Learning Through Empathy
A theory of art as an essential source of understanding
I’ve posted this essay here as the very detailed context for this whole project. I wrote this in 2015 as the culmination of my Philosophy degree course, but now that this project is fully underway I thought it might be time to brush off the digital dust and give it some sprucing up. It isn’t perfect, but it was a deep dive into a topic that consumed me before I wrote it and continues to consume me today; I think I managed to capture at least some of what was developing in my head. It’s pretty long, obviously, but it’s there if you want it.
In the following pages I want to articulate a view I have developed about art and its role as an essential source of understanding about the world. As I see it, the value of art lies not just in the appreciation of the skill of the artist or the ‘beautiful’ arrangement of elements. Neither is consuming art worthwhile simply because it amuses or stirs us. While these — and many other — things certainly contribute to art’s value in our lives, I contend that one of art’s greatest strengths is its ability to explore other people’s perspectives of the world. By engaging actively and perceptively with artworks, we can develop our capacity for empathy in the widest sense of the word by broadening our understanding of the different aspects of the human experience in which we all share. This view chimes with many contemporary intuitions about art, especially in everyday areas of art criticism and discussion that are generally viewed as separate from academic philosophy. At the close of the dissertation, I argue that if we recognise art’s unique and powerful ability to inform us in this way, our consumption of art morphs from an at-best optional but sophisticated pastime to an essential activity for understanding about the world.
IS ART A DISTRACTION?
THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST
Art does not reflect reality
Art is autonomous and ‘useless’
Art’s ‘truths’ are trivial
HOW ART CONVEYS KNOWLEDGE
Appropriate imprecision and the deliteralisation of knowledge
The strengths of the language of art
The art forms are one
The role of criticism and discussion
DEVELOPING OUR CAPACITY FOR EMPATHY
Seeing subjectivity as a strength
The value of empathy
ART CONSUMPTION AS EDUCATION
INTRODUCTION: IS ART JUST A DISTRACTION?
Anyone who has heard the phrase ‘arts and sciences’ can attest to the generally recognised conceptual separation between the two areas of human endeavour. For most people, the sciences, broadly conceived, represent our source of knowledge about the world, how we understand the nature of reality. They are ostensibly dependable and provide concrete information that we use to make decisions — as opposed to the arts, which are commonly viewed as ‘use-less’, undertaken for their own sake. Engaging with the fruits of the sciences is understood as a productive, consequential use of one’s time: as learning. Our consumption of art, by contrast, is often conceived of as luxury, pleasurable distraction, and mere amusement.
An appropriate analogy for the role art consumption plays in the lives of many modern people might be that of delicious food eaten not just for nourishment but for pleasure. Granted, few would argue that the range of gustatory experiences available approaches the range of aesthetic experiences present across all the art forms, but the attitude towards the two is often much the same: we listen to music because it stirs up something inside us; we read novels because it is pleasurable to get lost in another world; we watch movies because the stories are fun and interesting. But just as only the memory of the taste remains when the food has been eaten, so the value of an artwork is seldom seen to extend outside the boundaries of the experience itself. All this is not to say that art does not command our respect: we regularly stand in awe of beautiful and complex artworks while we revere their creators. Still, while most see art consumption as important for a well-rounded life, few would characterise it as an essentially productive and educative activity. It is this view that I wish to refute.
Throughout academic philosophical history, the relationship between art and truth has been a subject of much dispute, and as a consequence the two have taken on a distinct and elementary separateness in our collective consciousness. Notably, this trend is bucked in the realm of art criticism, where artworks’ relation to real-life concerns is a recurring theme of discussion. The ethical dimension of artistic narratives, in particular, remain part of many critical assessments of artworks as well as the discussions of ordinary people. I will return to this idea later as part of a discourse on art’s relationship with criticism and discussion. For now, the next section will lay out the most influential arguments against the idea that art is an essential source of understanding about the world, so that we can see clearly what obstacles this project is facing.
SECTION 1: THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST
ART DOES NOT REFLECT REALITY
In the Republic, Plato argued that artistic representation was detached from philosophical truth. In Book X, Socrates speaks to Glaucon about three beds: one made by God, one made by a carpenter, and one as represented by a painter. The first is the ultimate and singular Form of the bed — the truth. The second is an earthly instantiation of a particular bed, a real-life example that aspires to the true Platonic ideal. This bed is once removed from the truth, but a reasonably accurate representation of it nonetheless. The painting of the bed, however, is an imitation of an imitation. It is a glance at a real bed from just one angle, and therefore woefully poor as a guide to the truth because the painting is twice removed from the Form. Indeed, the second remove is particularly far from reality because one does not need to know much about a bed in order to paint one. ‘What does the painting do in each case?’ Socrates asks Glaucon. ‘Is it an imitation of appearances or of truth?’ Glaucon dutifully replies that painting is concerned with appearances, prompting Socrates to conclude that ‘imitation is far removed from the truth, for it touches only a small part of each thing and a part that is itself only an image.’ (Plato, 2011: 598a/b)
The apparent epistemological gap between reality and the artwork that presents an angle on reality led Plato to banish imitative poetry from his ideal city-state Kallipolis. To him, not only was poetry an extremely unreliable way of learning about the world, but it was also liable to mislead people (especially the youth) if it presented vicious and immoral characters and behaviours as virtuous and moral. Variations of this secondary argument can be heard today in the public discourse about the ‘corrupting’ effects of art that ‘glorifies’ violence and debauchery. The empirical evidence for art as an independent cause of these behaviours is notoriously scant, but the root principle of the argument remains: art is a poor imitation of reality, and as such cannot be an essential source of real understanding about the world.
A separate but similar modern counterpart to this line of argument might be termed the evidential poverty of fiction. Works of fictional art do not generally provide any evidence to authenticate their presentation of reality. As Noël Carroll explains in his discussion of ethical criticism and art, ‘why would we rely on a novel’s portrayal of what some situation would be like, since it is made up?’ (Carroll, 2000: p.364) The worlds of fiction are imagined, and as such it may seem dubious that they could be dependable sources of information about real life. I am unconvinced by this line of argument, for reasons that will become clear in Sections 2 and 3. There, I will examine both permutations of this problem in further detail and suggest a wider definition of knowledge that would bring art back into the educative fold.
ART IS AUTONOMOUS AND ‘USELESS’
The idea that art and reality belong to different conceptual spheres is in some sense a response to the observations about art made in the arguments above. We observe that art more often than not takes liberties with the truth where it resembles it and generally belongs to an imaginative world all of its own, so it seems reasonable to suggest that the correct view of art is as an entirely autonomous species of human activity, freeingly disconnected from reality and exhibiting its own idiosyncratic system of aesthetic value. This view, known sometimes as aestheticism, advocates for an assessment of the worth of artworks based purely in their beauty or alignment with certain standards of taste, rather than their ability to fulfil external, ‘non-aesthetic’ goals.
Oscar Wilde’s often-repeated quote is the exemplification of this way of thinking: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.’ (Wilde, 1891) This famous aphorism is taken from own his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that was subject to a good deal of controversy and censorship at the time due to fears that it was indecent and morally dangerous. As Carroll points out, the urge to separate the question of artistic value from external values like empirical truth and moral integrity was in part a reaction to ‘Plato and his puritanical descendents’, ‘an art world maneuver to protect artworks from censorship’ (Carroll, 2000: 351–2). Wilde completes his preface with a flourish: ‘All art is quite useless.’ (Wilde, 1891) This sentiment, along with the idea that art is done for its own sake, recurs many times in the canon of aesthetic philosophy. Immanuel Kant, whose analysis of aesthetic experience has been singularly influential, argued that beautiful art was ‘a mode of representation which is purposive for itself… [and] devoid of [definite] purpose’ (Kant, 1892: §44). A crucial element of Theodor Adorno’s conception of worthwhile art, too, was its lack of ‘purposive’ orientation to external concerns, and he criticized explicitly didactic ‘committed’ works of art as doomed to trivialise and misrepresent the nature of real-world situations (Adorno, 1974: p.81).
On the other hand, Kant recognised in the second half of the very same sentence that art nevertheless ‘furthers the culture of the mental powers in reference to social communication’ (Kant, 1982: §44). Casey Haskins has argued that the most accurate interpretation of Kant’s theory is as ‘instrumental autonomism’, i.e. a view that ‘permits works of art to be valuable, as works of art, both intrinsically and instrumentally’ (Haskins, 1989: p.43). Carroll, too, suggests that subsequent philosophical movements have perhaps ‘misinterpreted’ Kant’s aesthetic convictions (Carroll, 2000: p.350). Adorno, meanwhile, viewed art as an immensely important source of resistance to the oppressive political forces of its day, provided it ‘resisted by form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads’ (Adorno, 1974: p.78). But whether or not Kant or his successors have been correctly understood by philosophical history, the idea that art’s value is fundamentally disconnected from other value systems ‘outside’ the artwork has undeniably shaped our common conception of what art is for — and therefore, our intuitions about what we can learn from it.
ART’S ‘TRUTHS’ ARE TRIVIAL
The final species of argument against the idea that art can really teach us about anything can be found in a now-infamous paper by Jeremy Stolnitz entitled On the Cognitive Triviality of Art. In it, Stolnitz argues that claims made about the existence of meaningful ‘artistic truth’ are wildly overblown; in fact, he ends up concluding that ‘artistic truths are, preponderantly, distinctly banal.’ (Stolnitz, 1992: p.200)
One of the examples he uses to demonstrate this is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel ‘renowned for its deft psychological insights’. His first attempt at pinpointing the so-called ‘truth’ that it conveys is a summary of the plot: ‘Stubborn pride and ignorant prejudice keep apart two attractive people living in Hertfordshire in Regency England’. But he points out that ‘those who espouse artistic truth [aesthetic cognitivists] are not after the fiction’ — for reasons mentioned above concerning the fictive nature of the characters and situations. Instead, he argues that the cognitivists ‘have insisted that art brings to light, above all, human character — the hidden, unvoiced, perhaps, apart from art, the unknown impulses and affects that stir and move our inner and then outer beings’. As one-sentence summaries of my own position go, it is pretty good, but we diverge when he maintains that this claim requires that the truths be completely universalised. So Stolnitz strips away the detail and ends up with: ‘Stubborn pride and ignorant prejudice keep attractive people apart.’ In terms of real psychological insight, he argues, Pride and Prejudice is ‘distressingly impoverished’. (Stolnitz, 1992: p.193–4)
Stolnitz goes on to examine Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (along with Greek tragedy in general), Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He argues that none of these offer up any new or insightful knowledge, because the propositional statements that can be distilled (‘wrested’, Stolnitz says at one point) from the works are either trite, contradictory, unconfirmed by the fiction or impossibly vague. ‘None of [art’s] truths,’ he opines, ‘are peculiar to art. All are proper to some extra-artistic sphere of the world’ (Stolnitz, 1992: p.198) — by which he means the sciences, broadly conceived.
In a 1995 retooling of Stolnitz’ arguments, T.J. Diffey affirms that ‘there is nothing significant to be learned from art about history, society or life, if ‘learned’ is understood in a narrow sense as the acquisition of previously unknown truths or facts.’ (Diffey, 1995: p.210) Even so, he is suspicious of the idea that art must be cognitively productive if it is to be truly valuable (an intuition I share), and disparages the Platonic idea that ‘without [aesthetic cognitivism] art will be down there with thrills, illusions, and heaven forbid, pleasure.’ (Diffey, 1995: p.211) But although Diffey’s article is broadly anti-cognitivist, it intriguingly touches on two of the aspects that I believe allow us to truly make sense of the idea that we can learn from art. Firstly, he compares the concepts of the contemplative and the naive reader, the latter of whom mistakenly takes the descriptions in a novel as straight factual statements. Secondly, and crucially, he toys with the ‘seductive’ idea that ‘artistic truth [might] be some non-propositional sort of truth’. He concludes, however, that ‘the moral of Stolnitz’s argument is: do not succumb to this temptation.’ (Diffey, 1995: p.211) Warning duly heeded. Unfortunately, in the next part of this essay, I want to do just that.
SECTION 2: HOW ART CONVEYS KNOWLEDGE
APPROPRIATE IMPRECISION AND THE DELITERALISATION OF KNOWLEDGE
In their eagerness to affirm propositional claims as the gold standard for knowledge, critics of the idea that art is a genuinely valuable source of education often gloss over or brush aside alternative conceptions of truth and understanding. If we step back a little from the strictly rationalist and empiricist mindset that requires that all ‘real’ knowledge take the form of statements with unambiguous truth values, we begin to see that there are a wealth of genuinely informative, non-propositional types of truth. In fact, once we have recognised the multitude of ways in which valuable information can be conveyed, it seems plain bizarre to needlessly limit our conception of knowledge in the way that Stolnitz does.
Elliot W. Eisner was, until his death in 2014, a prolific scholar of art and education who spent much of his life arguing for an overhaul of the U.S. school system, which for many years had made broad cuts to arts funding. He contended that engaging with the arts, both in terms of creation and consumption, produced unique and indispensable contributions to our critical abilities and our understanding of the world. I want to follow the spirit of his argument and bring out what I consider the most powerful educative feature of art: empathy. At the core of Eiser’s argument was a recognition that ‘knowing is a multiple state of affairs, not a singular one’, and that ‘each variety of knowing bears its own fruits and has its own uses.’ (Eisner, 2008: p.5)
There are two central claims that support this view. The first is that the admirable ambition of certainty must not mislead us into thinking that precision is the only way of assessing the value of information. Aristotle, whose idea of the variety of knowledge was much wider than Plato’s, cautioned in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics that ‘we should not seek the same degree of exactness in all sorts of arguments alike, any more than in the products of different crafts.’ (Aristotle, 2011: 1094b) Andrew Wiles’ 150-page proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem required a perfect level of precision, otherwise it would not have been a mathematical proof. By contrast, it would be unreasonable to criticise accounts of the migration patterns of wildebeest across the Serengeti for their inability to perfectly predict the exact locations of every animal from year to year. The shaded areas on the associated maps that plot the movements have fuzzy edges, as is appropriate. Different explanatory tasks sometimes require and sometimes necessitate less-precise definition, margins of error, rough descriptions. How we define knowledge should depend, therefore, on ‘how inquiry is undertaken and the kind of problem one pursues.’ (Eisner, 2008: p.4) This might be called appropriate imprecision.
Secondly, we must recognise that not all information is faithfully expressed in terms of literal, propositional language. In Eisner’s words, ‘the idea of ineffable knowledge is not an oxymoron.’ (Eisner, 2008: p.5) Slight though our understanding of human memory is, we can be reasonably sure that information we store in our brain is not encoded as words in grammatical structures. Consequently, the process of verbalising a concept is one of erecting signposts for the listener to point them in its general direction. Often this is fine: our experiences of, say, aeroplanes are more or less universal, such that if I say ‘aeroplane’ you will very likely have much the same idea in your head as I do in mine. Philosophical argument, too, would certainly be rather difficult without the ordered structure of language. But on the flipside, everyone has had the experience of trying and failing to accurately convey in speech the taste of something delicious or the smell of a heady perfume; our words fail us when the signposts we have available are too general. Our experience in the world (and our processing of that experience) yields a multitude of data, perhaps the majority of which are not amenable to being broken up and sequenced into straightforward language. Perhaps the most well-known proponent of this idea is Michael Polanyi, who has examined at length the idea of tacit knowledge, and whose pithy summary Eisner quotes as an anchor: ‘We know more than we can say.’ (Polanyi, in Eisner, 2008: p.5)
Eisner argues that ‘the liberation of the term knowledge from dominance by the propositional is a critical philosophical move.’ (Eisner, 2008: p.5) The deliteralisation of knowledge, as he terms it, allows us to look to other forms of representation in order to convey the indescribable ideas from our heads and perhaps receive otherwise indescribable information from others.
THE STRENGTHS OF THE LANGUAGE OF ART
This is where art comes in. For many topics of discussion, especially as concerns the social, the emotional and the transcendent, art is leagues ahead of ordinary language in terms of faithfully expressing the relevant concepts. For example, while we do have words to indicate certain emotions, Susanne K. Langer points out in her influential discourse on symbolisation, Philosophy in a New Key, that ordinary language ‘merely names certain vague and crudely conceived [emotional] states, but fails miserably in any attempt to convey the moving patterns, the ambivalences and intricacies of inner experience, the interplay of feelings with thoughts and impressions…’ (Langer, 1954: p.81/2) Art, on the other hand, does exactly that: it deals primarily in just that nuance, that complexity, that ambiguity. The unique strength of the artistic technique is its ability to explore and evoke the intimate detail of situations, the exact colour of an emotion; to capture the meaningful shades of the relationships between two people or in a community.
It is important to remember here that literal language is not the same as artisticlanguage such as one finds in a novel or in poetry. Words can be used in ways that transcend their usual utilitarian employment: evocative, powerful, metaphorical uses of language can convey nuance and colour in such a fashion as to distinguish them meaningfully from ordinary language statements. The artistic treatment of language makes it possible for the writer to ‘give the reader a virtual sensory experience of nature in all its glorious richness and complexity.’ (Eisner, 2008: p.6) In this way, written art is in many ways the clearest model for the deliteralisation of knowledge, exhibiting as it does the stark difference between the literal and the artistic.
THE ART FORMS ARE ONE
Given the historically intertwined nature of the written word and learning, it is perhaps unsurprising that the vast majority of the discussion of this topic centres around novels (as in Stolnitz’s case and some of the supporting cases below). It is not at all clear to me, however, that this is a justified distinction, since the most cursory glance at the broader array of mediums shows that many of the same storytelling mechanisms operate in film, television, videogames (of a certain kind), dance, theatre and lyrical music, to name the most prominent. A more apposite distinction, it seems to me, is between narrative and abstract art. Still more apposite would be to dissolve the hard distinction altogether and instead talk about a spectrum, with completely narrative art at one end and completely abstract art at the other.
Some artworks tell a story; some look at a moment; some evoke emotions; some simply examine abstract relationships. Perhaps the majority of them are concerned either directly or indirectly with the social, emotional and transcendent aspects of life. But it seems to me that they are all conveying information from the artist in the characteristically non-literal, metaphorical way that art does. A little later on, in Section 4, I will examine a range of examples to illustrate what we might gain from each. First, however, I want to address the problem raised in Section 1 of the evidential poverty of fiction, to understand how we can responsibly and meaningfully link completely fictional worlds to our real lives.
THE ROLE OF CRITICISM AND DISCUSSION
John Gibson, in his paper Interpreting Words, Interpreting Worlds, argues that the element of interpretation is the key to unlocking the cognitive, educative potential of art. He discusses literature, but his comments are relevant to all art towards the narrative end of the spectrum. ‘In critical interpretation,’ he writes, ‘we enlarge, we enrich, the scope of the literary experience, indeed of the literary work itself.’ (Gibson, 2006: p.446) I am inclined to agree. It’s true that fictional art does not provide solid evidence for claims about the way life is in reality. The film Caligula (1979) doesn’t in and of itself provide evidence for what Roman life at that time and place was like, because it is fiction. But the evidential poverty of fiction doesn’t necessarily rob it of its capacity for conveying information about the world. Criticism, discussion and external evidence can help us ascertain how close to reality a certain depiction is. Once that is established, we can consider what purpose the realistic or unrealistic depiction served. Fictions that are unrealistic may nevertheless be able to tell us something informative: they often bring out a certain aspect of something or show it in a certain light so that we might understand its detail better.
In Commedia dell’arte theatre, the action is played out by archetypal characters, whose interactions illustrate the forces at play in human relationships. The cartoonish, exaggerated stories talk about love, jealousy and regeneration amongst other things, and if they are good plays, they show us detail and give colour to our understanding of these emotions and relationships — in spite of their lack of realism. By contrast, The Wire(2002–8) is a TV show whose accuracy to its source material (at least insofar as its representation of the consequences of the War on Drugs in certain types of cities in the US) has been roundly praised. The characters are still fictional, but they present informative angles on the way people in those positions might live their lives. The long-term cause and effect relations between the five areas of Baltimore society that are explored across its five seasons help us to gain a sophisticated understanding of how these structures might work in the real world.
To reiterate: art is not very authoritative evidence in itself of how the real world is, at least not as regards representation. It is more akin to a hypothesis distilled from the artist’s personal understanding. But to recognise that learning from art is best done in the context of other sources of knowledge is just to recognise the importance of context generally when trying to understand the world. Good critical thinking involves recognising the strengths and weaknesses of your informational sources, and combining them to form a coherent whole. In this way, the problem of the evidential poverty of fiction and art in general is dissolved: Diffey’s naive reader of literature (or consumer of art in general) is doing it wrong, at least if they want to learn about the world. The contemplative consumer views the artwork in context and engages with it critically in order to understand the parallels, metaphors and relations expressed within it and how they might relate to the real world. Such a person would be able to exploit, in the best sense, the insight of the artist and the non-propositional knowledge they have to impart.
But why should we trust the artist? What is valuable for us about the artist’s unique perspective if it does not necessarily correspond to an accurate, objective description of the world? This is the topic of the next section.
SECTION 3: DEVELOPING OUR CAPACITY FOR EMPATHY
SEEING SUBJECTIVITY AS A STRENGTH
In his seminal work Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman echoes Plato in the first few pages when he notes that if he were asked to draw a picture of a man, he would necessarily be copying just an aspect of how the man looks, or is — not completely representing the whole man. Furthermore, he points out that the ‘eye’ that an artist uses to create his work is not ‘innocent’:
‘The eye comes always ancient to its work, obsessed by its own past and by old and new insinuations of the ear, nose, tongue, fingers, heart and brain. It functions not as an instrument self-powered and alone, but as a dutiful member of a complex and capricious organism. Not only how but what it sees is regulated by need and prejudice. It selects, rejects, organizes, discriminates, associates, classifies, analyzes, constructs. It does not so much mirror as take and make and what it takes and makes it sees not bare, as items without attributes, but as things, as food, as people, as enemies, as stars, as weapons. Nothing is seen nakedly or naked.’ (Goodman, 1976: p.8) (emphasis mine)
To Plato, this ultimate and nightmarish subjectivity of art is its downfall as a vehicle for truth; I maintain that this can be art’s greatest strength. Art is the only place where we can have a glimpse into the emotional and perceptual life of another person, to see the world as they see it. I believe that if we consume art actively, perceptively, we can greatly develop our capacity for empathy, which I contend is one of the most valuable and essential tools for living on this planet.
The word ‘empathy’ is constructed from the Greek pathos, which is sometimes rendered as ‘emotion’, ‘passion’ or ‘feeling’. The standard dictionary definitions of the word tend to echo this phrasing, and in common parlance the word has a decidedly emotional quality to it: to empathise with someone is to feel the same emotions that they feel. However, the concept of empathy I want to discuss here is a little wider in scope. I hope the reader will forgive me for using the blurb provided by Wikipedia at the time of writing (in fairness, the definition is taken from a 1991 medical research paper), for it succinctly captures the sense of the word as I intend to use it:
‘Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e. the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.’ (Bellet, Maloney, 1991)
The difference is subtle, but not unimportant. I am concerned not just with the ability to feel something of the emotions of others, but also with the capacity to understand how others perceive the world. One might speak colloquially of ‘seeing through another’s eyes’. It seems to me that this sense is not completely conveyed by the word ‘feeling’, and therefore perhaps not by the conventional understanding of the word ‘empathy’. In what follows, however, I will continue to use the term for lack of a more precise one — with the understanding I mean here to refer to the wider conception of the word.
There are two ways in which art can expand our capacity for empathy. The first is by training our empathy muscle, as it were; in engaging actively with artworks we may become more astute at picking up on the complexities of relationships and structures. Carroll discusses this with reference to the intertwined question of ethical judgement: ‘Most fiction… engages audiences in a constant process of ethical judgement, encouraging readers, viewers and listeners to form moral evaluations of characters and situations virtually on page after page, and in scene after scene.’ (Carroll, 2000: 366/7) His comment is highly relevant because the effective exercise of moral judgement requires, as we will see in more detail slightly further on, a full understanding of the situations of others. So: grappling with the situations presented to us in art can hone our skills of empathetic perception.
The second, related, way in which art can expand our capacity for empathy is by providing us with insights into the complexities of people’s lives and their experiences dealing with these complexities. We go through most of life not comprehending in any great detail the experiences other people go through or the perceptual worlds they live in. We can never truly see into the head of another person; but in art, we have unparallelled access to the private, sometimes inner lives of others — fictional others, to be sure, but others whose experiences often bear meaningful, analogous relationships to real-life. Sometimes this takes an autobiographical form, where the artist tells of the world as they see it in a certain environment or scenario. Other times, the artist takes what they know about the world and constructs imaginary people that exemplify some aspect of life that they wish to convey. Often, it is a combination of the two, a hybrid of autobiography and fantasy that bring out an aspect of the artist that they want to explore through the languages of art.
To this effect, both Goodman and Langer have argued that art is a series of symbol systems, colloquially ‘languages’, that can use syntactic and semantic conventions to convey meaningful information through reference and notation in much the same way words can. In Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures, Langer outlines succinctly the way that the unique communicative features of art are used: ‘I think every work of art expresses, more or less subtly, not [necessarily] feelings and emotions the artist has, but feelings which the artist knows; his insight into the nature of sentience, his picture of vital experience, physical, and emotive and fantastic.’ (Langer, 1957: p.91) Goodman, too, argues that one of the reasons we engage in artistic practices is to communicate aspects of ourselves and the worlds we experience: ‘Works of art are messages conveying facts, thoughts, and feelings… art depends upon and helps sustain society — exists because, and helps ensure, that no man is an island.’ (Goodman, 1976: p.257) When combined with a perceptive and critical attitude that does not simply take artworks’ portrayals at face value, these viewpoints emphasise the unique contributions art has to make to our understanding of the world — and, crucially, each other.
Ziyad Marar, in his 2012 book Intimacy, examines the importance of human connection and closeness, suggesting methods for improving the way we search for it. In the chapter entitled ‘Learning from Literature’, he argues the following:
‘Literature is an empathy technology that provides various ways to summon up emotions and sympathy in ourselves, ones that the characters are experiencing, and might thereby increase our chance of noticing more, perceiving more richly and connecting more with people we might have encountered in life as alien to us.’ (Marar, 2014: p.191)
As I have argued above, I think the same can be said for many non-literary, narrative types of art.
Interestingly, there has in recent years been a push towards research to investigate this idea in the real world. Canadian researcher Keith Oatley, for example, has conducted a number of studies that attempt to catalogue the psychological effects of fiction — specifically, the ability to understand that others have their own mental states exemplifying different drives of their own, a capacity known in psychology as theory of mind. One of these studies, from 2008, had some the participants read short stories from famous authors while some read informative essays. The finding was that the former group scored generally higher on a variety of tests designed to measure their ability to empathise. (Djikic, Oatley, Moldoveanu: 2013) As two final examples note Lisa Zunshine (Why We Read Fiction, 2006) and Suzanne Keen (Empathy and the Novel, 2010), who have both looked in detail at the real-world relationship between consuming fiction and developing empathetic attitudes and even behaviours. They have concluded similarly: engaging perceptively with narrative tends to increase our capacity to place ourselves in the shoes of others.
THE VALUE OF EMPATHY
The ability to understand the way other people experience the world seems to me one of the most essential and fruitful capacities human beings can cultivate. Briefly — because the point is reasonably straightforward and uncontroversial — I want to explain why we should be very interested in the chance to increase the effectiveness of this tool.
On the one hand, there is the pragmatic dimension. Unless we retreat altogether from society, a fate most of us would never countenance, we have to deal with human beings almost every day. Being successful in these dealings in the modern world is likely to depend in part on our ability to reconcile our needs with the needs of others. To do that, we must be astute as regards the situations of others. A more empathetic person can be a more diplomatic person, and a more diplomatic person is likely, in many circles at least, to be more successful in achieving their aims.
On the other hand, there is the ethical dimension. Regardless of the normative theory one subscribes to, the project of ethics is inextricably bound up with the lives of other people. Understanding the positions of other people; understanding the way they perceive the world; understanding in detail the interplay between love, power, desire, fulfilment, anger, security, all the forces that drive our goals and our behaviours — these are essential requirements for making meaningful, justified judgements about the way we should aim to live our lives and the way we should assess others. Martha Nussbaum has argued in her paper The Literary Imagination in Public Life (and in many other places) that it is ‘as readers of novels that we should approach the social choices before us, trying, before our death, to consider our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings, with the wonder and generosity that this imagination promotes.’ (Nussbaum, 1991: p.907)
SECTION 4: SOME EXAMPLES
In this section, I examine some artworks that I am personally familiar with and suggest how our engagement with them might exemplify this empathetic interpretative attitude. This task becomes more difficult the more abstract an artwork becomes, not because abstract artworks do not convey anything, but because they are often not at all clearly related to the project of empathy. The works of Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, for example, explore the relationships between shapes, colours and space, and many works of the latter definitely convey some kind of emotion — but their primary value is not as sources of empathetic information so much as objects for emotional and conceptual reflection — and so they are not so much the subject of my argument here.
The list is by no means comprehensive: all of the examples are from the last century or so, and do not cover all the art forms; but the storytelling and evocative techniques they use to convey their information can be found in all art of a certain similar kind. I have ordered them roughly in terms of their position on the previously-suggested spectrum from structured narrative to emotional moment, in the hope that we can begin to see how our interpretation of the artwork (and therefore its role as a source of knowledge) might adjust accordingly. Whether or not I have correctly assessed their educative potential is a matter, of course, for discussion. My point is that it is exactly this discussion that we need to be having if we are to maximise art’s potential as a source of knowledge and understanding.
Breaking Bad, a 2008–13 television series produced by Vince Gilligan, tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer who turns his skills to the production of crystal meth in order to leave money for his family when he dies. As viewers, we see in intimate, sympathetic detail over almost 50 hours his transformation from unfulfilled but harmless middle-aged man to a fulfilled but greedy and manipulative drug kingpin, giving us perspective to what we might usually see as uncomplicated evil. There are many themes to be explored in this artwork. Among them are the nature of greed, family devotion, ego and moral balance. These are explored through the nuance in the actors’ performances, the structure of the writing, and the cinematography, where the characters’ mental states are often echoed by the filming style. In one scene, for example, a character grappling with grief and confusion is filmed from above lying on a slowly revolving park merry-go-round, which stays completely level in the shot as the world spins around it. In the context, this powerfully evokes a feeling of disorientation, encouraging us to empathise with the plight of the subject.
In Papers, Please, a 2013 videogame developed by Lucas Pope, players take on the role of a border guard in a fictional country from the Eastern Bloc called Arstotzka. Over the course of the game the player must take the papers of immigrants, check them against an increasingly laborious and confusing set of entry criteria, and either deny or grant entry. Every set of papers correctly checked pays ingame money that must be used to buy food and medicine for the player’s four-strong family as well as pay increasing rent. If a person without the right papers is granted entry, however, the player is fined. These mechanics allow the player to feel real emotional pressures that analogically reflect experiences of boredom and conflicting interests. For instance, at one point an immigrant with correct papers mentions that his wife is next in line and asks the player to be kind to her. When she comes to the desk, she is missing one of the necessary documents, but implores the player to let her through lest she be killed in her current country. The game is immersive enough that there is a penalty whatever the decision: let her through and the player must work harder and faster in the subsequent days to make up the damage of the fine; deny her entry and the player may be responsible for the death of a character they have been made to care about. In this case, we can begin to empathise with those who have monotonous jobs and who may only just be scraping by — and perhaps treat them with more respect when they do not behave as we want them to.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, tells a fictionalised version of his late teenage years growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Compton, California. Each song explores an aspect of this stage in his life, from disenfranchised youth and alcoholism to family values and homesickness. Both the lyrics and the sound combine to give life to these ideas. Within one moment in the album, the song ‘m.A.A.d city’, he gives the audience fleeting images of the terrifying gang violence around him at the time: a white youth shot in the head next to a burger stand; ducking stray bullets at lunchtime; sleeping with a gun under a pillow and a doctor on speed dial. Lamar’s voice is hoarse and worried, his delivery exaggerated, the meter of the lines constantly changing; the beat uses a minor key and a hypnotic repetition to evoke danger and movement. The melody gives colour and emotion to the lyrics, and the lyrics give context to the melody. Whether the specific experiences Lamar is describing actually happened or not is beside the point; empathising with art like this can help us to understand what the lives of those in those kind of environments might be like.
Der Schrei der Natur is a well-known 1893 painting (actually set of paintings) by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, in which a figure on a bridge with their hands to their face screams at the viewer. The sky is a powerful orange and the whole image appears to be swirling. Munch described the inspiration for this painting as a time when he felt ‘a scream passing through nature’ (Munch, 1892). Exactly what is meant by this has been a matter of some not-inconsiderable discussion, but even without that the painting is extremely evocative of anxiety, fear and insecurity. The brushstrokes are wavy and unfocused, the shapes in the background are indistinguishable and the eyes of the subject are wide and ghostly. Evidently, recognising this does not immediately help us to empathise with any particular group of people. But it does help us to flesh out our understanding of these emotions, to put another piece into the puzzle of the emotional world, as it were, without having to completely feel it ourselves. To be sure, experiencing the painting is not the same thing as experiencing the full emotion, but it does move us, and give us a glimpse of emotion that may help us to empathise better in the future.
CONCLUSION: ART CONSUMPTION AS EDUCATION
I contend that the arguments outlined at the start of this project against its central thesis have been more or less dissolved. The knowledge and understanding art conveys is not propositional, and therefore not subject to the literalist criticisms of Stolnitz and Diffey. Neither is it a problem for the cognitive view of art that most of it is fiction and only a reflection of one angle of a subject — for this is art’s special contribution: the perspective which is not representative of the whole but which exemplifies aspects of our emotional, social or transcendent lives. Combining art with the findings in other areas of knowledge can guide us in appropriate critical interpretation of the artworks. In the context of these arguments, the last remaining objection — that art is an insular activity with no consequence outside its own walls — seems unfounded. On the contrary, art is useful. It is uniquely positioned to convey information about the inner lives of characters, in such a way that critical engagement with them can help us to develop our capacity for empathy.
This is not art’s only strength, by any means: art can be beautiful, inspiring, amusing and even therapeutic. In addition, not all artworks are the same, so some are more suited to the empathetic purpose than others. As the examples in the previous section illustrate, however, the vast majority of artworks do have something to tell us about the nature of human experience, whether it be through evoking and exploring emotion, conveying the complexity of a situation or challenging our preconceptions about experiences that might otherwise be alien to us. Indeed, if my assessment is correct, we can no longer only engage with artworks that appeal to us, that we easily enjoy: if we wish to make the most of art’s cognitive potential then there must be a push towards the uncomfortable, towards the alien and the poorly understood. If we are truly invested in learning about the world and developing our capacity for empathy, we must recognise that artworks that express unfamiliar situations or emotions are exactly those artworks that have the most to teach us. Consequently, I think it is appropriate to consider art consumption of a certain kind as valuable and productive, an activity which has the potential to greatly expand our understanding of the world in which we live and the people with whom we share it.
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