On the mediation of tears

It is with some surprise I see the juxtaposition of two articles in the NYRB/NYRblog that both mention tears as a response to a mediation, as a strategically staged response. The first, “The Crying Game” by Charles Simic discusses the inclusion of tears into the repertoire of the Republican (and Democratic) convention’s already loaded arsenal of tricks. Borrowing his words from H.L. Mencken, Simic describes how reporters no longer are allowed to describe these events in quite so blunt words as Mencken once did. Simic nevertheless characterizes the current state of American politics as “unimaginably more corrupt than it ever was in the past.” So, what about the tears? Simic points out what everyone who pays the slightest bit attention to political, or even just public life in the current media age, knows: they are “carefully scripted” events. Right down to the crying delegates that cameras found, as if they had “some kind of device on their cameras able to instantly locate tearful faces in a vast crowd of delegates.” Emotions, even faked ones, equal honesty? (It is hard to conjure tears for no good reason…)

The other article, Francine Prose’s “When Art Makes Us Cry,” moves through the dense layers of considerations one is faced with if tackling the question of emotion, or lack thereof, or the inability to reach emotional states when faced with or in the same space as a piece of art or performance. Prose’s occasion for discussing the issue, is her own responses to a series of mediations of one and the same performance/exhibition by Martina Abramović: “The Artist Is Present.” Abramović sits, for hours at a time, staring at strangers from the audience who sit down at the chair in front of her. Prose notes the emotional,  near-religious reactions of the devotees of Abramović’s art when they are given the opportunity to participate. Many of them apparently cry. Prose had first missed this dimension of the performance when she herself saw it live, and was made aware of it only when she saw the performance mediated through a documentary that she watched in her home (in peace and quiet). Prose then quickly extrapolates on this to discuss a general condition of art viewing today: often with many other visitors in crammed exhibition rooms, church rooms, and chapels. Prose seems to argue that there is something not only in the experience, but in the mediation, more specifically in fine arts (at least with paintings, icons, and performances then) that makes strong emotional responses such as tears harder to evoke. Prose has no problem listing other forms that more easily draws out her tears: “‘Song Dong’s ‘Waste Not’ was one of the few works of visual art that I can recall, in recent years, moving me as deeply as an emotionally engaging book, film, play, or piece of music.” The difference notwithstanding between a tear-jerker movie pulling at more sentimental, and well-trained, strings (among recent films Spielberg’s War Horse comes to mind) and an emotionally complex and empathetic work like Song Dong’s work seems to be (judging from Prose’s own descriptions), there is something else lurking behind her muddled argument (despite her interesting and familiar anecdotal evidence). For instance, for me at least, as someone interested in media and mediated experiences, I find it is noteworthy that Benjamin’s “aura” never comes up. Instead, it is to religion that Prose turns: “Is what these art-lovers are seeking so different from what the pilgrims hoped to discover when they journeyed into the desert to distract St. Simon Stylites and St. Anthony from their meditations? Is it any wonder that so many sought a few minutes of transcendence by staring into the eyes of an artist whose sole mission, during those months, was to register their presence, to sit there, and look back?” Transcendence? The artist as a relic to, if not touch, then at least be close to? I find the now oft-made argument that, in hindsight, Benjamin was not right concerning the death of aura in an age of mechanical reproduction more convincing. Indeed it is aura, in the conventions’ hyped, super-orchestrated performances, and in the equally hyped and super-orchestrated performance by Martina Abramović, that calls to us, makes us emotionally invested; irritated, angry, in awe or infatuated. We want to be there, in close proximity with the artist (despite her null, almost subhuman expressions) and, despite Benjamin’s efforts to convince us otherwise, jammed into the dimly lit, noisy (the admonitions of the roaming guards only work for a few minutes), and unfriendly, yet amazing Sistine chapel, or among the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa discovering like every visitor before us that she is, actually, really small.

The way that Simic and Prose end their ruminations almost too neatly point to how all these available mediations (even when not truly reflected upon as in Prose’s case) have, once and for all, inaugurated a new phase in media culture (of which both politics and “high art” are part). First, Prose: “This is the moment in which we live. Alienated, unmoored, we seek our salvation, one by one, from the artist who brings us the comforting news: I see you. I weep when you weep. The mystery, and the miracle, is that you exist.” In case you can sense salvation near, just read Simic’s picture from his “neck of the woods”:

“A rusty old station wagon with wheels gone in a yard choked with weeds and other partially dismantled vehicles outside a house in need of paint and overall repair. … the gray-haired owner, who wears a ponytail and has the upper body of a former weight-lifter over a huge belly … [has] a bad-tempered black and white mutt, whose main purpose seems to be to guard the man’s junk, keep his ROMNEY Believe in America sign company, and bark at nosy people like me who slow down to take a closer look and make sure their eyes are not deceiving them.”

The two Americas that these two pieces in their own ways represent, are not just red and blue, east/west and “fly-over states.” The differences between audience members crying when faced with Abramović and the audience members weeping in front of Paul Ryan seem as vast as the discrepancies between the two concurrent snapshots of our time that Prose and Simic offer. Prose’s salvation through art and Simic’s backyard, redneck, get-your-hands-off-me Republican could not be further apart, and simply do not live in the same cultures.

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