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Feel Free: On the Difference Between Art and Sentimentality

In the afterword written for the 2014 reissue of Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson’s 2007 book about Celine Dion and bad taste, Wilson acknowledges the dated nature of the book’s premise. He observes that “even as” he was writing the book seven years ago, “the particular strain of taste anxiety it outlined was withering away.” Today, as we all know, taste is a polyamorous affair, guilty pleasures have been declared innocent, and we are free to love whatever stirs us. Yet however proudly we shuffle Katy Perry with Killer Mike, Janelle Monáe with Judas Priest, self-aware culture consumers still get squeamish around the strain of earnest, high-grossing sentimentality that Céline Dion produces. “Bad taste” may no longer be a meaningful critique, but “sentimental” most definitely is. Wilson’s readiness to inhabit this particular form of sentimentality, then, remains important precisely because antisentimentalism, like the heart in Dion’s Titanic theme, will go on.

It will go on because people still make judgments about art versus not-art, and people still use “sentimental” as shorthand for the opposite of art. To call something sentimental, as Wilson observes, is to “damn it” as “phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd.” The sentimental is emotionally false; art is art because it’s emotionally true. And how do we tell the difference between true and false? Emotions feel true most of all because we don’t see them coming. Canvass a non-random sample of Americans aged 18-22, specifically the students I teach, and that is roughly their logic. In the class I taught last fall on sentimentality, they far preferred Ernest Hemingway to Harriet Beecher Stowe. They chafed at Stowe’s narrative hand on the backs of their necks. Hemingway is superior, they said, because he allows you to feel whatever you want to feel. Leaving aside for a moment the preposterousness of the premise that Hemingway was at all interested in “letting” a reader decide what she feels (when Frederic walks back to the hotel in the rain at the end of A Farewell to Arms, you aren’t supposed to feel desolate?), the extent to which my students still breathe the air of the modernist aesthetic of emotional autonomy is important. Such an aesthetic, traceable back to Kant, precision-tunes its affective control. It shows you enough to push your emotional self-control to the quivering point, but not to the point of collapse. Snapped back from that sublime brink, you know you were in the presence of art because you feel freer, more in command, than ever. The logic my students apply to narrative is a durable standard whereby art is art because it holds you at a dry-eyed, emotionally controlled distance. Art doesn’t want to make you cry.

But how could such an aesthetic apply to representations of slavery? I think the more instructive contrast for understanding the tension between “art” and “sentimentalism” today comes through if we compare the urtext of sentimentalism, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not with Hemingway but with Steve McQueen’s 2013 film Twelve Years a Slave. Though both the 2013 movie and the 1851 novel can claim to be based on true stories, it’s not hard to judge which one is art and which one is sentimental. The film, contra Stowe and like Hemingway-according-to-my-students, succeeds at letting us feel we aren’t being told what to feel. And yet I think our voracious taste for art’s enabling of emotional autonomy, especially in the context of stories about slavery, demands questioning.


Emotional autonomy was codified as aesthetic value in the literature anthologies of the days of yore. It’s explicated, for instance, in An Approach to Literature, which had a roughly 30-year lifespan in the classroom (first copyrighted in 1936, fourth edition 1964). Co-edited by Cleanth Brooks, John Thibault Purser, and Robert Penn Warren, the text opens with an introductory essay that is gendered in all the predictable ways that riled feminist literary critics back in the 1980s. Yet the editors describe a preferred management of feeling that my students today, and indeed a great many critics, still endorse. The introduction proceeds by a case study in contrast between the artist and sentimentalist. Let’s take two different versions of the same basic plot, the editors propose; any old plot—say, man murders beloved woman. In one corner is Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”; in the other, a column by an imagined hack journalist they call the “sob sister.” Whereas Browning’s poem “build[s] up the whole situation which led to the act so that the reader feels it, and feels it as credible,” the “sob sister” “hasn’t been able to grasp the psychological fact which the poet uses.” “The really grown-up reader,” write Brooks et al, “grasps the fact… that the sob sister has tried to stir his emotions without knowing exactly why they should be stirred and without showing exactly what emotions should be stirred.” Here the problem is that the sob sister cannot manipulate the tools of language precisely, whereas a poet like Browning can. She “wants to make us feel the pathos” but all she can think to do “is to overwhelm us with pitiable pictures and adjectives.” She puts the reader on a “rubber-neck bus” “and shouts out to him through a megaphone what to look at and what to feel about it.” The good writer, a poet like Browning, “merely directs the imagination of the reader so that he feels that he has discovered the meaning of the experience for himself, and consequently feels it to be much richer.” The poem organizes the sensation of discovery for us. The consequence of that feeling of discovery is that the text seems “much richer”—more like art.

Ideology critique dismantled this aesthetic of “emotional freedom” some time ago as a kind of sop for the loss of collective life. If the signal of art is emotional freedom, then an artist who wants to move her audience to group action, say to redress some real-life suffering, is in a tight spot. Seeing real people in real pain doesn’t allow much free play of the imagination. How do you prevent your audience from feeling too sorry for, or too outraged by, what they’re seeing? Outrage and tears are what Uncle Tom’s Cabin means to solicit, and it’s why Stowe insists that her source material is real. But that solicitation makes it hard to call her novel “art.” I agree with my students that Twelve Years is the better work. But I’m vexed that my agreement, and the critical consensus on the film, hews so closely to the logic by which Browning beats the sob sister. How does McQueen’s film produce the art-effect of emotional autonomy for its audience, given that he, like Stowe, is showing us real pain?

That question is prompted by the striking parallels in the response to both works: worries about each narrative’s overwhelming portrayal of violence, coupled with the urge to justify that violence with claims for political traction. The first readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin wept, neglected chores, spoke of uncontrollably “devouring” the novel. Decades later, James Baldwin, who would write the definitive takedown of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, describes his mother’s exasperation with his “compulsively” reading Stowe when he was “around seven or eight.” McQueen’s viewers, like Stowe’s readers, are overcome. One of my students said she felt “helpless” as she was “forced to witness” Northup’s pain. Wesley Morris in Grantland specifies the general emotional devastation most reviewers registered: “When the film ended I just sat in my seat. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to go anywhere.” That’s approximately how I felt.
And in both cases there’s an uneasy relation between the power to hold an audience and the representations of violence that seem to do the holding. Long after his childhood fascination with Uncle Tom’s Cabin ended, Baldwin excoriated the book for its sadomasochistic imagery. It is “a catalogue of violence,” says Baldwin, and he calls out Stowe for “depend[ing] on the description of brutality” to hook her readers. Likewise, the charge that McQueen is guilty of “aestheticizing suffering,” a charge Dana Stevens reminds us of in Slate, faults him for establishing too much distance: framing pain so artfully that it prevents a proper emotional reaction. But the reviews also register concern that the violence in Twelve Years brings us too close to the onscreen pain. Stevens says she “sometimes felt smothered,” as in the scene of Patsey’s whipping, “by McQueen’s insistence on wallowing in the extremes of human anguish.” “Smothering” and “wallowing” are verbs that usually attend a takedown of the sentimental, since they make the cultural product guilty of the hyper-obvious appeal that not only tells us what to feel but, worse, tells us that feeling it is the only thing we need to do.


Maybe to assuage this uneasiness, partisans of both Stowe and McQueen turn to the fallback defense of the sentimental: if it fails to be art because it makes us feel too much, all that feeling at least can prompt us to reach out and help someone. I have cited to my students Abraham Lincoln’s legendary quip that Stowe was the lady who had started the Civil War. Admirers of Twelve Years make a similar move to rescue the movie from the charge that is the flip side of sentimentalism: that it is art for art’s sake. McQueen “does not preach,” noted Lowry Pressly approvingly in the Los Angeles Review of Books, so we know he is not a sentimentalist. Instead McQueen “seeks to provoke.” What are we being provoked to, exactly? Pressly suggests that the movie could or should make us think about the high rates of incarceration of African-American men. McQueen himself has been prompted to similar moves. In a BBC interview, he cites as a success the fact that after his first feature film, Hunger, came out, British authorities began owning up to the abuses committed against IRA prisoners 27 years earlier. Gesturing toward living people who might need our help now, McQueen’s Oscar acceptance speech dedicated the film to the “twenty-one million people enslaved today.”

I don’t, however, think we admire Twelve Years because it stirs us to take action. The reviewers who admire it do so because it doesn’t preach, because it does let us feel free, somehow in tandem with our staggered immobilization. That sense of emotional autonomy strikes me as especially odd, since no one watching the movie with me was likely to think slavery might have been all right. I’m ready to agree with Janet Neary, who writes in Avidly that the movie achieves something important by “forcing us to ask what it means to be witness to these atrocities and continue on with the business of our lives.” But if that’s right, then is a finely aware spectatorship all that McQueen asks of us—if, indeed, he is not just asking us to reaffirm what Baldwin said Stowe wanted us to agree to: that slavery is perfectly horrible? It does feel as if there is nothing to do when the movie ends but sit there. And that may be the most important reason why those scenes of pain test, but don’t unravel, our sense of emotional autonomy. On this, my most suspicious reading, the film becomes a modernization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a recasting of slave narrative according to the modernist aesthetic that prizes interiority and autonomy—because its real-life subject matter is now at a sufficient historical distance to enable the white part of the audience, at least, to feel the kind of impotence-disguised-as-freedom that ideology critique lambastes. Twelve Years a Slave gets to be art because, as long as we can’t do anything about the suffering in front of us, impotence feels sublime.


But it may be that McQueen wants his film to be art not only by generating an exquisitely private emotional stupor in us. One moment in the film hints at what a collective experience of the sublime might look like. It’s a scene of emotional overcoming that absorbs the self into the feeling of a group. But the transformation does not look like sentimental manipulation. This moment, not coincidentally, is perhaps the only unironically religious moment in the film. It comes after one slave drops dead in the field. The others bury him and sing over the grave. The camera focuses on the woman who leads “Roll Jordan Roll,” backs up to a wide shot of the group by the burial ground, then closes in on Northup. He does not sing at first. He looks like a man struggling to control some deep, private feeling. Head bowed, Northup begins murmuring brokenly, then vocalizing the words more strongly. Joining the song could be surrender: Northup dropping the power of his own subjectivity, his sustaining belief in his own exceptionalism, to become one of the group. But as we hear his voice rising in volume, the words become defiant, calling God to account. This religion is more Old Testament covenantal faith, where God has to keep up his end of the bargain, than Stowe’s New Testament martyrdom. And the call sounds stronger because it is being made in chorus.

urlThat moment makes me think McQueen is not a cinematic Hemingway. It may be that he wants us, after the lights come up, to look around and recognize that we’ve all been collectively, and not spontaneously, overwhelmed by feeling—to realize that feeling can come upon us from outside, by design, and still count as true. I’d like to think that McQueen is splicing sentimentality with art to push both toward some more democratic potential, democratic in the sense that Carl Wilson applies to Céline Dion. “Democracy,” Wilson writes at the end, “…sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it.” This is not a truth that the modernist language of artistry embraces. It is a truth that sentimentality relies on. It entails accepting that when a million people cry as they hear Dion sing “near, far, wherever you are,” their crying is not fake; it means that if your own tear ducts prickle when the song plays, you don’t think you’re being had. Sometimes we are being had—for instance when, as Wesley Morris points out, we see again and again the history of slavery made into the tale of the good white knight who saves the grateful slave, “padded” by Hollywood into “a cozy nest for white audiences.” That is not quite the story that Stowe tells—the white guys fail Tom in every case, except for (speculatively) the white guy named Jesus. But it is most emphatically not the story that McQueen tells. Solomon Northup’s freedom, the movie tells us, is nobody’s but his own.

I think Twelve Years is a better work than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even if I can’t shake the feeling that the movie banks on my faith in the idea that being staggered is tantamount to “feeling right” about something I couldn’t reasonably feel any other way about. My students are not callow, nor are they alone, in their adherence to the ideal of emotional truth. We all—including me—like to think we are on the side of truth, even more so if it’s bitter. My students think that sentimentality sugarcoats bitter truths; I think the language of artistry sugarcoats a bitter truth that sentimentality owns and that we mostly refuse to swallow. That is the truth that our deep feelings are not specially and truly ours, but that emotion is instead a shared language that is by and large culturally scripted. I don’t always like sentimentality. But like Wilson, I admire sentimentality for its embrace of that bitter truth, for its puncturing of the fantasy of perfect emotional freedom.


Ashley Barnes: thinks you look great in that dress.

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  1. This is the most stunning line, to me, of this essay. “Twelve Years a Slave gets to be art because, as long as we can’t do anything about the suffering in front of us, impotence feels sublime.” At the same time, suffering is not lost in the past. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to think about kidnapped Nigerian girls, or children riding atop trains. But do we get to cleanse our emotional palates by feeling so deeply about history so the present doesn’t taste so bitter?


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