Earlier this year creative scholarship came under fire when Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, confronted the university's celebrated Afro-American Studies professor, Cornel West, challenging the acceptability of his rap CD as a piece of scholarly activity. The senior professor, insulted by this challenge, threatened to leave for Princeton, taking other members of the department along with him. Harvard's president backed down.
James Elkins, a professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is another whose academic output has been questioned. The first thing other art historians will say when you mention his name is that he 'publishes mighty frequently', with a distinct air of distrust in their voice. Yet publishing texts has always been one measure of scholarly accomplishment. So why all this suspicion surrounding Elkins? Well, it is the nature of his books and the questions he asks. This is not to say he doesn't possess the discipline and breadth of knowledge that a PhD with honours from the University of Chicago suggests; it is just that he thinks more like an artist than an academic.
Take, for example, his publication How to Use Your Eyes (2000). Part science, part philosophy and part folk wisdom, the book is divided into two sections: Things Made by Man and Things Made by Nature. In a few thousand words or less and with plenty of illustrations, diagrams and pictures Elkins proceeds to tell us how to look at a culvert, the periodic table, mandalas and 14 more commonplace and unusual man-made things. Mirages, a crystal, a moth's wing, a fingerprint, sunsets and twigs are a few examples of things made by nature that he encourages us to see. In the book's preface he asks, 'So what does this all add up to? What is the common thread that binds sunsets to fingerprints, or culverts to Chinese script?' His answer is that 'They are all hypnotic. Each has the power to hold my attention utterly captive simply by the fact it exists.'
Elkins explores the intuitive questions that surround visual culture. Although he is acutely aware of the historical and philosophical traditions that govern the way art and aesthetics are evaluated within the academy, he refuses to turn a blind eye to his instinctual, visceral and impulsive yearnings that also frame our visual world. In his most recent book Pictures & Tears (2001) he explores a question that seems so obvious and appropriate within the rubric of understanding our human condition, yet so unsophisticated and soft within the ivory tower. As a matter of fact, a colleague told him that if he proceeded to publish this book, the gates of Harvard would be forever closed to him. So what is Elkins exploring in Pictures & Tears that is so un-scholarly?
To start with, the book's underlying theme is the same one with which he challenged us in How to Use Our Eyes - an investigation into our lack of visual intensity. More specifically, though, Pictures & Tears is simply a historical account of people who have cried in front of paintings.
Elkins opens his book with the following questions: 'Are pictures really nothing more than spots of beauty on the wall, or (in the case of people in my line of work) index cards for intellectual debate?' 'What does it mean to say you love paintings (and even spend your life living among them, as professionals do) and still feel so little?' 'If paintings are so important - worth so much, reproduced, cherished, and visited so often - then isn't it troubling that we can hardly make emotional contact with them?'
He begins his research by spending time at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Here he spent hours looking at the paintings and paging through the visitors' books that have been kept since the chapel's dedication in 1972. He discovered comments that reflected the deep emotional impact the works had made on many of the viewers - comments such as 'A religious experience that moves me to tears' and 'This makes me fall.' True to his motive, encouraging people to look long and hard at their visual surroundings, Elkins recounts his own sustained experience with Rothko's art by saying, 'For a moment, the hopelessness of it really came home, and I felt what I took to be Rothko's impending sense of despair. I began to feel dizzy. I felt like stumbling backward, and after a few minutes I did.'
He goes on to explain that tears are unexplainable, an 'irredeemable subject'. He addresses the Stendhal Syndrome, a medical affliction that psychiatrist Graziella Magherini identified to account for the many numbers of people who get physically ill when viewing art works in Florence. Throughout the book Elkins gives myriad examples of people being moved to tears in front of art works. Equally compeling is the appendix, where Elkins includes 32 letters of the 400 he received in the course of writing Pictures & Tears. His favourite, from a woman named Robin Parks, tells how she cried before a Gauguin painting because of a transparent pink dress depicted in it. She also cried in front of The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre. Explaining why, Ms Parks said, 'She had no arms, but she was so tall.'
In the end it seems that ordinary people can and do have emotional, even tearful, episodes in front of art works. It appears that it is only the art professionals, the curators and the historians who allow their visceral response to art to be stymied. Thus the book extends a critical jab at the unfeeling, detached, and perhaps even inadequate academy. Regardless of the motives and political positioning that clot the imagination in the academic tradition, Elkins is forging new creative ways of thinking about our visual world. We should be applauding, not distrusting, the academics who ask the inventive questions.
First published in Issue 66