Art and Empathy

I think about art. A lot. Maybe too much. I think about my process and the results; I think about what I view in studios, classrooms, galleries, museums, websites and what I read. From the inside, as a maker, I question what I make and why. I look for sense in my choices of materials and medium, and I constantly look for meaning in what I do. Looking outward, as a viewer, I additionally wonder at what moves me, experience the awe or irritation or any number of emotions stirred up by the work, and analyze its success or failure to touch me. I also consider if this is something only this particular artist could make. Could it be replicated and sold in a big box store? and if so, how would my experience of it change? It's complicated.

Sometimes, it seems I'm running around the bases over and over as I think about these things, the game unchanged, a minor leaguer. But recently, I read an article in the New York Times from Saturday, June 30, 2018 that opened onto a new field. In his Op-Ed, "The Cultural Vacuum in the White House," Dave Eggers wrote that this particular presidency, like authoritarian regimes, ignores art and artists almost completely or is defensive or goes on the attack. What particularly struck me was this, "But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else's eyes and know their strivings and struggles." 

Wow. Empathy has been on my mind. The lack of it these days. Rethinking empathy takes me back to two earlier posts,  "What about Untitled" and "The Mirror Business." In those posts I wrote about the artists who say, "I want the viewer to see whatever they like in it." Having room for the viewer in the work is good. But now this sounds to be encouraging the viewer to make the artwork all about them, the viewer. It is not asking the viewer to imagine something outside of themself. It's promoting a kind of narcissism.

In the past, when I've asked an artist friend about her work, perhaps a particular work I've puzzled over and tried to feel or understand, my mind will suddenly clear when she reveals her process and tells the story of how she came to make it. Hearing the story of how she thinks and responds to the world, to her materials, to the creative process puts me in her shoes, allows me to see the world from her perspective. I may not agree, but I appreciate the mind-expanding possibilities, the possibility that I could see something new from a fresh perspective. Putting oneself in another's place does that. And it could help this mind-blowing, mean-spirited, empathy-free, us/them world we are in today.

This important change-up of view, this move to a different ballpark, to a different game, court, or field, is another reason a certain artwork should be something only a certain artist can make. Empathy cannot be forced or found in a cookie-cutter image made by machine. We cannot identify with the factory-made object. It needs to emerge from a distinctly particular, human point of view. We need to understand that placed in another body, another time, another place, another mindset, we could have made it. And whether we are or are not makers, we are visitors, guests of another world. And therein lies respect as well.

Art is not just about the message. It is not only about the meaning or feeling or mood. It is also about getting outside of yourself and your own game and respectfully touching base with someone, somewhere else.

I've read two books in the past year that have helped me understand the baffling situation in the United States. Although the titles suggest polarization, they are not meant to demean anyone; they are meant to help each side learn about the other. The first was The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling. The second was The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla. The books are short, but strong, about 140 pages each.


Linda Grashoff said…
I appreciate this post very much. I will forward the blog e-mail to members of my crit group, and I have put a hold on the Lilla book and determined that my local library has the Lakoff book, which I will borrow the next time I go there. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your illustration on this blog post; it has me confused.
Alisa said…
Hi Linda,
Thanks for writing. On our last NYC visit, we were at The Met and saw this, which seemed absurd and definitely confusing. Was this an artwork? Was it standing in for something else, a display not yet unpacked? Nearly everyone who walked by it also walked around the back, which revealed nothing. The door (somewhere) is open, but no one is able to enter. I guess we are looking for the door.