Art and Empathy

Art and Empathy


“Empathy” is a word we hear pretty often
these days, used to describe our ability to understand the experience of someone else,
and in some way share in their feelings or plight. And art can be really good at stimulating
empathy. For example, if you look at Francisco Goya’s
The Third of May 1808, it’s nearly impossible not to feel for its main subject. A man is pictured at a moment of utter desperation,
his last moments. We feel for him, we ache for him. Maybe our pulse quickens. Maybe we even find ourselves mimicking his
wild eyed, pleading stare at his executioners. We brace for impact. This ability of art to link us to others and
arouse feelings within us is one of the primary reasons people like art. If we let it, art can penetrate the jaded
armor of modern existence many of us wear, inviting us to feel what someone else once
felt, someone who might live far away or in centuries past. Empathy’s relationship to art gets more
complex when you consider the origin of the word, which came into being only about a hundred
years ago. English speaking psychologists in the early
1900s were trying to translate the German term Einfühlung. They were describing the capacity to project
one’s own feelings into an object, thereby enlivening it, or transforming, let’s say,
a big hunk of metal into an object of contemplation. “Empathy” was coined using the Greek “em”
for “in,” and “pathos” for “feeling.” But this “putting the feeling into something”
is quite different from today’s conception of empathy as a kind of “bringing the feelings
in” from someone else. This is the fifth and final video of our series
focusing on a much-discussed idea or aspect of life today, and looking back to see how
people from the past have made artworks and objects that speak to it in some way. Today we address art and empathy. Empathy both its original and current understandings,
thinking through where and when and how the feelings are coming in and radiating out. And we’ll explore a few of the many ways
art has assisted in the process of not just envisioning but actually feeling the worlds
and experiences of others. —- Religious art has long taken on the task of
stirring up emotion and empathy in those who look upon it. The Röttgen Pietà is a painted wood sculpture
just 34 inches high, created in Germany in the early 14th Century. It depicts the biblical story of the lamentation
of Christ, when Mary holds the dead body of Jesus, her son. There had been many pietas before, but what
was new here in the late Gothic period was an emphasis on the humanity of the subjects. Mary is very visibly distraught, confused,
even angry, which sets her apart from past depictions showing Mary at peace, following
the Catholic belief that she had the foreknowledge that Jesus would rise from the dead. But this Mary does not seem to know, or at
least feels no comfort in the knowledge. Similarly, Jesus is shown to be deeply, gruesomely
human. We see the gory, gaping wounds from his crucifiction,
with dimensional blood pouring forth. Oversized thorns extend from his crown and
presumably also into his head, with dripping blood painted down his forehead. The paint has deteriorated and used to be
much more vivid, likely amplifying the intensity of the scene. Catholic writers during the later Middle Ages
had begun to describe a Christ who was less of a divine figure and more human. Francis of Assisi, for instance, wrote about
a Christ who was poor, and who understood and related to the pain of being human. A new spirituality had emerged, a kind of
mysticism that described moments such as the lamentation with great detail and emotion. The Rottgen pieta and others like it were
intended to bring this story alive and into the present, to summon its spectators to connect
with these figures on a deeply personal level. It was meant to deepen your faith by generating
empathy for the suffering of Jesus and Mary, but also demonstrate that these divine figures
could understand your suffering. — Emerging from the Buddhist tradition is another
divine being embodying compassion. Jizō is a bodhisattva entrusted with the
salvation of all thinking beings between the death of the historical Buddha and the advent
of the Buddha of the future. The representation of Jizō we’re looking
at now stands at nearly life size and was created in Japan between the late 12th and
mid 13th century. It was carved from wood and bears traces of
the colorful lacquer and gold leaf that originally decorated it. Jizō is portrayed in a state of meditation
and as a traveling monk, wearing humble garments and carrying a pilgrim’s staff in one hand
and a wish-granting jewel in the other, a symbol of his limitless powers to answer prayers. The Japanese name translates literally to
“earth repository,” and that is indeed Jizō’s role as the Buddha Amitabha’s
attendant and intercessor in the world, postponing his own buddhahood to help others achieve
enlightenment. The deity is both a symbol and embodiment
of empathy, and also a model for similar behavior among its worshippers, demonstrating how compassion
and empathy can be a foil for suffering and a gateway to enlightenment. — In the early 17th century, Guáman Poma gave
us a window into the suffering of his fellow indigenous Peruvians under Spanish colonization. It took Poma nearly three decades to create
his nearly 1200 page illustrated manuscript The First New Chronicle and Good Government,
completed around 1615. It records the extensive history of Andean
civilization before the Spanish invasion, as well as their ultimate conquest and the
new colonial regime. What sets apart Poma’s account from others
is that it details the abuses of the Spanish against the Inkas, which you can not only
read about but also see in a number of the nearly 400 pen and ink drawings it contains. Poma’s manuscript also importantly acknowledges
that a history of indigenous Andean culture had indeed existed before the conquest, it’s
just that it was recorded in a different way, through khipus, colorful knotted cords Inkas
used to register names, events, and numerical and statistical information. Poma used khipus along with oral accounts
as his sources, and wrote the chronicle in four languages: Spanish, Latin, and the Andean
languages Quechua and Aymara. It was addressed directly to the Spanish King,
first Philip II and then Phillip III, intended to communicate not only the deep history of
Inka culture and the brutalities that had occurred, but also the corruption then taking
place and Poma’s suggestions for better government. The chronicle was designed to be published
and distributed, but Poma also travelled hundreds of miles in an attempt to pass it on to authorities
who would then give it to the king. We don’t know whether the king ever actually
received it, but there is something remarkable in Poma’s act of direct appeal, which assumes
a level of decency on the part of the king, and a faith on the part of Poma that his work
could encourage powerful people in the colonial regime to empathize with the Inka. The chronicle was never published during Poma’s
life, but it was rediscovered by an anthropologist in a Copenhagen archive in 1908 and eventually
reprinted. Today you can explore the entire manuscript
yourself on the Royal Library of Copenhagen website, where you can peruse scans of the
document and read translations and also exercise your own capability to empathize with the
Inka who suffered mightily under Spanish rule. — Photography can be an extremely powerful tool
for stimulating empathy. In the 1930s and 40, the US government’s
Farm Security Administration hired a number of talented photographers to document the
devastating effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photo we refer
to as Migrant Mother emerged from this effort, and succeeded in capturing the attention and
compassion of many, and even inspired financial assistance to the camp of migrant pea pickers
near where the photo was taken. That same year, Fortune magazine sent James
Agee and Walker Evans on assignment to document the lives of sharecropper families in Hale
County, Alabama. Fortune rejected the article, but Agee and
Walker published a book instead, titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, combining Evans’s
indelible images with Agee’s distinctive and sensitive writing. They changed the names of the towns and the
families they captured, and openly grappled with the challenge of presenting their subjects
with dignity and respect, while also painting an accurate and extremely moving depiction
of their harsh lives of poverty. The question of how to document the hardship
of others and how to inspire not just an empathetic response but also action, was addressed differently
in 1943 by artists Chittaprosad and Zainul Abedin. That year, one of the worst famines in history
struck the Bengal province of an India still under British rule, and the Communist Party
of India sent the two artists to create a record of the suffering. The famine would kill as many as 3 million
people, due in considerable part to British policies that redirected the food supply of
Bengal to the World War II effort. Chittaprosad’s pen and ink drawings are
a stark and haunting record of that devastation, as are Abedin’s drawings, painted with brush
and ink. Both artists’ works reflect the desperation
and also humanity of those pictured, and served then and now as a powerful indictment of the
abuses of powers that caused it. More recently, the artist Alfredo Jaar has
explored the limits of photography and its capacity to inspire empathy with such works
as Real Pictures. It’s part of Jaar’s Rwanda Project, which
he began in 1994 after witnessing the horrific aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and genocide
of as many as one million Rwandan Tutsis by Rwandan Hutus. Jaar took many photographs during his trip,
but for this installation decided to share exactly none of them, instead presenting a
configuration of stacked black linen portfolio boxes. Each contains a photograph but is closed,
with a label providing a factual description of the image inside. In a world of increasing image saturation,
sometimes the most effective means to provoke empathy and action is to consciously hold
back images, allowing captions and quotations and the refusal of images to speak instead. — The human impulse to memorialize the dead
also concerns itself with empathy, and the ways we build spaces for others to mourn. There are many extremely affecting memorials
that are figurative, including German artist Käthe Kollwitz’s 1920 woodcut In Memoriam
Karl Liebknecht, made in response to the assassination of the Communist leader during a 1919 uprising. Or her chilling memorial to her youngest son,
Peter, who died in battle at age eighteen during the first World War. But there are other, non-figurative ways to
memorialize the dead and make spaces for the mourning. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington
D.C., designed by Maya Lin and completed in 1982, demonstrates how powerful and empathetic
a work of abstraction can be. Lin’s proposal was selected from a pool
of over fourteen hundred submissions and constituted a decisive break from the traditions of monument
design. She described her concept like this: “the
memorial appears as a rift in the earth, a long, polished, black stone wall, emerging
from and receding into the earth.” “The Wall,” as it has come to be called,
points in one direction to the Washington Monument, and in another to the Lincoln Memorial. And it is inscribed with the names of the
over 58,000 American service men and women who died in active duty during the war. The black granite surface is highly reflective,
so that in visiting you see not only the names but the everything around and behind you,
making a kind of alternate mirror world seemingly behind the stone. The mirrored surface also allows you to see
yourself, making those who visit an integral part of the memorial. In 1991, Lin explained that the purpose of
The Wall is “to help the veterans coming back, to help their families, to talk to people
100 years from now who will know nothing about that war and nobody on that wall. To me, it’s a very simple notion: you cannot
ever forget that war is not just a victory or loss. It’s really about individual lives.” A monument can’t be everything to everybody. This one does not address the much higher
number of Vietnamese lives that were lost in the same conflict. And at the time it was unveiled, some protested
Lin’s abstraction, interpreting it as a politically-charged response to an unpopular
war. But it is deeply meaningful for many, visited
by millions every year, and a site of pilgrimage for veterans, the families of those who died,
and everyone else trying to fathom and process this tragedy. You feel the loss here, even if you didn’t
personally lose anyone in the war. Lin’s design is remarkable for its break
with tradition, but mostly for the extreme empathy it shows for those in need of a space
for mourning. —- Now empathy doesn’t have to involve feeling
the loss or pain of others, although that has been our focus so far today. We can of course empathize with those experiencing
other emotions like passion or joy or contentment. And we can also empathize with people in other
parts of the world who deal with the same kind of non-life-threatening-but-still-important
issues we all do. Ghana ThinkTank is an artist collective working
today that engenders empathy between groups of people often separated by borders, continents,
or ideological divides. The mission of the group is to “develop
the first world,” inverting the usual power dynamics through which people in the so-called
“developed” world intervene in the lives of those in the “third world” or “developing”
countries. To do this, Ghana Think Tank collects problems
and challenges in areas of the US and Europe and sends them to think tanks they’ve assembled
in other areas of the world. In Wales, a complaint was registered that
the elderly were treated like a burden to society. And the collective sent it to a think tank
in Iran that concluded the problem was that the young people of Wales didn’t think they
had anything in common with their elders. And their solution was to recommend recording
the funny, dirty stories of older people and make them available for younger people to
hear. And that’s exactly what Ghana Think Tank
helped make happen, enabling cross-cultural exchange, and a cross-generational gateway
to empathy. — Now there is still no consensus on what exactly
empathy is or means, and our understanding of it will no doubt continue to shift. The artworks we’ve seen today show us how
empathy can live in many areas of art. It can live within the mind of the artist
as they consider their subject matter, or imagine their audience. It can also live within the artist’s intention
for the work, and in their hopes to stimulate the empathic abilities of those who see it. The artist James Turrell once described his
intention like this: “Art is a completed pass. You don’t just throw it out into the world–
someone has to catch it.” For me, all artwork has the potential to stimulate
empathy. Whatever it is, it offers me a brief glimpse
into the mind and motivation and emotions of another person, whether it’s someone
alive today and living in my own city, or someone from a dramatically different time
and place. When we’re actively engaging with art, we
almost have to be empathetic to derive something from our experience. We imagine who might have made it, where they
made it, and most importantly why. What compelled them to represent their ideas
in this particular way? It’s this process of questioning that leads
us to more nuanced understandings of other people. It compels us to imagine other people complexly,
to experience their lives as real and important. And if that’s not a good reason to study
art, I don’t know what is. What is empathy to you? And what are the artworks and objects that
have helped you experience it? Let’s talk about it in the comments. This episode was made in partnership with
Smarthistory, an outstanding resource for anyone curious about art and cultural objects
from around the world. Subscribe to their YouTube channel, and visit
Smarthistory.org to learn about some of the artworks and histories discussed in this video. Thanks to all of our patrons for supporting
the art assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts Vincent Apa and Ernest Wolfe.

38 Comments

  • pancicah says:

    I really love your content, they're all super thoughtful! Can you include the referred artworks in the describtion? It'd be very helpful to check them out after watching the video.

  • Layila Faon says:

    I also can see emotions in the way of painting or drawing – creating

  • Alex Wood says:

    Aka Bo Burnham

  • Janjyable says:

    You have always created these in-depth video analysis of art and I enjoyed them quite a lot.

    But just wanted to share my two cents about your lighting technique:

    Perhaps you can try lighting one key light in front of you directly, so the shadows from your glasses would be shown near your eyes. And as for the background shadow created by you from the front key light, you could perhaps light two more lightings on each side and of the background.

    Or maybe I’m just thinking I’m smart. Haha. Appreciating your video contents!

  • ricv64 says:

    Chris Burden did The Other Vietnam Memorial in 1991 though the names were computer generated from names in the LA phone book…….I'm still hoping for a segment on the George washington high school murals in San Francisco

  • EWKification says:

    Apparently empathy is whatever political correctness deems we should feel.

  • Capra Ibex says:

    I fucking love your videos! I love the diversity 😍

  • Edvard Munch says:

    This channel is one of the best things.

  • Conor Dunne says:

    No one:
    Nobody:
    Not a single soul:

    The Art Assignment: DoRoThEa LaNg!!!!!

  • Luiz Guilherme Amaral says:

    Last year I published an article (in portuguese) about einfülung and the crucifix. Let me know if you’d like to read it and I can work on an english version.

  • Mario Arias says:

    I want this lady to talk me to sleep every night for the rest of my life

  • wolfCat workshop says:

    Guaman Poma website link http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/frontpage.htm

  • Oskar winters says:

    If you stop trying to be enlightened to help others….i think your original concept of what it means to be enlightened is off.
    If you are mentally stable and all your prior responsibilities are met and you can help others, you should. If your career is just to seek enlightenment then all your time should be devoted to supporting the community around you.
    To me the act of 'seeking enlightenment' is a greed, it's about the self and being above others.
    One who seeks it will never gain it.

  • Mustbe Aweful says:

    Empathy is to me the brave challenge of letting others mirror their experiences and emotions onto you.

    When we trust each other so little, opening the door and letting others take control of you is very brave indeed.

  • Anne Droide says:

    Is no one going to comment on the fact that a dudes name is literally Alfredo jar

  • Philipp J says:

    In the name of all German speakers subscribed to your channel, I appreciate your very sincere attempts to pronounce the words "Einfühlung" and "Liebknecht" in this video. It didn't entirely work out but it shows that you tried. Very different approach to John's.

  • CJ Thibeau says:

    Incredible video that I'm for sure going to show my students to open up a discussion on empathy, making art, and the human connection. Thank you for all the videos you make and can't wait to see what's next after such an interesting series !!

  • Francis L. says:

    You know, I always loved the religious artwork that emphasized the humanity of Christ and Mary. It helps in making me feel a sort of connection or closeness to an otherwise divine (and sometimes distant) entity. I think there's beauty in the idea of the Creator sharing in the suffering and joys of its creations, almost like there's a mutual understanding or empathy of each other. It tells me that I'm not alone and that others are also going through good and bad times.
    God can often feel alien to me because his divinity can sometimes be overemphasized, so being reminded of his humanity has always been appreciated because it brings me closer and find solace in that. I guess that's why I find the crucifixion and lamentation so compelling at times, because it feels so real. Incredible video as always!

  • Danielle Spargo says:

    Why does this video feel like it's trying to explain what empathy is to a psychopath who can't feel empathy

  • Noah El Hachem says:

    Im amazed

  • Joanna Brinkley says:

    The written word-LYRICS, MUSIC🤘🏻✌🏻💓

  • Kate Ward says:

    "It compels us to imagine people complexly." I see what you did there

  • _____ says:

    yall ever played undertale

  • Crushi! .Music, Art & Love. says:

    This is modern college art history lecture in the future when college is free and a human right.

  • Hailstormand says:

    I think the first time I felt any sort of emotion when looking at art was when I read an entry in a very old encyclopedia showing the famous Lascaux caves. I was in my teens, and to discover that these 'drawings' were made by someone who had lived tens of thousands of years ago at first threw me off, then wonderment dawned. The next one was 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère'. As I discovered that this was not the usual portrait but instead me (the viewer) looking at a woman who was very tired, I was obsessed with it.

    But one 'thing' holds my interest until now: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I cannot wait to see how it will look like when it is completed!

  • Coyote says:

    are you a virgo sun/ascendant

  • Sophia Antropova says:

    When empathy is brought up in the context of art I always remember William Albert Allard's "Peruvian boy with sheep" photo, it is very impactful, I think.

    Great episode, always a pleasure to watch! Thank you!

  • graphite says:

    There is art that speaks to your brain and there is art that speaks to the heart.
    And sometimes when it speaks to both you get that sublime uplift that rearranges you forever.
    I've had two art experiences that overwhelmed me on that level (and also many more when finally viewing a piece that I had seen in books and photos but not in actual person… they don't count though because I was prepared)
    I had never heard of Goyas Dog until I went to the Prado as a teen…… the image hit me like a ton of bricks, fortunately the guards there are prepared and a silent lady in uniform kindly gave me some tissues; enough said on that one!
    The other was a work by the Australian artist Rosalie Gascoyne, it's called Monaro.
    The work is made up of tiny slivers of wood, from discarded soda crates; all assembled into a vast rolling symbolic depiction of the high plains of the Australian Alps.
    It was an interesting viewing for me.
    I recalled the soda crates from my childhood, the immense golden grasslands from family trips, the light, the distance, the past. I spent 30 minutes in front of the piece.
    Well the damn artwork got me, right in the soul bone. It had a clear message for me and for days I couldn't get it out of my head! I can't tell you what the message was, it's impossible to verbalise but it reverberated me with great force and feeling.

  • lccarson says:

    I see that someone has already shared Roger Ebert's comment, “To me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Let me add this from Dave McKean, "Art is an empathy machine," and another note from Janine Antoni, "I wonder if I can put the viewer in a position of empathy, empathy with my process."

  • Miriam says:

    Velorio del Angelito by chilean artist Arturo Gordon is one of the fist paintings that hit me hard in an emotional way, it depictures a scene were a little kid passed away, and in the tradition you cannot mourn for them, because if you do they won't get to heaven, so you can't cry for the sake of the lost child, I found it incledible powerful and could not imagine what is like to not be capable of mourn in this kind of painful occasion.

  • Nashton says:

    I recently played a video game called GRIS that was an ethereal and symbolic journey through the stages of grief. Now, that model may be outdated, but it was done beautifully and I teared up at quite a few points and at the end of what was about 4 hours, i was awashed with a calm empathy that that spilled over into my daily life.

  • Mayuri Tathe says:

    I don't know why, but while watching this video, I cried.

  • Katie Kamala Haley says:

    Art is tremendously important on so many levels and to creatively depict culture. Empathy is an interesting subject for art. Great episode.

  • Señor Everything says:

    Kevin Abstract's social experiment better be on here

  • Emily Faxon says:

    Great segment. It seems to me (and I like) that you've more recently slowed down the pacing of these videos and not tried to be exhaustive in trying to "cover" every possible question or nuance of each sweeping topic. I also like seeing works I've never known about before, from all different cultures.

    Many years ago, I walked into the Phillips Collection and was taken by surprise by Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. It was so large — the figures seemingly life-size — and I was struck by the beauty of the painting, bound up with the beauty of these young people and their pleasure at being young and at their leisure — and then, at once it struck me, the reality of their all being long gone from this world. I was quite touched by that. I've gone back a couple times to see the painting, but it is never quite as powerful as that first time.

  • Ruvi says:

    That last happy art is So Cool. I feel like happy art can be more effective bc the sadness of the world is so oversaturated to the point where we stop experiencing empathy and instead feel apathy.
    But depicting happiness unites people in life and inspires a drive to be more happy and spread more happiness i think.

  • SeSeMittens says:

    I don't know why I started crying in the vietnam veterans memorial part. It somehow got me there even when I haven't any connection to that. Thank you for that video I learned a lot again. I especially liked the part about the indian famine because I simply did not know that part of history. That really touched me and I realised again how horrible the impacts of that war were.

  • Vincent Apa says:

    Beautiful crafted. Fascinating all the way through. Many thanks!

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