1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
definition from the insufficient, yet currently convenient dictionary.com.
at an art opening (or ‘private view’ as it’s called here in the closed system that can be the art world), i found myself talking to an investment banker who was really interested in what i was jotting down in my trusty moleskine about the show. we were chatting about a painting that he had made an offer on, a work by pierre gerard, which featured the exposed insides of an orderly, cubicle-filled office block and the exposed chaos of those within it (possibly once the privacy or structure of the wall was removed?).
being an investment banker, he could completely related to the cramped and mad quarters that were depicted and asked me a really important question: how do you speak to people like me (ie. those living in a trapped environment of great pay, soulless work) if you’ve never worked in that kind of environment?
i was a bit stumped really. i know that i look at universal ideas of structure and destruction, which often speaks to people across demographics, but that’s not really what we were discussing. we agreed that using imagination is important (and that’s what artists, creatives are excellent at) and that empathy was key.
now, i believe i have empathy. in fact, i’m pretty sure of it because i could feel how these people in the painting felt, and also how our investment banker guy felt, going into the office day after day with absolutely nothing apart from his paycheck to keep him going back. but how did i get that? and how do i continue to regenerate my empathy, so that i don’t become a self-absorbed artist-type only being able to speak to other self-absorbed artist-types?
and i have no idea.
friend and super artist, anita larkin, has created an artwork, a machine for inducing empathy, but i’m pretty sure it’s not a functioning unit. and i’m sure there is critical and learned writing on the subject, i just haven’t looked at this stage. for me it’s always been a bit intuitive and impossible to clearly articulate, but is that being naive? do i actually have to do things in order to maintain empathy (as opposed to apathy)?
and despite the above definition, is empathy more than just the intellect. isn’t in fact a mental, emotional and possibly even spiritual action (verb, not noun)? do you need to actually feel something, understand, have the concept of transferrence in order to really have empathy with someone. and if so, can you do this only through the ‘method’ way of doing things, literally walking a mile in another’s shoes, or does imagination cut it.
i don’t necessarily have answers, but, as an artist, that conversation with paul the investment banker was incredibly important in reminding me of my purpose to communicate with people, to speak to them and that i should never assume an arrogant stance with it.