These notes are longer than usual (i.e. don't expect me to write 2,000 words of notes each week - and after this you may think less is more). I want to try and pull the different elements discussed lat night together online here and to suggest further reading, listening, and viewing for anyone interested in exploring these ideas further.
For notes and links on Descartes' view of the mind and on Frank Jackson's thought experiment 'What Mary Knew' and on qualia see last week's notes. We began by reviewing this topic. Below is a short video that illustrates and discusses the Knowledge Argument, Frank Jackson's thought experiment which he originally intended to undermine physicalism and support dualism (he's since changed his mind on that, but the thought experiment raises interesting questions about the 'feely' aspect of our conscious existence, and how mysterious and as yet inexplicable that is). In the video the philosopher John Searle emphasizes the importance of the question raised:
'The answer to this question ‘What is consciousness?’ is the answer to the question ‘What sort of beings are we?’ And it’s the different definitions of ourselves that’s at stake when we try to get a theory of consciousness.’'
The qualitative experience that is essential to consciousness lies right at the heart of our experience of the visual arts - both in terms of the artist's experience, the role art has in our own self-definition, and that of the viewer (indeed, one theory of the nature of art, R.G. Collingwood's, which I mentioned in passing, suggests that the process of making art is a process of grappling with an inchoate notion of our own experience - art brings into sharper focus the particularity of the artist's feelings, expresses these, and thereby allows the viewer to experience a similarly precise and individualised emotion - more on R.G. Collingwood's theory of art.)
The new topics for this week were the related ones of Crying and Sentimentality:
On Crying and the Meaning of Tears
Crying is a physical visible emotional activity that is largely involuntary (though can be resisted to some degree) and as a result can be a mark of sincerity (though, of course, some people can will themselves to cry - there are some fascinating advice pages on the Internet such as this one that pass on actors' tips on how to cry at will - typically drawing on the actor's actual emotion and memories rather than using artificial means such as onions).
In art depicted tears can provide evoke a direct and even visceral response. In Picasso's Weeping Woman, for example, the depicted tears communicate instantly the intensity of a mother's grief at the loss of her child, despite the highly sylised and abstract nature of the depiction. There is undoubtedly a contagious element that encourages empathy triggered by seeing another person crying or even an unrealistic depiction of someone crying.
Of course not all crying is indicative of grief or distress: there can be tears of joy, laughter, embarrasment, humiliation, rage, and much more. From the outside, the context of the crying determines how we interpret the emotion. Perhaps this is true from the inside too: one - somewhat crude - theory of emotion, the so-called James-Lange theory, suggests that we don't cry because we're sad, but unexpectedly, we're sad because we cry: we have a physiological reaction due to some aspect of our environment, and the emotion is the secondary interpretation and feeling of that physiological change - we feel something and then search around for an explanation of that feeling and the resultant emotion that we feel is not governed by how the original physiological change feels to us, but rather by how we interpret that in context.
The issue of what crying is has been little discussed by philosophers, though the philosophy of the emotions has always been important in moral philosophy since the Ancient Greeks (even for the Stoics who were for the most part keen to control emotions as irrational and essentially useless responses to reality that interfered with doing the right thing).
Further Reading/Listening on Crying
Read this fascinating discussion of tears and their meanings by Thomas Dixon (in the online Aeon Magazine). He has also made a 45 minute radio programme 'Margaret are you grieving? A cultural history of weeping' which is focused on crying and the arts. Definitely worth listening to. (You might also be interested in this History of the Emotions blog that he contributes to)
There is also a short audio clip about the nature of crying here (frustratingly the Radio 4 programme from which it was exerpted is no longer available).
The art historian and theorist James Elkins has written a book about people being moved to tears in front of paintings Pictures and Tears: a history of people who have cried in front of paintings. The implication is that the tears are symtoms of an intensity and sincerity of emotional reaction, a kind of reaction that is not encouraged by art historical study. You can read his Chapter 5 on his reaction to the beautiful Bellini St Francis of Assisi that is in the Frick collection in New York. He reproduces the picture here on his website.
Philosophers are rarely depicted as crying. There is one exception though. The philosopher Heraclitus is sometimes called 'the crying philosopher'(because he couldn't step in the same river twice?): in this Renaissance painting by Bramante he is shown alongside the laughing philosopher Democritus:
There are contexts in which crying is socially inappopriate and can betray a degree of sentimentality. Crying typically reveals strong emotions (perhaps triggered by something deep in an individual's psyche, personal associations, unresolved conflicts, or hurt) - when these seem indulgent and to some degree disproportionate we may label the individual as guilty of sentimentality. But what is sentimentality?
Sentimentality can mean inappropriate emotion, in the sense of an excess of sentiment that is overblown, or of the wrong kind given the trigger event or context. The word is used almost exclusively in a pejorative way now, though historically 'sentimental' was a word that described one who relied on emotions, and 'sentimental value' is a concept that does not have negative connotations. To label a person or attitude as guilty of sentimentality though is to draw attention to a shortcoming, a failure. It is a judgement - perhaps a moral judgement and depends upon the thought that some emotions are appropriate to a context and others not (and as such must be to some degree culturally or even subculturally relative since cultures differ considerably in expectations about emotional expression and response). The person who is absolutely overwhelmed with emotion at the cuteness of a kitten, or who idealises a lover to the point of nausea is guilty of sentimentality. Someone prone to sentimentality has inappropriate and often gushing responses to the world, and typically uses this as a strategy of avoidance, a way of refusing to confront unpleasant truths (such as that the kitten has worms, or the lover's bad breath).
Sentimentality is a fault, not a virtue since it involves avoiding unpleasant truths (and in this respect links to kitsch). It is a common psychological block to clarity of thought that often involves wishful thinking in that the sentimental person is unwilling to confront facts, but rather is much happier in a soft cuddly world of their own imagination. Sentimentality can even involve blindness to the way things really are. It can be a kind of magical thinking that involves reacting to the way the individual would like the world to be rather than to the way that it is. Oscar Wilde famously declared a sentimental person one ‘who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.' In James Joyce's Ulysses has Stephen Dedalus echo this when he sends a telegram that reads 'The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.' Sentimentality is somehow unearned, or unpayed for - a kind of indulgence in feeling that doesn't fit the situation.
For example, the mother of a child who has been caught bullying another child may simply refuse to believe that her son could be a bully. In her eyes he remains this sweet innocent child who could never harm anyone else, and she experiences nothing but warm and comforting feelings in his presence. How could he possibly be the culprit? There must be some mistake. This is a sentimental reaction, a way of avoiding the unpalatable truth that her son is a bully. It is a kind of dishonesty, or at least self-deception (which may be largely unconscious and is considerably easier to spot in others than in oneself).
Sentimentality and Art
In art the accusation of an artist's sentimentality usually involves a judgement of the implied attitude of the artist towards his or her subject matter - an endorsement of a kind of unearned emotion rather than a distance from the depiction of that emotion. The artist invites us to share this attitude and our revulsion, or feelings of discomfort amount to a critical judgment about taking this stance to this subject matter. It is possible to depict or explore sentimentality without endorsing it or inviting a sentimental attitude to a work.
A viewer's reactions to art can be sentimental in a pejorative sense even if the artist has not displayed sentimentality in the sense just outlined. The viewer who responds to a kitsch Jeff Koons puppy with tears welling up at the cuteness of the depicted animal would be guilty of this and certainly of misunderstanding the nature of the object as work of art which has an ironic stance on sentimentality and is far from an endorsement of it (in complete contrast with Picasso's implied stance toward the woman's grief in Weeping Woman, 1937).
Further Reading on Sentimentality
There is an interesting philosophical paper online about sentimentality and art by Nado Gatalo here that touches on a number of these issues. You might also be interested in Theodore Dalrymple's (irritating) polemic on the alleged toxic effects of sentimentality on British life which furnishes several interesting examples.
In the gallery
We looked at several paintings from the early 1960s by Roy Lichtenstein in the current Tate Modern exhibition.
These are among the best known of Lichtenstein's painting, and are icons of Pop Art. They were made by selecting frames from comics that implied a story, in many cases simplifying the image. Perfectly coiffeured idealized women in apparent emotional turmoil about their relationship stand in contrast with with macho men firing rockets or otherwise being strong and active. The emotions of the comic book women for the most part seem sentimental, and to some degree indulgent 'I don't care! I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!' The comics seem to endorse a sentimental and stereotyped view of romantic passion and women's dependence on their men for happiness and fulfilment - it is today hard not to read Lichtenstein's stance on these women and their turbulent emotions as ironic, cool, and antithetical. Surely he saw the comic book depictions as sentimental. But...
Watch this fascinating short video from a Tate exhibition of Lichtenstein's work in 1968 - some of the images we disucssed were on show there. Towards the end of the video Lichtenstein talks about how he liked the idealized images of women he found in comics. There is no hint of an ironic highlighting of a sentimentality about romantic love and women whose happiness always seems to depend on their man's attitude to them. Perhaps in reality Lichtenstein was not so critical of the comic-book view of women. In 1972 in the televison series Ways of Seeing and the book that came out of that John Berger wrote as if women had a fundamentally different way of existing in the world from men:
'Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight'
This was his take, roughly, on how women had been depicted in art and advertisements, but also on this (socially constructed) male gaze generally...The exagerated role contrasts in Lichtenstein's depictions were, perhaps, typical of his time...and he was perhaps holding a mirror up to it rather than presenting a critical angle.