Emotional Reactions to Art

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The Pietà by Michelangelo
The Pietà by Michelangelo

Inside the Sistine Chapel at Vatican City, I craned my neck upward to look at Michelangelo’s frescoes. It was hard to discern the imagery on the ceiling. There wasn’t enough time to breathe into it. Once we stepped forward we could not turn back, literally. The authorities didn’t want tourists mulling about the chapel. As a crowd, we had to keep moving forward.

I expected a similar experience inside St. Peter’s Basilica. I thought I’d see tourists pointing and talking loudly. But as I stepped through the building’s extravagant doors, everyone was quiet and respectful. It was a darker room, and my eyes had problems adjusting to the change in light.

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Then I noticed a sculpture to my immediate right.

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It was a woman carved in marble. She was sitting — or maybe kneeling. Light bounced off the surface of her dress. Draped over her lap was an exhausted man. His head tilted, nestled in the crook of the woman’s arm. She held him tenderly. His legs dangled off her lap. His body looked real, as did the compassion on the woman’s face.

The sculpture was Michelangelo’s Piet√† , but it didn’t matter who created it. My reaction was so strong, so quick, it defied logic.

I cried.

I tried to wipe away tears as quickly as they formed. It was the first time I ever had such a pure reaction to a work of art. There was no manipulation involved, no thought process, no conjuring. I struggled to regain my composure, and hoped no one else noticed.

James Elkins, an art historian, wrote about strong emotional reactions in his book, “Pictures and Tears.” He notes how, in the 20th century, our reactions to art are cool, unemotional. Indeed, surrendering to your feelings can give the impression you are uninformed, uncultured. It means you are too busy reacting to the art to see the little artist behind the curtain pulling the strings. You are no longer the expert. You are now an audience member, a spectator.

Nowadays, everyone wants to be an expert. I could pontificate on Michelangelo’s Piet√†, and you might be impressed with my knowledge. Many writers have noted Mary’s youthful expression or the marks on Christ’s hands and feet. That information is interesting, but it’s the emotional reaction that makes art memorable.

There are different levels of crying at art. There is a cry of recognition, the sense you have found a piece of yourself you never knew existed. The Piet√† opened a door into my interior life. I witnessed the compassion in Mary’s face and matched it. I experienced myself differently. It changed me.

There’s another kind of crying. It is a reflex. If you write the story correctly, make the structure airtight and throw in a dying dog, you can get the audience to cry.

I’m half-joking, but it is true. Hit a knee in the right spot, the leg kicks.

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One night, after a performance of one of my plays, the director turned to me and exclaimed, “The audience felt something.” It was exciting. After all, the emotional release is the gold ring. Weeping or outrage is the sign you’ve won.

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But I couldn’t help but think there’s something more, a place beyond emotion. After feelings, there are reminders. You can be as compassionate as Mary in the Piet√†. And if you have never experienced yourself in that way, art can open the door for you to remember.

The last time theater moved me was in the early ’00s. It came as a surprise. A friend took me to Lincoln Center to see Contact. The show, developed by Susan Stroman and John Weidman, featured three short dance pieces. The theme of each piece was human connection and romance.

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"Contact," a musical dance play by Susan Stroman and John Weidman.
Contact, a musical dance play by Susan Stroman and John Weidman.

Although all three pieces were exhilarating, it was the second piece that struck me. Set in an Italian restaurant, the story centered on an abusive husband and wife. Every time the husband stepped away, the wife went into fantasy sequences where she longed to escape from her husband. Rather than focusing on the terror of the abuse, they concentrated on her longing for human connection. Her body language as she danced, her desperation to reach people around her, all of them confirmed her isolation and desire for contact.

As the scene ended, I wiped away tears. In that moment, her loneliness was also mine. I knew that feeling intimately. I have never forgotten that moment, as I can also easily remember crying in front of the Pietà. But I can easily forget the feeling of crying at breakup songs or sappy movies. When you experience yourself differently, it changes your life.

Everyone has the desire to share, not only in big ideas, but big emotions. They want to remember they are more than the sum of their daily lives. It’s not sharing in a communal experience that brings people together; it is the sharing in universal emotions such as compassion, hope, love or loneliness.

Art can have different intentions. It can inform, educate or entertain. But if I want information, I can turn surf the net on my smart phone. If I want education, I can watch a documentary on my satellite TV. If I want entertainment, I can go to YouTube.

There are few places where people can transcend their identities and experience themselves differently. Some people look for it in church; others find it in art.

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