“It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” ― Käthe Kollwitz
The great German artist, printmaker and sculptor Käthe Kolwitz (1867-1945) knew profound personal suffering. After her younger son Peter died in battle in Flanders in October, 1914 she fell into a deep depression that re-shaped both her art and political views. The double sculpture that she finally completed in 1931 for the cemetery in which he son was buried, shows the artist and her husband apparently kneeling in grief. However, when asked about the theme of the sculpture Kollwitz explained that it was about much more than grief: it also represents all parents of her generation, asking forgiveness for having led their sons into war.
The Grieving Parents, like so many of Kollwitz’ finest works, is grounded in empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. She recognized that she was expressing something greater than her own feelings and that her art could only function if it served an entire society. Grief and loss are universal feelings that bind us, and sharing them with others leads to consolation and social transformation. It is not surprising that in 1936 the Nazi party barred Kollwitz from displaying her work which they branded as “degenerate.” Deep feelings for the sufferings and losses of others—which lead to collective introspection—can lead to resistance against authoritarian politicians and those who advocate war and other forms of sacrifice and suffering.
It is interesting to note that the idea of empathy is a late-nineteenth/early twentieth century development, that derives from the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art. In her book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, author Rachel Corbett writes:
The invention of empathy corresponds to many of the climactic shifts in the art, philosophy and psychology of fin-de-siècle Europe, and it changed the way artists thought about their work and the way observers related to it for generations to come.
The development of empathy as a social expectation and custom parallels the development of Expressionism: of inwardness as a gateway to emotional connection. That inwardness—so essential in the modern conception of a self-aware individual—is the hinge that connects to social awareness and the empathetic understanding of others.
Empathy is, without doubt, a political force that plays a considerable role in attitudes towards social issues. In a recent article for Psychology Today—Beware America’s Shocking Loss of Empathy—attorney and social advocate David Noise argues that empathy and it’s “cousin” compassion are crucial elements in politics and policy, arguing that they “lead to an intelligent assessment of what is happening internally and around the world, a minimal level of humane values, and rational attempts to apply those values.”
In the context of America’s recent Presidential election, where outrage, uncivil discourse and personal attacks demonstrated a shocking lack of empathy, it seems critical for artists to ask themselves about the role of empathy in their own work. Whether their work is political, personal or somewhere in-between, the element of empathy can allow an artist to “give voice to the sufferings of others,” as Käthe Kolwitz did so nobly in her works.
Below is a selection of responses posted on my personal Facebook page after I asked the question:
What is the role of empathy in your art?
Note: some responses have been edited for brevity.
Steven Holmes: Making art assumes empathy. Making art is an act of sharing. It is by definition, an invitation to others to leave their isolation and meet others on the same road as you. An artist without empathy is a sociopath.
Mark David Lloyd: Empathy can be painful. Much of my artwork on a conceptual level deals with suffering in one form of another, empathy is experienced in the making process of the artworks and sometimes by the viewer. When we witness suffering and distress in others, our natural tendency to empathize can bring us vicarious pain.
Colin Darke: It plays the central role. I only paint or draw in hopes of having a shared experience ― my picture echoing the viewer’s feelings (past or present, happiness/sadness/wonderment) in a new and powerful way.
Julia Morgan Scott: I have become somewhat suspicious of efforts to consciously insert empathy into painting. It seems IMHO to politicize something natural to the process of simply painting what one truly loves.
Isaias Sandoval-Streufert: For me empathy is essential, without empathy it will be only apathy, my work is about passion, I can’t paint apathy even if I try.
Karen Kaapcke: I also have the thought that it is possible that people with high levels of empathy take to the arts as vehicles for that way of being, because it is possibly not an easy way of being (I am thinking of myself when quite young, being almost unbearably disturbed by seeing certain things, or being almost unbearably moved by the beauty of something. Both are equally empathic. A life in the arts might make being that way a little more bearable).
Nancy Good: Empathy is key as it speaks the language of connection, i.e. connection to the life experiences of the viewer. We are all connected in pain, joy, fear, wonder, hunger, yearning ... all we experience. Empathy in art banishes isolation and invites healing.
Franck De Las Mercedes: Most of my work stems from an emotionally charged, at times dark, at times painful place. To hear others regard it as beautiful or meaningful to their lives is the biggest compliment. The gift is in sharing and understanding the feelings and experiences of another.
F. Scott Hess: Empathy is the link that a painter of figures relies on to make others feel the work. It happens before conscious thought, before critical analysis kicks in. You grab your audience by their empathetic guts before they know what’s happening. Gesture, facial expression, movement, composition, and paint application all work together to achieve this end.
Judith Peck: In order to create, I have to feel very deeply, without that connection I believe my work would be a hollow shell.
Steph Rocknak: From an article I wrote a few years ago: “Psychology, which in many respects grew out of Hume’s work, is helping us to further clarify the fundamental role that empathy plays in our moral sensibilities. Hume’s work, written over two hundred and fifty years ago, is still profoundly relevant. But great artists have always seemed to know what Hume knew; they hook us up to the empathy machine when we become too self-involved, too isolated. For the most part, artists, not philosophers, keep us human; they can put us—no, sometimes force us—into the other person’s shoes. We see what it is like to be a victim a war, we see what it is like to be terribly conflicted, we see what it was like to be trapped inside the World Trade Center on 9/11. Artists can also expose our horror for what it is; we get a look inside the heads of those who know no empathy: the psychopaths, the sociopaths, the narcissists. Sometimes, we even get to see what it is like to live in an entire society that has gone the way of a psychopath. Once again, Bosch and Michelangelo come to mind, or, more recently, Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. “
Dab Zabooty: Without empathy art becomes a technical exercise.
Tristan Xavier Köster: In German there is this word “Sympathie” (not to be confused with sympathy) which basically means that you can understand and empathize with somebody(always used positively). I think that this sensation of Sympathie, finds itself in nearly all forms of art, allowing complete strangers to feel and see/hear with the artist. Empathy (veiled by a sense of guilt) fuels just about every single melody I write, but I always try and make sure that my music is “sympathisch” to the listener.
Joseph Bravo: Genuine aesthetic communication rests on empathy between the artist and the viewer. If art is to maintain some intrinsic cultural relevance then the audience indeed needs to be broadened. With that broadening of the audience must also come a broadening of the messages and the identity of the messengers as well, even at the risk of a disquieting cacophony. But ideally, each artist would be endeavoring to expand that empathic communication to edify as wide a range of humanity as possible. If artists are to speak with their audience rather that merely at it, then they should seek to find at least a point of common ground on which to plant that seed of empathy.
Conor Walton: Empathy assumes reciprocal emotional relations between artist, subject and viewer that are egalitarian insofar as each can identify with the other, and this might naturally be expected to form the basis of an egalitarian art. It might suit a modern style of portraiture or figure painting which takes human equality for granted, but most of the great artworks of the past were produced in a different social context, and embody power relations and notions of social hierarchy that obstruct empathic relations. Are they to be admired less as a consequence? Is a contemporary work that expresses empathy superior to an ancient masterpiece that doesn’t? Or might it be the reverse: that cultivating empathy leads towards an urbane, popular, sentimental art, but places the highest summits of achievement off limits because of its antipathy to the sublime?
Vonn Sumner: Empathy is the most important, most essential, most foundational element of painting and drawing. Empathy was the guiding principle of Wayne Thiebaud’s teaching, and he would often state it plainly. He would also say that empathy is the basis of civilization and quote Gloria Steinham: “Empathy is the most radical human emotion.”
Joao de Brito: A Portuguese Proverb:”O artista é a voz do povo” or “ artists are the voice of the people” empathy is what is channeled by many artists to express what needs to seen or heard from the public when the world is in confusion.
Ingrid Reeve: My art is not about progress; it’s about truth. Empathy is essential for discerning truth.
Note: The original Facebook post and all replies can be viewed at this link.