#85: Art tears
Reminder that next week is my monthly advice/Q&A column, Dear Baby. Submit your questions via written word here or via voice (!) at 802-404-BABY. I’ve gotten a handful of voicemails already and (appropriately) have cried thrice.
The most unexpected tears I shed last year were on the floor of a cabin in upstate New York, standing in a circle with five friends. We’d taken mushrooms that morning, but our trips were mostly over when my friend Michelle, who is a movement teacher, offered to lead us in a group stretch. We settled on the wood floor, speckled with warm shapes of sun, and she turned on a playlist of atmospheric music. She guided us through a slow routine. At first the movements felt mostly like yoga, but about halfway through, something changed. First our friend John came in from the cold and sat in a nearby chair, transfixed by our synchronized movements. Then Nina Simone’s 11-minute cover of “Isn’t It a Pity” came on over the speakers and Michelle told us to use the entire length of the song to move from the floor to a standing position, stretching in whichever way we chose. Somewhere in the middle, John, who was going through a breakup, started to cry, and we let him. When the song finished Michelle asked all of us to stand in a circle and look at one another in silence, and suddenly everyone’s eyes were pooling with water. Initially this gave way to incredulous laughter—why were we crying???—and then we settled back into silence and the tears started falling.
At this point the rest of the group, who’d gone to town, walked back into the cabin and trip-toed confusedly around our weeping circle. This image still makes me laugh. It’s hard to express how unlikely this scenario was. This particular group of friends is not especially sappy or sentimental. Moreso kooky, fun, always game for a martini. If someone had told me I would cry that weekend I would have dismissed the idea out of hand. But right then, looking at each other quietly, resisting the urge to make a face or a joke, I felt present on a level I never thought to want. Afterward we hugged and laughed and blamed the song, or John’s reaction to the song, but knew that wasn’t all it was.
In 2010, the artist Marina Abramović performed The Artist is Present at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Said to be “a milestone in the field of performance art,” “she sat silent and still, ‘like a mountain,’ and stared into the eyes of anyone who was brave enough to engage with her.” The central atrium of MOMA was empty apart from the table, two chairs, and Abramović in a red gown. You could sit there as long as you liked (or could bear it). She did this for nearly eight hours a day for three months, soliciting a wide variety of reactions that were later captured in a book called Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramović by photographer Marco Anelli. So many people cried during the experience that The Wall Street Journal dubbed her “the artist who makes people cry.” The images of people crying during the experience were collected by Katie Notopoulos into a viral Tumblr account called Marina Abramović made me cry dot tumblr dot com.
In the HBO documentary about the exhibit, Abramović described her experience as “holy”—as a feeling of borderlessness between her body and its environment. “She makes no distinction between life and art,” writes Emily Hornsby in an essay about the exhibition. “[F]or her, the present moment is both. The person sitting opposite Abramović is made part of the art—is, in fact, the object of the art. Rather than the individual gazing at the artist’s work, the artist flips the dynamic on its head and gazes at the individual as the masterpiece. … Abramovic absorbs the audience’s gaze, laden with anxiety, and gazes back with neither judgment nor expectations, asking nothing in return.” The experience, described by Abramović as an “energy exchange,” offered “unconditional love.”
Do you think you’d cry? I literally cried looking through the images of people crying. I’ve never thought of myself as an easy crier, but I’ve found myself moved to tears more and more lately. Partially I blame my cat. Ever since he was diagnosed with a terminal condition last June and my boyfriend and I began providing palliative care, I’ve been crying more. Obviously some of this has concerned my cat directly, but a lot of it hasn’t, as if the process of awaiting his death has had the effect of softening me generally. The delicacy of it all—how moments of transcendence commingle with notions of transience—is feeling especially close to the surface. This song, this Instagram post, this movie, this protest, this episode, this vlog, this article, the New York City marathon, the sight of kids walking across the street holding hands, a DM, a touching exchange between strangers, anyone in my life crying. With the exception of commercials cynically engineered to produce pathos (I refuse to cry about Cheerios, Nike sneakers, or Facebook Portal), there is no vehicle too diminutive or moment too small to summon that familiar prickle behind my nose.
I call them “art tears.” They can refer to tears shed specifically over art, but I think of them more so as tears shed when life itself is elevated to the plane of art. That is: worth carefully observing and appreciating in its tiniest details; beautiful for the care that goes into it; valuable in and of itself. Obviously life is always these things, but mostly we forget. And it can be startling or satisfying to be reminded of this in unsuspecting moments. Oftentimes I feel moved by the very fact of my forgetting, because how could I? (Of course I could, and will again.) I was talking to my friend Mallory about art tears and she told me the first time she cried at a movie was when she saw Deep Impact, age 12. “I was so amazed by my own devastation,” she said, laughing. “I was like marveling at my hands shaking in the backseat of the car on the way home.” (I felt the same way sobbing through Pearl Harbor, age 13.)
Looking into the eyes of my friends in the cabin, I was surprised too. Not just by how intense it felt to pierce the veil between us, but that the veil had been there at all. Art tears feel good. They can also be embarrassing, in that they’re revealing. But their emotional impact registers almost entirely positive to me, even when their source is devastating, like say, the realization that life ends, that time with our loved ones is precious and running out, that we so often fail to cherish it. There is something rapturous in facing these facts because we spend so much energy avoiding them (or when we’re 13, maybe we’ve never thought of them before). In a BBC radio hour about the cultural history of weeping, a guest describes tears as “the unsayable coming out.” This might be the most important aspects of tears: their involuntary nature, their ability to express what words can’t.
Humans are the only animals that cry, and the reason why remains a topic of speculation. The popular theory that tears produce pain-relieving chemicals has sadly been debunked (as has the 17th century theory that tears are the condensation produced by a heated-up heart). Researchers have yet to even prove in studies that crying makes you feel better. The most convincing and prevailing theories concern crying’s sociological purpose, which is, of course, to alert other people that we need help. Put another way: to express helplessness or vulnerability. Emotional tears are chemically different from chopping-onion tears, and one hypothesis is that their higher protein content “makes emotional tears more viscous, so they stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly, making them more likely to be seen by others.”
Helplessness is an undeniably low feeling, but I wonder if there’s relief in accepting it from time to time. In temporarily unburdening ourselves of the delusion that we’re in control of everything, or that death isn’t certain. Like most forms of pain, there’s an element of release to experiencing it defined by its opposition: the fear of it. When helplessness arrives, there’s no more avoiding it. You’re free.
I think art tears occur on this same emotional register. Maybe they don’t transmit helplessness, but they can deliver us from our own neuroticism. Like Abramović’s steady gaze transmitting the simple fact of one’s lovability, art tears can express whatever easy truths lie beyond the limits of our scrambling little minds.
My favorite article I read this week was “How a Gray Painting Can Break Your Heart,” by Jason Farago for The New York Times about the artist Jasper Johns. A genuinely unique reading experience best viewed on the actual NYTimes site on your computer. This week’s 15 things also included a Google Maps tip, some comforting writing advice, and an important update on a cruise ship saga. The rec of the week was prized kitchen utensils, inspired by two of mine. Really fun comments to look through!
Also, I made a Maybe Baby glossary and FAQ that includes things like “15 things,” “rec of the week,” and “how do I unsubscribe?” (I’m asked that question at least once a week as a direct reply to my emails, lol.) Going forward you can find this page in the header of every newsletter.
And lastly, my podcast on Tuesday will be, if you can believe it, A VLOG. I can’t even believe it actually.
Okay that’s all. Thanks so much for reading!