The Power of Art (To Make Me Weep)

Simon Schama’s Power of Art (2006)



In the final episode of Simon Schama’s Power of Art, the titular historian finally asks the motivating question:

“Just how powerful is art? Can it feel like love? Or grief? Can it change your life? Can it change the world?”1

From this somber opening, with Schama asking the viewer the big questions, we blitz through an emotionally charged, graphic reenactment of Mark Rothko post-suicide, and then, with a stunning bit of TV whiplash, into a sequence that can only be construed as Schama having a huge laugh at himself. The image shifts to a street in London, Bowie’s guitar riff from “Andy Warhol” rushing in to inform us that we’re definitely in the 1970s, and a reenactor, Simon Quarterman, playing Schama himself—complete with flowing hair, paisley pants, and groovy glasses—struts down the boulevard. 

This documentary television series, stuffed to the brim with historical reenactment, is now reenacting a scene from the narrator’s own life. And it’s goofy, it’s charming, and it’s deeply effective. Schama describes his wrong turn inside the Tate Modern and into the room of Rothko’s Seagram Murals. There, the young man, looking like a cross between John Lennon and Tony from Italian Spiderman, experiences a Rothko-induced montage connecting him to the human soup, so to speak, with space, birth, death, Nazis, and the whole nine yards of communal emotional experience as expressed by available B-roll. It’s a wild ride of emotions for an opening segment, especially from the prestigious halls of BBC Two. Best of all, it’s true.

I love Schama for this bit of TV trickery, because this is really what it’s like, feeling art, and he’s trying, desperately, with grasping hands, to force you to understand. Standing in front of a Rothko is like falling into a slow pulsation, a space of light and color, a passageway, or an inexplicably horizontal pit. Some endless tunnel into who knows what. It makes you feel as if you’re on the cusp of some great connection with humanity and the emotional well of all humankind. Sure, there are other ways to try and communicate that, but isn’t this fun? The over-the-top reenactment, the melodrama.2

More than that, this is what all successful art is supposed to feel like. It feels like this silly montage, a lightning storm of grief, love, laughter, and terror triggered by who knows what, an ecstatic rollercoaster ride through your own memories and feelings, wild turns and deadly drops and all. Art is the high drama and the low drama, and often, as Schama is about to show us, it’s the reflection of the artists’ own life, their fear, pain, joy, and frustrations, their family relationships, loves, and losses. The power is there, inside each piece of crystalized feeling. Clap your hands if you believe in the power of art, clap your hands and art can transform you.


An eight-episode documentary series that originally aired in 2006, Simon Schama’s Power of Art focuses on eight artists and their lives: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso, and, as I’ve given away, Rothko. They’re presented in chronological order, spanning 400 years of collective art history. The creator, writer, and onscreen narrator is Sir Simon Schama, writer, historian, teacher, and BBC darling fresh off the runaway success of A History of Britain. Like an art-obsessed, indelibly English fairy godmother, he’s here to take you away from the galleries and the museums, to bring you down to the flophouse rooms of the artist, the alleyways and kitchen sinks of Art.

To get into the “power” part of his title, Schama suggests, we have to get down into the muck of humanity. Art is about the gut punch of a piece, all big feelings, no big brain. To really understand Schama’s point, we have to step into the past. The show asks us to exist with the artists in their own spaces, their time periods, and, when possible, with their own words, living the pivotal moments of their lives alongside them. However, when all else fails, Power of Art pursues truth through the double-edged sword of documentary drama, the engine of so many historical trainwrecks: historical reenactments.

For each episode of Power of Art, Schama selects a work to be his hub. There’s David with the Head of Goliath for Caravaggio, The Slave Ship3 for Turner. His pointed examination of the emotional intent of each of these masters is made partner to the history and atmosphere of each era, turning each episode into a wheel of examination, a spoke connected to the work and the artist’s feelings and desires. Imagine yourself here, Schama says, among the sweaty throngs of people, the politics of the time, the dangers, the pleasures. Be there. Feel what they felt, in fact let me show you. Let me tip the scales with some human drama. Bring on the historical costumers!

Schama’s documentary is not about the aesthetic qualities of these paintings and sculptures. Sure, he discusses the aspects that capture our attention, the line and weight and the unique techniques. But mostly, Schama wants to connect us with the lives of each of these men. Who did they love? What did they want? How did they deal with the trials of life? Small stories but deep waters. Every single one of Schama’s subjects has channeled that emotional life into an unforgettable work of art.


The first work of art I remember weeping in front of was the Portrait of Juan de Pareja, painted by Diego Velázquez in 1650. It was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, where I grew up. The painting is striking, both for its subject—Velázquez’s slave/artist assistant—and its composition, stark and proud, a man who the artist clearly respected peering from the canvas with urgent intensity. Velázquez would not grant him his freedom for another four years. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why that portrait made me all wet-eyed and tremble-chinned. I felt as if across those hundreds of years, I could still grasp the humanity of that man. His delicate expression and resolute eyes seemed to be saying to me, We could understand one another, we feel the same feelings, we are in that way the same.

This isn’t some mystical quality but instead something in the way that Velázquez painted his subject, something in those eyes. Standing in front of the painting, through the gulf of time, you can still see it. He looks at you in the way that he must have looked at Velázquez, and you look at him in the way that Velázquez must have. Just by standing there, you’re suddenly, shockingly, part of an experience that’s almost 400 years old. Velázquez painted it to be viewed, after all, so here it is, the most human of moments, the look, the knowing glance, the soft focus of attention, the artist, the subject, and the viewer—all connected across the centuries, soft threads of humanity stretching back into the distance.


I’ve always had an emotional streak. Notably apparent at three years old, in a screening of The Adventures of Milo and Otis, a repackaging of the Japanese A Kitten’s Story, now narrated by Dudley Moore. In a packed NYC theater, I alternately screamed, cried, hid under the movie theater seat, and demanded, at the top of my three-year-old lungs, “Get me out of here!” My parents, both actors, must have been appalled. It’s just make believe, after all. The kitten in the crate going down the river will be fine,4 he’ll have an adventure and be home by the time you finish your popcorn. Somehow, though, I knew in my gut that it would not all be fine. This representational bit of animal danger meant something else; a deeper truth about humanity and life was in there. It felt real, even if I knew it was fake. This fictional cat was just a stand-in for every real cat who had been in peril, a representational image that made it clear to me: animals had been in danger in the past, and they would be again in the future. This film experience was art communicating truth, even in a repackaged Columbia project aimed at the noon-to-three weekend crowd of sticky-faced tots. The reflection of truth, and my fearful realization that I was watching a mirror image of something real, just helped to heighten that childhood understanding.

Since The Adventures of Milo and Otis and Portrait of Juan de Pareja, I’ve teared up at all sorts of Films, TV, Paintings, Sculpture, and a few well-executed Commercials. I am, as one friend described me, “a great weeper.” It doesn’t take a lot to get me going, but I’m resolute in attributing that to art. Years of reading artists’ monographs, manifestos, interviews, and histories has given me a feeling of community that I treasure. It has fostered in me a tremendously deep and abiding love of art in all forms, as well as an abiding frustration with people who seem disinterested in our shared human history.

For as long as I’ve been alive, the joke of the Art History Degree has also lived in the modern consciousness in all forms of media—TV, Film, Literature, and the common barroom to schoolyard joke. Oh yes, they majored in Art History.5 This cosmic laugh at the expense of people who would pursue such a “useless” degree is so inherently sticky that I still see the joke when I read scripts that people write today. People still make TikToks about “The Most Useless Degrees,” and history—all history—still somehow makes it on that list, never mind art history.

How could we ever let that happen? How could we neglect the preservation of this most important evidence? This desperate clawing at the darkness, this proof that we have lived and will continue to live. How could we throw that into the bucket of bad degrees? We should be made to feel our shared lives more, not less.


Schama understands the value of art, not just as an aesthetic object, but as a transmission of the feelings and passions that lived within the life of the artist. He knows how important it is to comprehend art as a connection to the great unending project of humanity, our precious shared legacy. To help the viewer understand, Schama paints the life story of each of these artists in thick strokes, going to great lengths to make you feel the drama of their time on earth. He’s clawing at the stories like Turner with his uncut fingernail, almost feral, carving the paint of his canvas. In order to make it feel real—realer than real—Schama leans heavily on his actors. They take up the mantle of the artist and spin their own dramatic reenactments, the ‘real’ physical, bloody, sweaty story.

The results are arresting. Not accurate, surely. David’s scar changes sides, and Andy Serkis is certainly not a ringer for Van Gogh. The energy, however, is right. The drama is right. The feeling of life and death on the line for art, is right. In a post-series interview, Schama stated that he and producer Clare Beavan wanted desperately to avoid the feeling of “men with stick-on beards.” In this, they certainly succeed. The reenactments are over the top, sometimes comical in their own self-seriousness, but they do not feel fake in the way historical reenactments usually do.6

Instead, they are full of some strange theatrical power, like an Italian opera, full of the same forceful strokes as many of the artworks on display. From Bernini and Picasso’s tangled love affairs, Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s financial troubles, to David and Rothko’s diametrically-opposed political vantage points, every small drama feels real, not in the sense of reality, but in the sense of intent.


Paul Popplewell prowls the streets of Rome as Caravaggio,7 cape aflutter, sword drawn. Later, he sweats an Olympic pool as he swings and stabs, communicating, if not historically representing, Caravaggio’s explosive anger and energy, the danger that he signified, and the total inexplicability that people kept giving this man swords. Andrea Gherpelli simmers as Bernini, attempting to murder his own brother over a shared lover, the sweaty period-clad performers rolling around on the Italian marble. Andy Serkis delivers a sensitive and slightly unhinged Van Gogh, then eats a tube of paint. Allan Corduner delivers perhaps the most striking performance as Rothko in the final episode of the series. Shot in black and white, these sections feel the closest to a fake-out, straying too close to real documentary footage, but Corduner’s presence carries us through it.

Schama, too, matches the energy of each story. Stalking the alleyways of Rome like a silent movie villain—raked angles and black jacket billowing—as if he’s here to let you in on some deep, sordid secret of Caravaggio’s life. Sitting short-sleeved in the French countryside, he relates the inevitable death of Louis XVI in his episode about David. Walking Van Gogh’s wheat fields, and Rothko’s New York. These are real places he wants to connect us to, and real people, like him, and like you, and like me. Every piece of theatrical bric-à-brac carefully aligned to draw us out of our comfy living rooms and into these very human worlds.


I could see someone arguing that Schama is too over the top, that his linguistic carnival, like mine, is distracting, too self-important. They are wrong.8

Schama’s dripping narration, hot and sweaty, as greasy and colorful as any one of the masterworks discussed, delivers the viewer so deeply into these artists’ lives that we sometimes feel as if we’re drowning in them, stuck in the cafes, the canals, the jail cells, and the converted gymnasiums. He delivers his lines like a lecturer, and in the best tradition of that noble art, he employs every hook and crook to keep you engaged.

This isn’t to say that Power of Art is without flaw. Are the reenactments a little hammy? Sure. Is the music a bit obvious? Without a doubt. But are the stories Schama tells compelling? The loss and pain acutely felt? The moods and tempers, foibles, failings, and frights drawn clearly for us to see that these great artists were human, like we are? Yes.

From my earlier description, it might be easy to see one major issue. This is a very white, male list and hardly surprising, given the focus of the fine art canon. After all, it’s hard to imagine a good subject for this type of work who is not a white man, except perhaps for Sofonisba Anguissola or Artemisia Gentileschi or Judith Leyster or Madame Le Brun or Rosa Bonheur or Robert S. Duncanson or Harriet Hosmer or Edmonia Lewis or Henry Ossawa Tanner or Frida Kahlo or Camille Claudel or Anna Hyatt Huntington or Augusta Savage or Barbara Hepworth or Ruth Asawa or Jean-Michel Basquiat.9

It’s not hard to understand how we ended up with an assortment of exclusively white men for the series, but it is a disappointment. The human ability to reach across the gulf of time and communicate emotional truths is not, and has never been, the exclusive domain of these old white masters. I’ve no doubt that Schama and his producers know this. It is a glaring problem—that by omission, the series implies this assembled sampling of European and American artists to represent the power we’re talking about. It’s worth remembering that they do not. 

In the past 20 years, documentary and educational programming about art has gotten much better about giving underrepresented and marginalized artists their due recognition. But for every Beyond the Visible or Boom for Real, we’re still inundated with half a dozen puff pieces on Manet, Monet, Caravaggio, and Picasso, most not a fraction as interesting as Schama’s work here. That’s the direct effect of European and American hegemony, and I know Sir Simon Schama will not begrudge me reminding people that when you look at the way art is presented and taught, it’s imperialism all the way down.


The last work of art I’ve wept in front of, at least in person, was at the Convent of St. Agnes, in Prague. An arm of the National Gallery, the former convent is filled with religious art and carvings from the 14th and 15th centuries. It was a tiny wooden carving of a saint, no more than a rough stickman now, weathered by 500 years of pious handling. He was stuffed into a corner, behind larger, more impressive carvings of Christ and various memento mori.

Under the stone-vaulted ceilings, he looked tiny and fragile. It was impossible to know who the artist was, or which saint it was supposed to be. The piece had been obscured by time, but the face of the old man—kind and knowing, loving and full of the grace of whatever it was he believed in—endured. That feeling of care and reverence was transmitted, as if by sorcery, to me in modern-day Prague. Who was that ghost whose touch I felt? Who carved the tree limb into a small, humble old man? Who knows. He was human, though, and had thoughts and felt feelings as I do. For me, that’s the power Schama is talking about: art’s ability to reach across the ages. The reason why our shared legacy of pain and triumph in paint or marble or wood is important and precious.

I hope, with the receding of our plague years, to soon be in a gallery again. Surrounded by the work of other humans who needed to communicate their own powerful feelings of connection and humanity. Once again within the human project, this endless great work. When I do, I will take a bit of Simon Schama’s Power of Art with me. Just a little bit of the reflection of the real, the giddy narration, or the imagined footsteps of the ghostly painter prowling his gallery, maybe even young Simon’s revelatory montage. That’s art, what you’re looking at, what you feel, how you tell it. All of that is in the soup. So am I, and so are you.

  1. I teared up the first time I heard Schama deliver this line. The extra moment of eye contact was enough, but we’ll get to that.
  2. 50 years ago, in his seminal BBC documentary, Ways of Seeing, John Berger attempted to warn his audience against the dangers of the painting in reproduction. Because paintings were, as he said, “silent and still,” the use of music and detail shots manipulated them to extreme levels. The meaning of paintings in reproduction can be changed dramatically. Undoubtedly, Schama is doing this here, but as Berger was, he’s doing it in an attempt to demystify art, to make those moments of connection and understanding clearer.
  3. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on, a point that Schama highlights in the episode.
  4. Ironically, the film has been plagued by accusations of animal cruelty and death for years. Perhaps there was more truth to my childhood distress than my parents knew.
  5. Luckily, I dodged the bullet, being only lightly grazed by my degree in Liberal Arts with a focus on English Literature.
  6. Who among us has not loosed a hearty chuckle at some true crime reenactment of a mysterious pair of sneakers stalking softly up the stairs of some suburban house, black gloves on the railing like so much budget giallo.
  7. Andrew Garfield makes an appearance, awkwardly holding a bowl of fruit for one of Caravaggio’s early paintings.
  8. About Simon, at least.
  9. Here presented in chronological order for any producer who decides to tackle a revival of the series.