Empathy and Art

Susan Barahal, Tufts University, susan.barahal@tufts.edu                                      

Elizabeth Pugliano, University of Colorado Denver, elizabeth.pugliano@ucdenver.edu

Empathy is our capacity to feel with and as someone or something outside of ourselves. While empathy has nestled in the artistic experiences and philosophies of all ages, and the arts have arguably unique capacities to evoke empathy and prompt deep emotional connections across time and cultures, the subjective and elusive nature of empathic response has often resulted in the relegation of empathy to the margins of art historical inquiry. On the precipice of the third decade of the 21st century, amidst pandemic and global health crises, civic unrest, political turmoil and persistent inequities and injustices, empathy—more than ever—is a critical necessity. Aiming to center empathy within art historical scholarship and methodologies, this session seeks to revive and reexamine notions and experiences of empathy in the visual arts.

We invite papers that explore empathy in art and art history in all forms. Topics of investigation might include empathic responses to works of art and/or artworks intended to evoke empathy in viewers, the mechanisms by which empathic connections are sought, empathy as a method or lens of study and analysis of works of art, empathy and art in educational settings, or the potential uses of visual art as a vehicle of empathy, to name just a few possibilities. We welcome contributions from any area of art history, and we especially encourage perspectives that probe cross-disciplinary intersections or invoke theories and methods from outside of traditional art historical approaches.

Speakers & Abstract

The Empathetic Space of Art: Video Games and Virtual Reality as Tools in Socially Engaged Art Practice

Ewelina Chwiejda (École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris)

The use of new technologies is probably one of the most prominent trends in contemporary art. Artists not only experiment with the form but also take advantage of modern, technical possibilities, in order to raise social awareness among their audience. This tendency may be observed in socially engaged art projects, tackling the so-called “migrant crisis”. The paper discusses examples of artworks that seek to engender an affective and empathetic response of the viewers through the use of immersive art forms, such as video games and virtual reality. I will analyse two projects, both related to the traumatic experience of border and sea crossings, in which artists present their audience with an “insider” perspective. The first project, Frontiers. You have reached Fortress Europe (2008-2012), is one of a series of socially engaged video games, created by Austrian art collective Gold Extra. It is a serious game (Alvarez & Djaouti2010) and is also called the empathy game, created so as to allow the players to identify with a migrant. The second project, Apnea (2016), was created by an Italian artist, Vanessa Vozzo and refers to the very experience of death in the sea. In my paper, I will explore the artistic tools and mechanisms of evoking empathy through the technologies applied in these projects. The ethical limitations of the “immersive representation” of such traumatic liminal experiences will also be discussed, as these types of projects raise the important question of the frontier between aesthetics and ethics in contemporary art.

Thinking Empathy in Biennials and Art History Again

Mehmet Berkay Sülek (University of Amsterdam)

Abstract: Empathy was one of the most influential theories in art history at the end of the 19th century. But it can be argued that has changed with Worringer’s critique of empathy in his study titled, Abstraction and Empathy (1907). While art historians have abandoned Empathy, architectural historians and theorists have adopted it. The echoes of Empathy can be found in Paul Frankl (1913), Bruno Zevi (1951), the phenomenology of architecture, and Stimmung (mood) which gained momentum again in architectural theory. The interest of scholars of architecture in Empathy is no coincidence as both architecture and empathy share one common element: space. This paper will claim that there is a rather new configuration since the 1990s that forces art historians to rethink Empathy in art history—exhibitions that inhabit cities.

Large-scale exhibitions such as biennials have proliferated around the world with a default curatorial strategy: dividing the exhibition into multiple sites. The selected locations in these exhibitions often include non-art spaces, which lead spectators to think beyond the white walls of art spaces and realize their situatedness before the artworks that intervene into cultural history/memory of these sites. Thus, I argue that this configuration in biennials creates bodily encounters with artworks in space and it follows that empathic response. In this regard, the paper will first demonstrate how the question of empathy has been explored explicitly by the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial (2020) and The Research Pavilion of the University of the Arts Helsinki (2021). Second, it will show the ways in which empathy is implicitly implemented in the 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015) and 13th Kaunas Biennial (2021).

Empathy as Resistance in Roman Commemorative Art

Gretel Rodríguez (Brown University)

Abstract: Public monuments in ancient Rome, such as triumphal arches and honorific columns, often depicted images of foreigners, captives, and women as symbols of the defeated other. Standing or kneeling in front of trophies, with heads bowed and hands tied, alone or in family groups, these images symbolized the peoples conquered by Roman armies as they expanded throughout the Mediterranean. Such visual representations of the other constructed the Roman colonial discourse and constituted vehicles of imperial propaganda. Scholars have amply considered these monuments from the viewpoint of patrons, to reveal their identities and motivations. A perspective rarely discussed, however, is how such images of violence might have been received by their intended audiences, many of whom were the same conquered peoples the monuments portrayed. This paper explores the surprising signs of empathy found on well-known Roman imperial monuments such as the Column of Trajan, the Arch at Orange, and the Arch of Constantine, among others. I argue that we can detect a subtext of empathy in the depictions of defeated captives, coexisting with the more overt imperial themes deployed on the monuments. I also propose that such signs of empathy were likely the result of the agency of artists—many of whom came from non-elite and other marginalized backgrounds—who found subtle but clever ways to encode resistant ways of viewing their creations, as a means to connect with the widely diverse audiences of the vast Roman empire.

‘She – the great agitator’: Käthe Kollwitz and the limits of empathetic spectatorship in Reproductive Rights Campaigns in Weimar Germany

Caitlin Powell (University College London)

In 1931, the demand for reproductive rights in Germany reached fever pitch. In a climax of medico-legal and political action, multiple ideological factions came together in an, ultimately futile, campaign to obtain universal abortion access. The figurehead of the movement, the working woman represented as ‘forced bearer’, became a ubiquitous trope in visual culture, appealing desperately to the viewer across media. 

Amid this fraught cultural landscape, the work of Käthe Kollwitz demands consideration. This paper investigates the vigorous style and emotive figures which characterise her output across campaigns. Rather than the forced bearer as passive, Kollwitz presents her women as radical, active attempts to understand physical and emotional trauma. Using contemporary criticism as a starting point, I will investigate how her interrogative approach to the self closes the distance between the forced bearer and viewer, generating an emphatic demand for compassion. Further, her forthright constructions of emotion contrast meaningfully with other forced bearers in visual culture, whose passivity evidences the mechanisms by which performative empathic connections are often sought as strategies of dehumanisation and biopower. 

This paper traces the mutable states of intimacy and distance which characterise negotiations of reproductive rights in this period, while a consideration of Kollwitz’ approach also has the potential to foster important discussions about the current restrictions of reproductive rights happening across the globe. Can commonality for this cause be forged through visual culture and, more pressingly, is it productive?



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