August 8, 2014 Repository 149: Art and Empathy | Artists Exploring the Horrific Posted In: art practice, community, contemporary art, kindness, perspective, philosophy, social critique

Art deals with things forever incapable of definition and that belong to love, beauty, joy and worship. The shapes, power and glory of which are ever building and unbuilding and rebuilding in each man’s soul and in the soul of the whole world. – quote by Victor Hugo carved on the facade of the Nelson Atkins Museum erected in 1930

Does anyone ever wonder where to turn the art spigot when things happening in the world seem beyond comprehension, beyond rational and completely shattering? Art is supposed to provide a place to contemplate and make sense of the mysteries of the human spirit in all of its manifestations. Does looking at the “Rape of the Sabine Women” by countless artists say, or Picasso’s “Guernica“, provide us with a warning, or a reminder that yes, this will repeat again somewhere and somehow?

I’ve had the privilege of a 3-hour layover on my travels, so I’ve caught up on the latest in the Middle East, in all of its extraordinary tensions. Sadly I just found myself crying and watching videos of dead people and children, a baby whose pregnant mother died, who miraculously survived after her house was bombed in Palestine. These news bits are preceded by a reading of a very dense article sponsored by Creative Time about aestheticization (?), criticality (?) and the importance of political action oriented art. The density of this article, and the elitist language also made me cry. Aren’t these fruitless controversies?

So where does art fit in this dialog of extraordinary situations of injustice and the nadir of humanity? Enter empathy, and an understanding that though art that. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. While American culture (and art schools) might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, it is our nature to help others, this I believe.

There are some beautiful examples in the recent past of art dealing empathetically with subject matter. These projects illustrate a way an artist can make sense of a situation, bring light to an otherwise dark and clouded space.

First is a project titled “La Dernière Image” (The Last Image)” by Sophie Calle. This is a series of 13 works in which Calle documents how several blind men and women lost their site. Alongside a portrait of each person is the text recounting the story of how they became blind and a photograph of the last memory they have of the visible world. It’s a bittersweet documentation, touching and tragic at once.

Sophie Calle, The Blind #2, color coupler print, gelatin silver print, printed paper and wooden shelf

Sophie Calle, The Blind #2, color coupler print, gelatin silver print, printed paper and wooden shelf

Another piece is Emily Prince’s drawings of soldiers killed in the Iraqi conflict. The individual portraits that she drew from photographs were small, so the installation of them together was most heart wrenching. Started in 2004 and ongoing, the piece is titled, “American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis Nor the Afghans).” There were 5,100 drawings shown in 2010, where the color of the soldiers skin was reflected by the color of the paper.

In a metaphorical way I am definitely interested in pointing to negative space that accounts for how many more there might be, or more importantly all the individuals who are not seen here at all on the other side of the war.” – Emily Prince


SIDE NOTE: As an artist one has to be careful where they tread in this space too – doing work about a minority or repressed class while not having any relation may be conceived as exploitative versus empathetic. It’s a very fine line.

When I first had children my empathetic juices turned on high, and I looked fiercely to the studio in order to quell, consider and navigate my reaction to a lot of tragic events going on that explicitly affected children. At one point I made 47 charcoal portraits of Mexican children that died in a daycare fire (“ABC Series”), and I also made portraits of soldiers who were killed in Iraq, though instead of straight copying from photos, I placed them in another kind of theater, versus a war theater. So I basically ruminated about these tragic events for months while making the work.

More recently a fellow artist, Jamie Emerick, had a similar reaction of turning to her art to consider a tragic situation. She read online a letter from an inmate on death row, Ray Jasper. In his letter he wrote eloquently that if the context of his childhood (e.g. education) had been different, he would have made better decisions. She was moved by his story, and his circumstances and set out to work in the studio. She made a lovely portrait of him, and sent him the picture of it along with a letter. She received a note back from him, he was touched and wished he could watch her paint. Sadly he was to be executed the next day. And there it went.

Mr. Jasper’s words on empathy:

Empathy breeds proper judgment. Sympathy breeds sorrow. Contempt breeds arrogance. Neither are proper judgments because they are based on emotions. That’s why two people can look at the same situation and have totally different views. We all feel differently about a lot of things. Empathy gives you an inside view. It doesn’t say ‘If that was me…’, empathy says, ‘That is me.

"Ray Jasper", oil on canvas, 2014 by Jamie Emerick

“Ray Jasper”, oil on canvas, 2014 by Jamie Emerick

In the past month I’ve been researching local Santa Fe artists regarding the launch of this year’s “SITE Santa Fe”. One of the local artists who shared her views with me, Erin Currier, seems to build her entire body of work on empathy for the people, the people she sees as marginalized. She celebrates them with some of the more colorful paintings I have seen, reminding one of the Southern hemisphere’s palates of bright reds and unfathomable sky blues.

"Santo Toribio Romo", courtesy the artist, Erin Currier

“Santo Toribio Romo”, courtesy the artist, Erin Currier

Lastly, my favorite work of this nature, art leading with empathy, is the piece by Alfredo Jaar titled, “The Silence of Nduwayezu,” 1997. This is simply a lit table in a dark room with a mound of one million slides of a small boy’s eyes. Oddly I wrote about this very piece exactly a year ago. Clearly it has an incredibly effect on the viewer. In the artist’s words:

…The program here was to tell a story in a very dark space and to enter a space of light where- instead of light- we find another kind of horror. Sometimes light is liberating and light is hope. Here, light is horror. It reveals the eyes of this kid who witnessed a genocide that we did not want to witness. I’m interested in that moment when the audience takes a look. They look at the eyes very carefully, and that is the moment I’m looking for- when their eyes are a centimeter away from the eyes of Nduwayezu, who witnessed what we didn’t want to see.
– Alfredo Jaar

In sum, as far as art goes, these gestures on a small or large scale are the “political actions” that matter, they are the things that make our hearts considerate and not callous. So can I imagine returning home to my studio ready to ruminate about civilians dying in Gaza? Not quite, but I will make a gesture of hope, of forgetting and forgiving in order to heal and renew. I do hope that artists in these direct spaces of conflict have a large canvas to work with. By canvas I don’t mean actual fabric and wood, I mean a space and the freedom to translate what has happened to them and their communities. Find your phoenix.


The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than the real. -Victor Hugo

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  1. Dan Leng • August 13, 2014

    Beautiful piece on an interesting topic. I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about "why art matters" for one reason or another, so this definitely strikes a chord. Would love to see that Alfredo Jaar piece someday. Looks like a riveting experience. Thanks. Reply

  2. mindmarrow • August 14, 2014

    Thank you so much Dan! Yes, the why art matters bit has been pondered for 100s of years - I have books on my desk now ranging from 1898 to 2011 literally titled "What is Art?". And why does empathy often fuel the creative drive? We know why art is helpful in times of trauma, but how does it work in this other way? All art is a gift, that much is for sure;-) And yes, the Jaar piece in person is heart wrenching and beautifully executed - a must see. He has a retrospective on now in Finland!!! Thanks for reading...

    http://www.domusweb.it/content/domusweb/en/news/2014/04/19/alfredo_jaar_tonight_no_poetry_will_serve_.html Reply

    • Dan Leng • August 14, 2014

      Wow. I'm floored. That show looks like the experience of a lifetime. I hope it travels someplace closer at some point. Reply

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