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garnering empathy

em·pa·thy [em-puh-thee]
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.



At 27 June, 2007 06:44, Blogger Cathy said...

I enjoyed reading this - nothing altogether remarkable to add, but plenty to think about... I suppose empathy can be both empowering and crippling to an artist?? Ok, it's too early for my brain to ponder so much, must make more tea.... Cathy www.novembermoon

At 27 June, 2007 08:50, Blogger Will said...

Wear a suit whilst working. Talk in needless buzz words.

Claim to be 'drilling down' into the problem. Have some horrible affair when you are into your 50s.

Then you'd be living banker/lawyer dream. ;)

In all seriousness, it's a very valid point - you can't get sniffy about other people, and can only imagine; if I was you, I'd keep talking to that bloke. He sounds interesting, and it'll help you in future projects.

At 27 June, 2007 12:02, Blogger Age said...

I think our friend Rob said it best here: http://robcampbell.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/how-not-to-get-a-job-in-mainstream-adland/

At 27 June, 2007 12:52, Blogger lauren said...

hi cathy, thanks for commenting and i'm glad you found it something to ponder on.

yes, will, that's a way to live a dream, but like i said, even though i'd like to make a difference in their lives, i'm not about to suit'n'boot. i AM going to keep talking to our investment banker friend, if possible, he was a great help.

age, rob always says good stuff, and he reiterated the need to live a proper life and actually talk to people, which means i'm on the right track. and if you've got any more info on cultivating empathy, please, swing a link or two my way :)

At 27 June, 2007 23:48, Blogger Age said...

I think the closest I've come to understanding it was here: http://inmyatmosphere.blogspot.com/2007/01/understanding-understanding.html

You're def on the right track Lauren!

At 28 June, 2007 00:12, Blogger lauren said...

ah yes, i remember that post. i remember thinking that it was complete common sense.

and perhaps that's where i've come unstuck - i just assumed that everyone uses empathy in their everyday life, all the time. and we don't need to explain how we come to communicate with others, we just all know that we empathise and translate. hmmm...

perhaps there's something in the translation from empathy into communication that i'm interested in.

maybe i should just go to bed...

At 28 June, 2007 20:33, Blogger john dodds said...

I think you pulled!

At 28 June, 2007 23:40, Blogger lauren said...

i pulled? pulled what? huh? what are you talking about john.. ha!

At 29 June, 2007 02:22, Blogger Skanky Jane said...

Hey Lauren,

A welcome bit of down time is allowing me a good catch-up on my fave bloggers and I am rewarded this morning with your great post. I haven't checked out the links left by your other readers as yet but I will do.

Remember in Silence of the Lambs when the senator's daughter is kidnapped, there is a brief scene depicting a television campaign aimed at getting the public to come forward with information and/or persuading the perpetrator to release the young woman? During this scene FBI agents are watching the campaign and Clarice Starling says something like "That's clever they are making her a person". The campaign was designed to ellicit an empathetic response - because empathy makes it difficult to inflict harm on another person. Bring on Anita Larkin's empathy machine! (What the world needs now...)

In my view, walking a mile in someone else's shoes is essential to elliciting an empathetic response however this is not meant to be literal.

As evidenced by comments such as "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?", "but is that being naive? do i actually have to do things in order to maintain empathy (as opposed to apathy)?" and "i don't necessarily have answers,...i should never assume an arrogant stance with it" you are obviously conscientious (you care - you have the desire to be a good person) and self reflexive. I don't say this to flatter you but because I believe these traits are essential precursors to the development and/or maintenance of empathy.

Will articulate's the crux of the matter clearly and simply with "you can't get sniffy about other people" and "if I was you, I'd keep talking to that bloke".

Curiously, we may remain opposed to a person's religious beliefs, politics, life choices etc. etc. and still have an empathetic comprehension of them and thier position. I believe that herein lies a key to that "translation from empathy into communication" that you mention. Or perhaps communication translates to empathy which translates again through communication. Perhaps empathy is a liquid continuum.

Not getting sniffy, or self reflexiveness, is key to empathy. As you mention, arrogance, or the condition that arises when we forget to question (ourself, our use of language, our listening skills, our motives)will block the development of empathy.

Talking to that bloke and listening to that bloke is also key. Actively listening. Active listening is one form of walking a mile in someone else's shoes. To my way of reading it, Will's response is all about walking this way.

Empathy grows best in that conscientious soil you seem to have a gardenful of Lauren. Indifference is stony ground indeed. A further line of questioning might consider soil preparations. What type of mulch or fertiliser would create the best ground for a good crop of empathy?

Cheers to you,
SJ xx

At 29 June, 2007 23:50, Blogger lauren said...

holy shit SJ! welcome back with a bang!
thanks for all of that stuff. and i mean all of it. it's meant that i'm continuing to think about it and try to find some more written stuff on it, in terms of critical theory. promise i'll share about it if i do.

At 30 June, 2007 13:15, Blogger Skanky Jane said...

Cheers Lauren,

(*grimace at my long-winded self here*) - empathy is a fave topic with me. I'd love to read anything you find on it.

SJ xx

At 26 September, 2007 23:57, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello from Australia Lauren,
Great to read your conversation re: empathy.
and thanks for mentioning my Apparatus.
It is a topic I have been interested in within my work for quite some time. What actually is empathy, and can it be induced? 'Cause the world could really do with an injection of empathy right now it seems.
I have an image of my work Apparatus for Inducing Empathy: www.defiancegallery.com
I made a short film - a comic instructional video- how to identify cases of apathy and instructions on administering the apparatus to the patient, and of course the necessary disclaimer as to the responsibilty for the level of empathy reached using the apparatus.
The film was shown in a short film festival, and generated a lot of discussion re; empathy - just what constitutes empathy, does it require action to be effective empathy or is it enough just to feel the emotion for the other person? Can you have empathy for another person without being able o imagine being in their shoes? -and is it then a fear/concern for our own selves, our own frailty, that instigates empathy for another human being?
And does true empathy require some direct common experience of the other persons plight? I know myself having only five weeks to go till I give birth to my first child that my level of empathy has greatly deepened for all those mothers out there carrying an extra ten kilos around daily.
all the best to you Lauren, Anita Larkin.

At 27 September, 2007 19:31, Blogger lauren said...

anita! so good to hear from you - i was hoping you might add to this discussion one day. i would love to see that film one day - i could imagine it would be quite humourous.

i think that question about whether it is just emotion or action is an interesting one - i don't think it's just a mental capacity, definitely emotional, but whether it's physical, it certainly is an interesting concept. i don't know if you need direct common experience, but certainly something which resembles or immitates a common experience is necessary. i think we do have to have a self-motivated experience in there somewhere to have empathy, but i don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.. in fact, it provides more weight to the importance of context, as an idea.
i'm looking forward to seeing pics of your gorgeous new baby when he/she arrives and i hope you and eamon are both doing well! when i get back to australia and am near wollongong, i'll make sure i get in touch and see how you're doing for time/energy to catch up.
again, so lovely to hear from you!


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