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The artist who cried crocodile tears

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971) is a three-minute black and white silent film of the artist, Bas Jan Ader, crying. He appears close up, facing the camera, weeping for the duration of the 16mm reel. Ader brings his hand up to his face and touches his hair. Why is he crying? We can only guess.

The crying seems premeditated like an actor auditioning for a role and it comes across as self-conscious rather than reflective. It is reminiscent of a Hollywood melodrama and whilst many critics believe his grief is earnest, it has also been likened to “an educational film on anthropology.”[1] One reviewer described the work as “the plain idea, or concept, of a feeling” rather than the feeling itself. Writer Juliet Jacques imagines the crying ceased the moment the film ran out. Without a narrative we hesitate to accept the tears as sincere. Ader provides us with the physical manifestation of a feeling and it comes off feeling clinical, like an exercise in documentation typically associated with Conceptual art.

Emotion is not usually synonymous with Conceptual art, which according to Sol LeWitt’s is “mentally interesting to the spectator and therefore usually…emotionally dry.” LeWitt also wrote that “an emotional kick…would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.” However ‘mentally interesting’ and ‘emotional kick’ need not be diametrically opposed and Heiser believes that Romantic Conceptualism provides this bridge. Jan Verwoert, author of Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous (2006), states that “what gives the rhetorics of emotional articulation its authentic quality is…its capacity to address, appeal and touch others.” Authenticity can be broadly defined to encompass “sincerity, truthfulness, originality, and the feeling and practice of being true to one’s self or others.”[2] However, the measure of authenticity is not fixed. As culture evolves and changes over time, so too does the definition of authentic. What is considered genuine emotion at one time may not have the same impact a decade later. Not only does it change over time and place, the experience of authenticity can differ at an individual level across gender, age and race. Therefore, the emotional value of the work is open to interpretation.

There is no doubt that Verwoert and Heiser believe in the sincerity of Ader’s tears, despite not knowing the reason for them. Heiser suggests Ader is experiencing an ‘inconsolable sorrow’ and a ‘profound grief,’ and Verwoert is obviously touched by Ader’s emotional state which he describes as ‘infinite sadness.’ Ader’s feelings are considered deep and therefore moving. As a white male, Ader’s tears are seen to represent a universal sadness or an existential despair. It is worth considering if the same gravity would apply to the tears of a woman and whether the melodramatic nature of a woman’s tears would evoke the same level of empathy in Verwoert and Heiser. If the feminine tears were deemed hysterical, trivial or domestic in nature, they may not be associated with a deep, profound grief. It all comes down to whether the viewer feels what Ader feels upon watching the film. Evidently Ader’s tears do not evoke a sense of intense sadness in me, perhaps because I am a woman or perhaps upon seeing it more than a decade later, the cultural definition of authenticity has shifted. Either way, without a narrative, Ader’s ability to elicit an emotional response is uncertain.

An important aspect of Romanticism that is missing from Conceptual art is spirituality. Spirituality exists when the artwork has the ability to inspire the viewer and make them feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Artists such as William Turner and Casper David Friedrich wanted their landscapes to evoke reverence. Some Romantic painters included ruined churches and temples in their landscapes in order to “elevate the aesthetic experience above mere enjoyment by means of the sublime tinged with the quasi-religious.”[3] The sublime was associated with a sense of striving and landscape paintings became a vehicle for inspiring transcendence, akin to the articulation of a prayer.

Whilst Heiser admits that within Romanticism there were conservative tendencies towards the religious, he plays down its importance. He equates it with the Romantic “pretension that the artist’s soul is a medium of the otherworldly or godly” and views it as a shortcoming that has been successfully circumvented by Conceptualism. He believes that while Romantic Conceptualism is also interested in evoking the sublime, it avoids the “self-indulgent puffery” that comes with it. However, the sublime to which Romantic Conceptualists aspire does not include spiritual transcendence, but rather the attainment of purity through minimalism and reduction. “Inspired by Mondrian’s pursuit of spirituality through minimalism, Ader forges his own path towards the miraculous.”[4] In Ader’s work we witness a stripping back to the bare elements: bereft of colour, sound and editing, we are left with only the idea. Aesthetically, Ader has more in common with the Minimalists than the Romantic painters who sought to create overwhelming, awe-inspiring depictions of nature. Verwoert agrees that I’m Too Sad to Tell You clearly abstains from giving transcendental meaning.

Heiser abominates the ‘self-aggrandizing puffery’ of Romantic artists in favour of the collective or anonymous artist. However, in Ader’s film the only subject is also the artist. “Ader would repeatedly thrust himself into the centre of an irreconcilable dichotomy: the contradictory position of being both the subject and the object of a story.”[5] For this reason Ader’s film appears narcissistic and indulgent, as if celebrating the image of the all-important artist, the very thing that Heiser despises. Even the title, I’m Too Sad to Tell You, is designed to elicit pity for the artistic martyr who sacrifices himself for his work. Heiser gets around this by claiming that the artist’s refusal to confide in the audience means that he takes on all the embarrassment, leaving the viewer unencumbered. He claims that as the actor, Ader remains anonymous, and yet we cannot avoid viewing it as a self-portrait.

If you take Heiser’s view that this portrayal of an emotion is a performance that is separate from the artist himself, it undermines the emotional value of the work and consequently its link to Romanticism. While Heiser believes that the work can be both things at once, his explanation contradicts the Romantic concepts he seeks to explain. When comparing the Romantic to the Modern, author Jacques Barzun sums it up perfectly when he writes “in spite of much heart-searching, the modern ego is more concerned with the way it appears to others’ eyes than with learning fully about itself and admitting its troubles fearlessly. The romantics were introspective too, but they did not fear ridicule as we do, which is why we accuse them of indecently exposing their innermost souls.”[6] It is this ‘indecent exposing’ of their souls that Heiser believes leads Romanticism to self-aggrandising tendencies. By refusing the audience an explanation, Ader successfully avoids exposing his innermost soul. In leaving such sentimentality behind, Ader also sacrifices the emotional authenticity of this work. His self-conscious portrayal of a human emotion creates a level of insincerity, distancing himself from the viewer, which is at odds with the ambitions of Romanticism.

Ader is synonymous with Romantic Conceptualism, yet it is difficult to find the Romantic in I’m Too Sad to Tell You. However, Ader’s connection with Romantic Conceptualism is fortified by his untimely and theatrical death. In 1975, Ader set off from Massachusetts in a sailboat headed towards Falmouth, England, never to be seen again. The journey was to form part of an artwork that would later be exhibited. His solitary figure departing by boat is again reminiscent of a Friedrich painting. While his disappearance is not the sole reason for his elevated status as a Romantic Conceptualist, knowledge of his tragic end casts a foreboding shadow over all of Ader’s preceding work, forcing us to view it in a new light and giving credence to the associations of grief with Ader’s tears. Without this prior knowledge of Ader’s life story the only thing to suggest that I’m Too Sad to Tell You symbolises an overwhelming state of sadness is the title.

Seen in isolation, I’m Too Sad to Tell You does not clearly identity with Romanticism, however, when Ader’s film is viewed in the context of the artist’s ultimate sacrifice for art, it is clear why he has become an icon for Romantic Conceptualism. His overture as a tragic artist lends I’m Too Sad to Tell You additional layers of emotional depth. But whether such emotion is an authentic reflection of the artist’s inner-self remains uncertain and is open to interpretation by those who view it. We will never really know the real reason for his tears.

Leah Mariani in artist studio

About the author

Leah is a financial professional turned artist. Apart from writing this blog, she creates artwork about womanhood and childhood, with a feminist twist. Follow her journey on social media @leahmarianiartspace or sign up for artist e-news here.


[1] Jörg Heiser, “Emotional Rescue: Jörg Heiser on Romantic Conceptualism,” Frieze 71 (November, 2002),

[2] Phillip Vannini and Alexis Franzese, “The Authenticity of Self: Conceptualization, Personal Experience, and Practice,” Sociology Compass 2, 5 (September, 2008), 1621.

[3] Hubert Schrade, German Romantic Painting, German Romantic Painting (New York: Harry N. Abrams, rev. ed. 1977), 20.

[4] Judith Wilkinson, “After the Fall,” Performance Research 12,1 (2007): 82.

[5] Brad Spence, “The Case of Bas Jan Ader.” Bas Jan Ader, n.d,

[6] Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic, and Modern (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, revised edition 1975), 117.

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