This weekend I was asked to present a talk on art and empathy to open an exhibition on this theme as part of the Mid-May Festival in Midleton, Co. Cork. Thanks to my friend Roslin Treacy, who organized and curated the exhibition and for kindly inviting me to speak – it was such an honour, particularly considering the high standard of the work on display.
When I was asked to write this, I began, as I would with any project, by asking questions: What is empathy? How might art and empathy be connected? How might art inspire empathy? Incidentally, empathy itself is very much bound up in asking questions: the tough questions; the questions that make you forget all about your own problems and worries, and allow you to focus completely on someone or something else. Indeed, in her essay ‘The Empathy Exams’, Leslie Jamison writes: ‘Empathy isn’t just listening; it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to’. For Jamison, empathy is about inquiry and begins from a place of knowing nothing.
When I was a child of 12 or so, I went to Paris on a family holiday. We went to The Louvre, and all the tourist sites, but it was the Musee D’Orsay that had the most remarkable impact upon me. Here, I had my first significant encounter with a work of art, and it transformed the way I would think and look at things forever. The work in question was a fairly tame painting by Auguste Renoir titled Country Dance. It is a typical Renoirian painting with a pretty, plump-faced girl looking out at us with this warm, inviting expression of pure contentment.When I first glimpsed that painting, the female figure became so real to me, and in that moment, I wanted to climb into her space, and share something of her glorious glee.
So much of art is participation. Art asks us to participate: to become involved and experience the world of the work. Renoir’s painting caught me; it caught me right in that delicate space between heart and lung. I did not want to leave the gallery, and at one point, I wandered away from family, just to take another look at that girl. Most of all, I wanted to know who she was. I wanted to know everything about her, and I could have stared at her for eternity just to find out something more.
In my juvenile, uneducated state, my curiosity was sparked in the most innocent and perfect way in a manner that I frequently wish I could return to. But, the best art possesses the possibility to return you to a magical place of infantile wonder. Before a truly great work of art, you can, if even for a fleeting split second, see the world as a dazzling and new place that has not yet been tainted by the terrible and the mundane.
In the presence of Renoir’s painting, I was empathetic, just as you will be this evening, when you take a moment to stop before a particular work of art. That art work will ask you to be quiet and to be patient; to stand still and to listen. When I say listen, of course, what I really mean is to look. To actively look, to actively ask those questions.
Indeed, the relationship between art and empathy is built on the foundation of curiosity. Alain de Botton describes curiosity as ‘the enjoyment of not knowing’ and we can only truly express empathy when we experience an authentic and unrelenting desire to know. From the initial verve of curiosity, questions unfurl, and as soon as we have questions that need to be answered, we have turned away from ourselves and have channeled our attention outwards.
This is the fundamental connection between art and empathy: the ability art has to make us concentrate on something other than ourselves. In an age that is dominated by egocentric social media, persistent self-promotion, and the ubiquitous selfie, it is all the more important and worthwhile that we look outwards. As Jamison says:
‘Empathy requires a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you see’.
As soon as you begin to ask questions, you have become sensitive to the work. Your mind trembles as though it has been touched. Your eyes water. You are susceptible to the lightest stroke; the faintest glint of light on canvas. You now recognize the sublime in the ordinary, the beauty in the ugly, and the new in the everyday. As Oscar Wilde, said, ‘There was no fog in London until Whistler started painting it’. In other words, Whistler’s eerie nocturnal landscapes transformed a usual natural occurrence into something magnificent and strange. Before a great work of art, the world becomes a fragile place: everything you thought you knew is shattered. Your eyes are now open.
In making one curious and sensitive, a work of art is already bestowed with great power. In this sense, when a work of art grabs our attention, we are encouraged to become active viewers, to speculate, to consider, and ultimately, to challenge. In doing so, art can become a catalyst for change, interrupting our staid thought patterns, infiltrating our norms and subverting our conventions, forcing us to reevaluate the world as we know it.
In this community setting this evening, this is the great significance of art’s relationship with empathy: in asking us to look and to inquire, art initiates new thought processes from which change can arise. In a community, this desire for change can bring us together and make us more responsive to the state of society as it stands.
The word ’empathy’ derives from the Greek empatheia meaning ‘into feeling’.When we are empathetic listeners, we are required to step into another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective. When we are empathetic viewers, we must step into the work, immerse ourselves in it, and emerge, transformed and unwilling to see the world as we saw it before.