Articles about Art make me cry

There have been some articles drifting about that bug me. Wood s lot noted a rather disturbing article, The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness by James Elkins, and a troubling response to Elkins’s article from Steve at Splinters. The article, and the response, seem to suggest that no one reacts with strong emotion when confronted by art or literature. Fuck that.

In the land of composition, writers often become emotional and cry when reading their own writing. It happened in my expository writing class today, as a matter of fact. Yesterday, Dr. Yoder came into the Milton seminar enraged because his World Literature hadn’t even attempted to read Book 9 of Paradise Lost. His reaction wasn’t because they were bad students (though they probably are) but because he himself feels passionately that Paradise Lost is a book of incredible emotional impact, perhaps the greatest ever written. He was angry that they wouldn’t even try to comprehend one of the saddest moments ever presented in literature. He wanted to give up, but he didn’t. He concentrated on one small section, relating it to humans in real life. That’s the way literature is taught where I go to school. It’s important not only because of how it makes you think, but how it makes you feel. He won some of the students back. They just had difficulty with the language, not the emotion. They didn’t even know that the emotion existed until a great teacher lead them to it. There is very little of the ivory tower mentality at my school. Indeed, on most of the academic lists I subscribe to, the focus is on touching people.

That’s why real teachers teach, I think. I feel really sorry for people like Steve:

As a reader, I’ve never cried reading a book. I’d be interested to hear about anybody else’s experience, because it doesn’t seem to be very important to me. If one reads a novel and cries, is one releasing pent up emotion from one’s own life, or responding to the fiction? If it’s the former, what has that got to do with the work (it might just as well been another)? And if it’s the latter, isn’t one indulging in fantasy and thus avoiding the Real World? Where’s the good in either?

Elkins’ concern, like everybody else with true feeling for art, is for what is “beyond the pale of thought”. Yet art, by definition, is mediation. It is not the Real World. This means a priori that it has intellectual origin and content. To deny it is like clinging to an idyllic childhood. Perhaps the infantilisation of culture is the mutant offspring of Romanticism. To resist, we need to get beyond the pale of mere feeling as well as thought.

If I had a gong sound effect, I’d use it. Art is not defined as mediation, except by Plato, who claimed to hate art because of its emotional effect! The definition is in fact, as ethereal to most people as the thing itself. That is, until you get it. When you get it, it moves you. Notice the verb. It doesn’t make you respond, it doesn’t make you indulge, it moves you. Like from one place to another. Like from one way of thinking to another. Like from one state of feeling to another. Art is the wind in the sails that moves the project of humanity forward. Call me childish, but “the pale of mere feeling” is what makes us human. To lose sight of that, to think that cold reason best exemplifies our reason for existence is to live in a cold world indeed. You can keep it, Steve. Childhood is magic, and the best teachers I know are sometimes quite childish indeed.

In my Language theory class tonight, we were working with one of Donne’s sonnets. Using cold, scientific theories to approach it from different perspectives. From the standpoint of genre, it violated expectations. The sonnet is a seduction poem. This poem was to God. Donne seducing God? Not really, the poem was more a form of prayer. From a discourse analysis point of view, according to Hymes, it was a violation of the maxims of conversation. It flouted every expectation. From a speech-act theory point of view, it violated the rules regarding AB knowledge— what point is there in telling God what he already knows? The resultant “dissection” of the poem did not in any way lessen it’s power. It strengthened it in every way, making it stand out as an incredibly magical product of language that worked, though it violated every rule. This wasn’t a literature class. This was a class on real world language, that used a literary example to show just how incredible language really is.

That’s what makes Elkin’s lament really gut-wrenching and horrific:

The piles of information smother our capacity to really feel. By imperceptible steps, art history gently drains away a painting’s sheer wordless visceral force, turning it into an occasion for intellectual debate. What was once an astonishing object, thick with the capacity to mesmerize, becomes a topic for a quiz show, or a one-liner at a party, or the object of a scholar’s myopic expertise. I am still very much interested in Bellini’s painting. But the picture no longer visits me in my sleep, or haunts my thoughts, or intrudes on my walks in the countryside. It no longer matters to my life, only to my work.

If I ever get to this point, I’d change professions. That really sucks. The more I know, the more I feel. I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about books, poems, and pictures. It has gotten more intense since I started studing them “intellectually,” and not less.

I guess I’m just weird. But if I’m weird, then so are most of my teachers. I’ve seen teachers swoop and soar through readings of poems, barely restraining tears. Art and literature are primarily emotional experiences, emotional experiences that can be enhanced by some intellectual work. If being smarter makes you feel less, then I pray I remain stupid. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop reading or learning, because even after the last five years of academic study (and twenty-plus years of independent study) I feel more and more response to art. It moves me.