Why is it that some forms of art can make us get all verklempt and others are less likely to do so? According to art expert and author Philip Hook, paintings and sculptures are less likely to cause someone to weep than music, film, or books. Hook theorizes that this may be because these art forms are more dynamic than static visual arts and thus are more powerful in touching our emotions. That said, many paintings and other visual artworks do cause people to cry. According to Hook, “Spectators of works by Mark Rothko, the American Abstract Expressionist, are often moved to tears.” Apparently, there are on-staff counselors at the Rothko Chapel in Texas, which is exclusively decorated with large abstract Rothko paintings, to provide support to art lovers who become overwhelmed with emotion in the chapel. Why would Rothko’s work stimulate tears more often than the work of some other painters? Hook believes that “There is something about the large expanses of colour which [Rothko] deploys with such subtlety that puts the viewer in touch with the absolute.” Is it a sense of tapping into something unconscious, spiritual, profound, and sensory when viewing a Rothko that causes people to start crying?
Hook notes that Vincent van Gogh’s works are also among those most likely to make someone tear up. This may be for different reasons than with Rothko’s paintings: Most art lovers are aware of the poverty, emotional suffering, mental illness, and lack of success van Gogh experienced during his life (as well as his early death by suicide). Thus, people looking at van Gogh’s paintings may consciously or unconsciously project poignant and even tragic meanings onto them.
Many viewers cried when visiting Marina Abramović’s performance piece “The Artist Is Present,” in which Abramović silently stared at each stranger who sat in front of her. (In fact, I cried watching the short video about “The Artist Is Present” to which I have linked here.) Participants in this piece have said that the experience felt deeply intimate, even religious. Perhaps one reason that viewers reacted in this way is that in our day-to-day lives, we typically have very few opportunities to make sustained and sanctioned eye contact with another person, particularly a stranger. Many of the ways in which we interact with others–and with ourselves–are superficial and avoidant. Our connections are mediated by technology, and we often stay busy or distracted in ways that prevent us from sitting with ourselves. As an exercise during my psychology graduate program, we were paired with a fellow student and had to sit quietly while making unbroken eye contact for 15 minutes. It was very challenging not to look away and indeed felt extremely intimate and moving.
The reasons for art triggering tears are varied, as are the types of reactions people have. In some cases, people experience more extreme emotional and physical reactions to art than just crying. Stendhal syndrome, named for 19th-century French author Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal), is a psychosomatic disorder with the symptoms of rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, fainting, and sometimes hallucinations that occurs when a person has an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art. In other words, people may become overcome and overwhelmed by an artwork. Stendhal had these reactions when visiting the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where several iconic Renaissance artists and scientists, such as Michelangelo and Galileo, are buried and the walls are adorned by Giotto frescoes. Stendhal wrote:
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves.” Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Although Stendhal syndrome is not considered an actual psychiatric disorder, there is scientific evidence that the same cerebral areas involved in emotional reactions are activated during the exposure to artworks. I feel that those cerebral areas must be particularly sensitive for me, as I find myself crying pretty often when reading a moving novel, watching an emotional TV or movie scene, watching amazing dancers, and even at some commercials. That said, I have never fainted in front of a painting or had heart palpitations at the theater.
Last month, I saw the comic book-based Afrofuturist film Black Panther, which got me to thinking about how much representation matters: Seeing positive images of people who share your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. makes a difference in how you feel about yourself and see the world. Black Panther, a black superhero movie, got raves from viewers and critics alike for its exciting action, beautiful costumes and scenery, and fine acting, but more importantly, it broke new ground in Hollywood by featuring a black superhero. Black Panther tells the story of the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.
The emotional responses many black viewers had to the film show how powerful and necessary it is to put black heroes front and center. Since the 1960s, researchers of television and film have noted that what is shown–or not shown–in mainstream media shapes how we see the world and what we believe to be “normal.” The absence or underrepresentation of certain groups, such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos results in what media scholars call “symbolic annihilation.” George Gerbner coined this term in the 1970s to explain how the underrepresentation of certain groups in mainstream media perpetuates social inequality and undermines the legitimacy of their identities. Misrepresentation, or stereotyping, is also a sadly frequent and prevalent phenomenon in the mainstream media. Lack of representation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation skew viewers’ understanding of the world, perpetuate racism and other -isms, and can damage the self-esteem of those who are not depicted or depicted poorly.
Previous filmmakers, with few exceptions (such as Stephen Norrington, who directed Blade, with the tituar character played by Wesley Snipes), made the black superhero a secondary character alongside white ones (such as Storm in the X-Men movies and War Machine in the Iron Man series). In contrast, Black Panther‘s director, Ryan Coogler, brought to life the story of T’Challa, a modern black superhero who is respectable, imaginative, powerful. According to Coogler, “I think the question that I’m trying to ask and answer in Black Panther is, ‘What does it truly mean to be African?'” This is a question that has long gone unexplored in mainstream film.
I’m not even a fan of comic books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther, both because it was a really well-done movie, but also because I recognized the cultural power and importance of the film. Hearing the voices of black directors, writers, and actors and seeing them take a central role in Hollywood is long overdue, and I hope there will be more and more movies like Black Panther being made. I also hope to see growing (positive) representation of other groups whose voices have been absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented for too long.
Weapons have been on my mind lately. That may seem strange to people who know me, as I am not a weapons fanatic. I’ve never had any particular interest in guns, hunting, warfare, knives, swords, or other related subjects. I associate weapons with violence, and consider myself a pacifist; yet, as a psychologist, I am aware that violence (and thus, weaponry) is a part of human nature. I don’t pretend to believe that I don’t have some violent impulses–I just choose not to act on and cultivate them.
One of the triggers for my thoughts about violence and weaponry is the most recent school shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida (and, how horrible is it that I must define it as “the most recent” one!?). I have been pondering some questions: To what degree is violence an adaptive instinct? To what degree is it a dangerous aspect of human nature to be controlled and regulated? When is violence useful, and when is it destructive? There is not always a clear answer to these questions. And, thinking in particular about school shootings and other horrific acts of violence perpetrated against innocent victims, I have been pondering the role of weapons in our world. Although the main focus of this post is not political or ideological, I will clearly state that my view is that weapons, like any tool that human beings have created that may cause harm, need to be regulated. I believe that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the common good–it’s not an either/or but a both/and. All this thinking about violence and weaponry has also got me thinking more about the psychological aspects of weapons. What impact do weapons have on how we think, feel, and behave? What do weapons symbolize to us?
I was reading an interesting article today about the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon discovered in the late 1960s by researchers Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage. They determined that the mere presence of a weapon stimulates more aggressive behavior. Additional studies on this phenomenon confirmed that it was true; for example, drivers who have a gun in their car are more likely to drive aggressively than those without one in the vehicle, and the sight of weapons increases aggression in both angry and non-angry individuals. This research obviously has some implications for individual and group behavior in the United States, where weapons, particularly guns, are plentiful.
Reading about this research also led to thoughts about what weapons symbolize. One thing that seems clear from all the recent media coverage around gun control and gun rights is that for many people, guns represent safety, individual autonomy, and control over the environment. According to Freudian psychology, guns symbolize the penis and male sexual drive. Carl Jung considered symbolism to be more contextual, rather than simply related to one’s individual psychology, and looked at collective or “universal” meanings, stating that all of humanity shares “a collective unconscious.” I don’t share this belief, as different cultures may attribute different meanings to symbols. Jung, although interested in many cultures, had a white, male, Euro-centric bias that is not universal. However, there is truth to the idea that a group of people who have grown up in a particular culture will be shaped by that culture’s values, beliefs, ideas, and imagery. Looking at guns (and weapons in general) from a Jungian perspective, one can say that they represent certain personality types, characters, or “archetypes,” such as the hero, the savior, the victor. The United States certainly embraces these archetypes as part of our collective identity.
Another reason that these ideas have been in my thoughts lately is that I have begun learning how to use a sword in belly dance. I have been dancing for a few years and recently started incorporating a sword into my dance repertoire. As I began dancing with a blade, I became curious to know more about the history of the use of swords in dance and also what unconscious meanings impact an audience watching dancers brandishing sabers. I found a fascinating history of “Oriental dance,” or belly dance, by a Mexican journalist, belly dancer, and dance teacher named Giselle Rodríguez Sánchez (the site is in Spanish with English translation available), which includes information about the use of swords. She states that while the widespread use of swords in belly dance is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are depictions of dancers using swords dating to the 1800s. For example, a work by the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled “Sabre Dance in a Café,” depicts a female dancer holding one scimitar and balancing another on her head. Rodríguez Sánchez goes on to cite a passage in the book Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton that describes an Israeli dancer named Rahlo Jammele, who performed with a sword at the Moorish Palace at the Chicago international exhibition of 1893. According to the book, Jammele was the inspiration for the painting by Gérôme. Another painting of a sword dancer from the Orientalist period is “Sword Dancer,” by Austrian artist Rudolf Ernst.
Orientalism is fascinating but also problematic, in that much of the imagery and writing on “the East” comes from a Western perspective that romanticizes and stereotypes various cultures in ways that support prejudices and cast people of these cultures as “other.” Sadly, this tendency to “other-ise” Eastern cultures, while not as overt and stereotypical as in the 19th century, continues today. This raises questions about whether Western cultures embracing, adopting, and adapting traditional dance forms and costuming from the Middle East, Africa, India, and other cultures is cultural appropriation. As a belly dancer myself (who is a white woman born in the United States), I struggle with these questions at times. I love belly dance, particularly American Tribal Style (ATS) dance, a style that was created in San Francisco in the 1980s as a fusion of many traditions from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Spain, Africa, and India and strongly influenced by Sicilian-American dancer Jamila Salimpour, who was born in New York and lived in San Francisco. Salimpour, who was influenced by her father’s memories of living in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia while he was in the Sicilian navy, was largely responsible for making belly dance popular in the United States in the 1970s and beyond. She also codified and named many traditional steps and movements, allowing belly dance to be taught as an art form. I often feel there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and I hope that I appropriately demonstrate my respect for the cultures that influence my dance, but I recognize that there are widely varying perspectives on this.
All that being said, what images and feelings do the use of blades in belly dance evoke? One could argue that incorporating a sword, a symbol of masculinity (the penis, battle, aggression) presents either a merging of or a conflict between (depending on one’s perspective) masculine and feminine energies. One must also recognize that belly dance, with or without the use of swords, is often associated with sensuality (relating to or consisting of the gratification of the senses, often used in a sexual context but also referring to pleasure derived from various senses in a non-sexual context). I have sometimes wondered if subconsciously, the use of a saber by a belly dancer conjures up images of overt sexuality–a woman (as the majority of belly dancers are women) manipulating a phallus. Although the majority of the belly dancers I know, including myself, embrace sensuality (including both non-sexual and sexual elements) in dance, most of us don’t intend our performances to be overtly sexual. We are typically not aiming to simulate sexual acts or invite male audience members to see us as purely sexual objects. (These issues become further complicated by the acknowledgement that gender is non-binary, a concept that is just beginning to gain some acceptance in American culture, but that is a larger discussion for another time.)
Belly dancers using swords may also be seen as powerful and heroic women–female warriors who have strength and bravery. Another association may be danger: There is a long history of women, particularly sensual or seductive women, being seen as femme fatales, sirens, witches, and enchantresses who may destroy or seduce men. In fact, this association has tragically led to many laws and customs that support the demonization of and criminalization of women. For instance, in some cultures, women who have sex outside of marriage, even in cases of rape, are punished (sometimes by death), whereas the men involved in these acts may not be punished.
Belly dance is not the only form of dance to incorporate swords. There is a long tradition of the use of sabers in dance, typically by men as solo dancers or in groups in mock battle. These dances have been a part of the history of numerous cultures around the world. However, I will not get into detail on these other forms of dance in this post.
To sum up, I have had a lot of deep and complicated thoughts about violence, weapons, dance, and culture running through my mind lately. Dance (and recently, learning how to use a blade in my dance) has been a healing practice for me that helps me deal with the stresses of my job and the anxieties of living in an often violent and unfair world. I try to bring reverence and respect for the cultures that form the foundation of the dance forms I enjoy, as well as for my teachers and fellow dancers (including those who went before me and with whom I have not personally studied, such as Jamila Salimpour and many others). I try to examine my own prejudices and associations around dance and the cultures from which I am borrowing. I also strive to examine my views on violence and my own violent impulses. Mostly, I aim to continue to learn and grow as both a dancer and a person as I ponder these questions.