be believed, but I can’t prove it because the subject—even in this age of apparent freedom of speech—is proscribed.”

Although Elkins has a point, he is being coy here. The job of a book like Pictures & Tears is precisely to bring proscribed subjects to discussion. What seems more likely is that Elkins can “prove it,” but intends to do so in another book, perhaps the forthcoming Six Stories From the End of Representation, 1975-2002. Throughout the late ’90s and on into the present decade, he has set a publication pace better suited to a pulp novelist.

An unfortunate side effect of such prolificacy is unevenly developed writing. A captivating personal history of his experience with Giovanni Bellini’s The Ecstasy of St. Francis—from his intense boyhood fascination with it, through his many return trips to the Frick to see it, to its withdrawing from him once the “poison pill” of his professional historical training has produced in him “the death of all feeling”—is plotted in great detail. But then the Kamakura-period Nachi Waterfall, another of the handful of pictures reproduced in color in this underillustrated book, is given short shrift, even though it has inspired a veritable cult of tears among Japanese devotees. Elkins is content to leave it as “a mystery I still haven’t solved.”

Much about crying is indeed mysterious, but Elkins keeps the crutch of unverbalizability too close at hand. Not infrequently does he retreat well before he has reached the end of a line of investigation. It’s an odd failing in a book that seeks, mainly with success, to urge us to look at pictures anew, unreasonably—and unabashed of the emotional consequences.

Picking up on the fact that the process of viewing a fixed image renders painting largely a devotional medium, Elkins writes at length about the intimate late-medieval portraits known as Andachtsbilder, dwelling on a circa-1460 Weeping Madonna by Dieric Bouts in Chicago that he knows well. The program for “How to look and possibly even be moved” in the last chapter of Pictures & Tears—including such advice as “minimize distractions,” “pay full attention,” and “be faithful”—is essentially a secularization of devoted medieval viewing. Elkins intends his eight-step approach as “general advice, for everyone.” But he and others like him may already be beyond its reach. “My failure to weep a single certifiable tear for a painting cripples my understanding of some paintings, shutting me off from a fuller response,” he laments. “Studying history is like smoking: they’re both habits that give us pleasure, but they are very bad for us. One kills the body, the other the imagination.”

Given my position as a nonhistorian who spends a lot of time looking at art and urging others to do likewise, it would seem that some personal testimony is in order. I confess that I don’t cry much; welling up is generally as far as I go. And it usually isn’t over works of visual art. Music, sure. George Jones can shoot me down out of a clear, blue sky. And one day, when my wife found me waiting for her, as usual, in the Metro parking lot, she immediately knew to ask what was wrong. Nothing, really—only Freeny’s Barn Dance Band’s “Don’t You Remember the Time,” a twin-fiddle instrumental recorded 35 years to the day before I was born but seemingly removed by eons, its bittersweet good time forever gone. As for movies, Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. got to me, though I felt somewhat manipulated and had expected better of it. For true can’t-drive-home devastation, nothing, for me, has topped Terry Zwigoff’s depiction of the mulish unanswerability of mental illness in Crumb.

When I look back at the art writing I’ve done over the past eight years, I can find many shows and pieces that have moved me, some deeply enough to make me want to holler with joy (Wayne Thiebaud), jump up and down (Lari Pittman), dance (Stuart Davis), break things (Bruce Nauman), and sing hymns of awe (Robert Irwin). I have, of course, done none of these things. Instead, I’ve sublimated my reactions into print when I had a sympathetic venue, glossed them over when I didn’t. I clamped down on my emotions in response to social stigma, particularly while I was still in well-lighted, public places.

But I’ve noticed a change of late. I had decided I wanted to write about Pictures & Tears weeks before I got around to buying it. Just knowing it existed gave me a license I hadn’t consciously reckoned I lacked. And, as chance and personal inclination would have it, the last two shows I reviewed before reading the book gave me something to cry about. I agree that viewing art feeds the unsecularizable parts of our minds; I part ways with Elkins, however, over his assumption that it is prolonged, focused looking at an individual work that builds the tension that culminates in tears.

In both cases, with me, it was the cumulative effect of many of an artist’s works that took me to the brink. For at least an hour, in which I couldn’t bring myself to write a word, I had Steven Cushner’s painting show at the University of Maryland to myself. The quietness, the installation, the subject matter, the paint handling, and the light from the canvases, in which dark, glyphic configurations of cords hover over washy fields of radiant color, conspired to carry me toward a nearly textbook example of “crying because time passes.” More tangled emotions were at play at the Hirshhorn’s H.C. Westermann sculpture retrospective, in which the idiosyncratic visual expression of his handmade wooden constructions dovetailed with established literary modes. Westermann’s ability to turn craft into moral rebuke, to invest the quixotic with almost inexpressible fury, while retaining its humor, absolutely tore me to pieces. Days later, I found myself choking up whenever I simply thought about the show.

Each time, though, I looked away, held back, composed myself, and went about my business. Now that I’ve read him, Elkins makes me wish I hadn’t been so wary. CP