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The Empathy Racket
The pious and dreary insistence on heightened empathy as a proper or desirable response to art is made only by those with a stunted understanding of what art is.
The bland supposition that art can foster empathy was once both easy to concede and easy to ignore. “Does reading novels and looking at paintings, in fact, make one a more empathic person?” “Well yes, maybe, probably. But let’s talk about this book.” That was before. Today, arts institutions and artists are enthralled by empathy to the point of dependence. Without it, their work has no meaning. Empathy is the product they are in the business of advancing—a world-transforming product, of which the world can never have too much.
Others are no less enthralled. Psychologists and cognitive scientists clamor to prove a link between empathy and art, so ripe is the desire to brand the old supposition a scientific fact. In this new century, scholars, educators, curators, arts writers, museum administrators, and cultural critics have made empathy their great basis for defending and promoting the arts. As they now see it, encounters with artworks engage and strengthen our ability to empathize, and herein lies art’s value to humankind.
A thinking person might ask, If the value of art is not in the art itself but in the empathy it fosters, what’s the value of that? By activating our inborn capacity for empathy, the reasoning goes, art can be a tool of social transformation—an unadulterated good. Administered effectively, art is a means by which people can be coaxed into greater emotional understanding of others, and this in turn will impact their behavior in myriad favorable ways. Empathy makes one a better person and citizen. But it does not end with the individual. Somehow, too, empathy makes us better collectively. To see this, first one must make the very sophisticated diagnosis that our political, institutional, economic, and social problems are the direct result of a perceivable lack of interpersonal understanding on the scale of individuals. From there, it can tidily be deduced that greater empathy will lead to progress in all areas. All this from how we choose to read poems and look at frescoes.
The empathy racket is the clearest indication of how chronically insecure and beleaguered from within are the arts.
The empathy racket and the political activism now ascendant in contemporary arts and letters are parallel phenomena. Both are utilitarian. The empath and the activist regard art fundamentally as a delivery system for messages and awarenesses. They believe that the output of an artwork, its effect on audiences, can be controlled and predetermined. According to both frameworks, we should be goal-oriented in our thoughts and feelings when visiting a gallery or opening a book. Our responses matter to the world. The well-being of society is at stake.
This results-based management of aesthetic experience inevitably treats as superfluous all but a sliver of the responses in an individual that great art enlivens. Unruly imagination, with its proclivity for the carnal and macabre, the empath shuns. Personal connection is all: On this basis alone are a work’s formal and material qualities interesting. Awe, for the empath, is a feeling of intense connection between her and the artist or the artist’s subject. Cleaved from its etymology, awe is no longer an experience of dread and reverence, a response to the majestic or uncanny. Such elements in art are beside the point.
So too are entire works that do not elicit empathy for their characters, subject, or maker. The empathy racket treats as automatically canonical any art that memorializes certain historical events, art as documentary, and art of witness, whatever its quality or degree of originality. Those forces inexplicable to the human that great art from Hellenistic sculpture to the Jodhpur-Marwar court paintings to Modernist poetry has concerned itself with—forces unconscious, spiritual, natural, chthonic—do not interest the empath.
Academic studies in the literary and performing arts are awash in recent books on empathy. Humanities scholarship has a trendy new subject—and this focus, also found in countless resources for teachers, more broadly reflects how literature and art are being treated in the classroom.
Representative of the push in higher education is Of Human Kindness, published earlier this year by Yale University Press. At under 150 pages excluding notes, with wide margins and a large font, the monograph has been written and marketed less as a contribution to scholarship than as a trade book. Its target audience—not academics but students and the general reader—is signaled most patently by the subtitle, “What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy.” In his keen blurb, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic implies that the book’s focus on the Bard as an inadvertent writer of self-help may go some way to rehabilitating his reputation among “suspicious” young readers. The author is clear that this was her intention. Against the charge, now common, that Shakespeare is “complicit in the exploitative, imperialistic nature of his society,” she argues instead that the plays, read chronologically, exhibit their author’s growing awareness of the “inequities and injustices” of his era. Shakespeare, she contends, was woke—and for this reason the plays are “primers to awareness and empathy in us,” “a spur to revision and change.” Feelings engendered in her by the plays’ characters, she writes, “made me a better person.”
Shakespeare should be central to the academic curriculum, Of Human Kindness’s author argues, and I would argue the same. Criticism of the empathy racket can sound like criticism of the subject of an empath’s passion, and of passion itself, and of empathy. But the reasoning behind the default to empathy is what’s shallow and deadening. Indeed, Shakespeare gave action and voice to some of the most complex psyches—frequently pathological or violent—in all of literature, so penetrating was his insight into the human mind. Ignoring for a moment his linguistic virtuosity (which, it turns out, one can never conscionably ignore; the plays and characters within them are their speech, constellations of metaphor), the fact that Shakespeare developed many-layered sentient beings, living by motivations both lucid and opaque, is simply that: a fact. Whether we say that fact stems from his empathy or his being touched by the divine makes no difference to it. Yet for this educator, the “gift” of Shakespeare, the reason the plays ought to be read, is that he saw “beyond his society’s horizon” and can inspire you to do the same. For the empath, reading Shakespeare is not, as the author contends, an “intellectual adventure” but a moral one.
It distorts and devalues the literary arts to conflate an education in the history and interpretation of literature with an education in morality. The empathy emphasis subjugates art by placing the burden of virtue on artworks, and, by association, on artists themselves. Given our scant knowledge of his life and relying on the various portrayals of “the Other” in the plays, it’s certainly possible to present William Shakespeare as a man who would pass the purity test that artists today are subject to. Writers about whom we know a little more—Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Woolf—would fail it. But the empathy emphasis also burdens a third constituent: those who engage art. Students with an empath as their teacher will quickly come to understand that some aesthetic experiences are more correct than others. Reading well means reading for sentiment.
The pious and dreary insistence on heightened empathy as a proper or desirable response to art is made only by those with a stunted understanding of what art is. The concept of empathy was originated by psychologists, now half-forgotten, with this same stunted understanding.
In the 1870s, German psychologists lurched into the domain of art appreciation. At the crossroads of philosophy and physiology, psychology as an independent scientific discipline had emerged in the previous decade. The sensory and mental activity of perception, long a subject of interest within the academy, became the basis of early psychological study—in particular, aesthetic perception. Different ideas were proposed for explaining how it is that we apprehend visual form, and the theory of Einfühlung, literally “feeling into,” was one of them. The theory holds that aesthetic experience involves the projection of one’s bodily and emotional feelings onto the object of interest, as a means of interpreting it. By the turn of the century, philosopher and psychologist Theodor Lipps had popularized the term Einfühlung.
At that time, a theorist of Lipps’s ilk would say of a painting that its formal qualities are expressionless in themselves; rather, it is by our own unconscious state of mind and imagined physical sensations that we project meaning onto the painted image’s proportions and shapes. (John Ruskin, decades earlier, had termed this kind of personification the “pathetic fallacy.”) The theory’s description of aesthetic experience later came to be seen as a way of bringing art to the masses. No prior knowledge—of history, culture, or the development of artistic practices—was necessary. Art appreciation was emotional projection.
The word “empathy” entered our lexicon in 1909 as a proposed English equivalent of Einfühlung. That original meaning is altogether different from, and in a way the opposite of, empathy as it’s defined today—as the ability to vicariously experience in oneself the feelings and thoughts of another. By the Second World War, empathy’s definition was splintering within psychology. Gradually it lost its close association with art. As the term caught on with the general public after the war, empathy’s meaning cohered as an emotional ability related to sympathy, but stronger: the ability to feel how another feels. This meaning we have inherited. Today psychologists disagree over how many “phenomena” can be considered forms of empathy. Some say there are eight.
Although early empathy theorists wrote on aesthetics, it would be a mistake to suppose that means they had refined taste in art—or any aesthetic sensibility whatsoever. Of course philosophers of aesthetics have made valuable contributions to the arts over the past three hundred years. But the emergence of the human sciences, along with the Kantian universal categories, provided humanists and scientists alike the license to make art criticism and aesthetic theory a strictly abstract and cognitive affair. To such thinkers, the art-historical or aesthetic value of an artwork is completely irrelevant. Today’s empaths and empathy’s originators use the term differently, but they approach the individual work of art with the same deliberate ignorances: to the work’s material, technical, and formal reality; to its allusions and influences or use of archetypes; about its historical context and significance within the development of the medium; to their own minds, spirits, and senses. Narrowly defined affect and internalized moralism replace all this.
Today empathy is one of the mistiest words in our language, which why popular books on the subject have such awful covers. The business world likes empathy; Forbes calls it a “pivotal leadership effectiveness tool in today’s global market.” Because it signals so many noble abstractions—kindness, understanding, connection, progress—the term is highly marketable. Among those who know this best are grant-seeking artists and arts institutions.
In 2017 the Minneapolis Institute of Art received $750,000 from the Mellon Foundaton to establish the Center for Empathy and Visual Arts (CEVA), the first such institution of its kind. (The grant is dwarfed by the $250 million Mellon committed in late 2020 to its five-year Monuments Project and the $72 million it has awarded in the past year to scholars addressing racial justice and social equality.) CEVA’s objective is to research and develop best practices for fostering empathy, through art, in museum audiences. CEVA hosts think tanks and conferences; it works with curators and psychologists, artists and neuroscientists. Its partners include the UC Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory. The first sentence on CEVA’s About page—and, one imagines, the first sentence of its Mellon application—cites the divisive issues of our time: “politics, racial inequities, marriage equality, global warming, income disparities, and immigration policies.” The page quotes empath Roman Krznaric of The School of Life, a company that offers self-betterment workshops and books for the crowd who read only the Lifestyle section of the newspaper. “In our increasingly divisive world,” the text reads, “it becomes clear that our failures to understand other people’s feelings are exacerbating prejudice, conflict, and inequality.” How exactly such a thing becomes clear need not be specified. We all know, do we not, that the world is being ruined by misunderstood feelings?
Reading through CEVA’s limited materials online, I did wonder whether the center’s interdisciplinary approach has made a misty concept still mistier. CEVA’s own white paper bizarrely claims “we became empathic when we became human,” a nonsense statement given that various mammals share with us this trait. Did the bonobo become empathic when it became the bonobo? If CEVA is not entirely precise about empathy’s evolutionary basis, the institution is clear-eyed regarding its own purpose and that of museums: namely, to engineer society. “How can our work positively impact and challenge our visitors to think or act differently?” asks CEVA’s director. Art museums, she says, should “amplify their public value by participating in and leading social change efforts.” Such activist efforts are at the heart of the growing “empathy movement” across museums, which shares much of its platform with the growing antiracism movement.
Museum goers—not to say taxpayers—may well ask themselves whether it should be the responsibility of museums to attend to society’s present-day ills or instead to preserve and display culturally significant artefacts and art. In 2019, an attempt by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to update its long-standing definition of “museum” generated enormous controversy. ICOM represents 20,000 institutions worldwide. Twenty-four national branches of ICOM called for the vote on the new wording to be postponed. Included in the proposed definition are the statements that museums “are democratising,” “[address] the conflicts and challenges of the present,” and “[aim] to contribute to . . . human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing”; missing are the words “education” and “institution.” The disagreement continues. In my opinion, addressing society’s (or the world’s) problems ought not to be the primary charge of curators, arts programmers, and museum directors, because, in the first place, they are not trained in conducting social scientific research and therefore not professionally capable of evaluating what those economic, political, geopolitical, and social problems even are.
If museums must justify their existence, they should to do so honestly, on the basis of what the items in their collections demonstrate for audiences. Museums teach history. Museums present the heterogeneous intellectual and artistic heritages that any person, living in a liberal society of individual freedoms, can claim for herself. Art and artifacts, carefully contextualized, confront us with the difficulties of categorizing any time as a lesser version of, or fully contiguous with, another. The hubris that we live in the most sophisticated or interesting period in history is demolished by visits to museums, which show how people long dead, in cultures foreign to anyone alive today, had inner lives as rich, skills as masterful, and belief systems as limiting yet sufficient as our own. And most centrally, though inadvertently, museums prove that across millennia, art is what remains. Leaders die, political systems fail, societies crumble, languages morph, religions burn out and are replaced, but art survives, despite time’s ravages. Centuries after their makers’ deaths, artworks continue to communicate.
Museums intending to turn themselves into empathy emporia will not be short on scientific experts with whom to partner. As with grant-seekers in the arts and humanities, those in psychology and neuroscience who focus on empathy and the arts are handsomely supported. Hundreds of studies and papers have been conducted and written in the last ten years. The effect of fiction reading on “theory of mind”—the brain’s cognitive mechanism for understanding the mental states of others—is the subject of most research.
Some of these studies have found a correlation between fiction reading and results on empathy tests. How are such studies conducted? Sometimes participants are given short texts to read. Other times they’re quizzed beforehand on their recognition of authors’ names—an indication, ostensibly, of how well read they are. Participants’ empathy levels are measured in various ways. One commonly used test asks a participant to guess people’s emotional states by looking at pictures of their eyes or faces. Another has the experimenter “accidentally” drop a handful of pens and record whether participants help to pick them up. Other studies have them fill out “emotional transportation” questionnaires.
A 2013 study in Science that found reading literary fiction temporarily enhances a reader’s performance on cognitive empathy tests was published to much media fanfare. The media didn’t bother to report that at least five attempts to replicate those specific findings failed. Other studies, particularly those that measure participants on how well they recognize author names, share a fatal flaw common to psychological experiments, in that they confuse correlation and causation. Individuals who are more empathic in the first place—and who are more interested in subjectivity and relationships generally—are the ones who enjoy and make time for reading novels. They read because they are empathic, not the other way around. As it turns out, what the entire scholarly subject was missing was some statistical analysis, that great elucidator of art. A 2018 meta-analysis of fourteen studies asserted the debate could be put to rest: “Fiction reading,” the authors found, “leads to a small, statistically significant improvement on social-cognitive performance.” What do these lab findings mean in the real world? I hazard nobody knows, least of all those who do fluffy write-ups of studies in the mainstream press.
Certainly the human brain’s predisposition to intersubjectivity is a matter of general and scientific interest. It should surprise no one with a marginal respect for the brain’s complexity that a lot is going on in there when we read literature, just as when we argue or stare into the fridge. Scans show the region of the brain concerned with grasping is activated when a person reads about a character in a story pulling a light cord. This pleasant factoid tells us nothing about how and why certain novels are valuable to our species, worthy of being carried across languages and down through generations. There’s a desperation about all this research into proving, empirically, fiction’s cognitive effects. You can tell a utilitarian by how he relishes hard data relating to emotion and the arts. If scientists can only prove that hearing music and looking at sculpture increases empathy, crowds will flock to the concert halls and galleries.
Denouncing the empathy racket is tricky because it comes across as callous. In our time, virtue is a matter more of public expression than of private action. Signs in the front yards of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods inform passersby, “In this house we believe . . . kindness is everything,” a dictum most eight-year-olds have the life experience to know is rather facile. The cultural discourse, like the political, is stuffed with unspecific yet psychologically weighted words: justice, trauma, care. Arts institutions, critics, and artists recognize the importance of publicly demonstrating their virtuousness. The demand on them comes not only from the public but from inside the house, from other institutions, critics, and artists.
So it is a fine idea these days for artists pursing fellowships, commissions, and followers to brand their work as empathy-enhancing. The declaration is not always so calculated, however. Those artists who are insecure about their own practice—who feel but do not necessarily think their way through their art-making—often say it is rooted in empathy. Encouraging them is the art-world apparatus, which, out of its own insecurity, has taken to asserting its political relevance. Happy, too, are the aspiring painter’s or poet’s middle-class parents, for whom art that preaches empathy has a ring of pragmatism about it. Their child is not a dreamy layabout. He’s a sort of one-person NGO.
More often than not, the people we know who are the kindest are not also those who have read the greatest number of literary works, absorbed the most art-house cinema, or spent the longest time amid art installations. Anecdotally, the most generous, forgiving, patient, and warm-hearted are by no means the most aesthetically sophisticated among us. There’s nothing confounding about this. Art and empathy’s relationship is not special—a detail those engaged in the empathy racket neglect to mention. Experiences as particular as losing a parent or as ordinary as eating the food of another culture can make a person more empathic toward others.
Can empathy for another be an outcome of an art experience? Naturally. Can reading stories and looking at pictures expand a child’s emotional intelligence—her ability to discern feelings, attitudes, and expressions from the vast corpus of internal and physiological states the human enjoys and suffers, many within the span of an hour, very rarely intentionally? Absolutely children can learn to understand themselves and others more deeply this way. Absolutely they should be taught and encouraged to do so.
The objectives and impacts of the empathy racket lie elsewhere. The top-down assertion from educational and cultural institutions that there are correct ways to feel and think about art has consequences for the individual psyche. Virtuous in intention, the empathy racket’s effects are instead adverse. Unwittingly, the insistence on empathic responses to plays and paintings and poems is absolutely detrimental to the mind. This is especially true for young people, who have known only a world in which they are constantly monitored. The empathy expectation entrenches the very problems of social isolation and misunderstanding that empathy is purported to treat. Asking artworks to teach people lessons means asking those who engage art to see themselves as morally wanting. As a circumscribed expectation of an art encounter, empathy burdens the mind. The imperative that one corral one’s feelings in a single direction is spirit-smothering, tyrannous. Already, we are told, mental health crises throughout the West are underway, the origins of which long preceded the pandemic. Among young adults and teens, levels of anxiety and depression have risen steadily over the past decade. No good can come of telling young people there are preferred outcomes to their experiences of art. The empathy expectation is an imposition on all the psychic faculties. The imagination cannot be restricted without consequence.
No doubt those arts institutions, such as CEVA, premised on building “a just and harmonious society” are promoting art on the basis not of its being aesthetically good but of its making audiences into good people. To the empaths, powerful art is benevolently humanitarian. The artist’s role is that of social worker and saint. In reality, empathic artists are frequently hectoring. A 2019 poetry anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, calls on readers to “imagine the world we will leave behind in ruins lest we speak and act.” Engaging those poems, apparently, is our civic responsibility. It is no coincidence that artists who believe art should serve a function in society, the utilitarians, make works that are typically conformist, generic, and didactic. By fiat, they deny the imagination its mystery and irreverence. But the imagination, like the impact of any artwork, cannot be managed. The empathy discourse parades as a form of engagement in concrete social realities. In truth, it enforces predetermined categories on what is by nature dispersive and wild. Meaning, for the empath, is not explosive but aggressively limited. Empathy is a downer: Its high dulls the faculties rather than stimulates. Empathy domesticates, sanitizes, bleaches. The aligning of art with empathy signifies just how incapable of regarding and fairly representing art the literary and visual art worlds have become.
Readers and audiences are flattened into “members of society” by the empathy fixation, stripped of their all-too-human parts to which society is blind. But society had to be invented. It does not contain the human experience. Marxists and critical theorists, like social-engineering empaths, misunderstand this. We are not social beings only, acted on by power structures. There is more to existence than our emotional connection with or responsibilities to others.
To conclude, empathy has no inherent value when it comes to aesthetic appreciation. In literature, I struggle to see how much the empathy orientation can derive from the works of Gertrude Stein, Jay Wright, Victor Pelevin, or Gozo Yoshimasu, beyond simplistic biographical interpretations. The empathy approach does nothing to develop a personal canon, which cannot be built on interpersonal feelings alone. How the individual values art is a matter of personal judgment, of cultivated aesthetic sensibility, which is an aliveness to the full emotional, psychological, intellectual, and sensual dimensions of one’s life.
Great art can intimidate, alienate, disorient, and disturb. I hold that even ambivalence, when aroused by art, is a more significant—more involving—feeling than empathy. Ambivalence urges us to compare this with that, to ask ourselves why one work is more compelling than another. Ambivalence thereby develops our aesthetic sensitivity.
Feelings are shallow as often as they are deep. With no art-historical knowledge, with no contextual understanding, one only looks at a painting; one does not see it. Having invested some time in learning about Quattrocento art—how the mediums developed technically, how subjects and themes old and new were newly treated through the period—I think and feel a number of things when beholding a reproduction of Botticelli’s Primavera, and empathy is not one of them. Strangely clustered in the orange grove, the painting’s figures withhold their allegorical meaning, even as the meadow at their feet, the trees above, rose-scattering Flora, and the painter all cast out their fertile bounty.
Art should not be expected to make one feel better, in some therapeutic sense, or make one a better person, in a moral sense. Art should make one feel more human, more alive to one’s own spontaneity, contradictions, and irrationality. Crass and moralistic contemporary readings of Ovid reduce the Roman poet down to an empath of rape survivors. Such readings are blind to everything thrilling about the two-thousand-year-old Metamorphoses, 12,000 lines of relentless sinuous energy, a poem that flips the civilized human character over to reveal our intrinsic “double nature,” swooping between epic and burlesque, pastoral and comedy, tragedy and love elegy, its stories melding one into the next. The poem is entirely autonomous; its value lies in itself, not somewhere outside it.
Syntax and paint are not means to ends. Because artworks have a material—not theoretical, or ever entirely conceptual—reality, we engage them not merely as ideas but always as things. Great works communicate variously, in directions and degrees their makers could never fully intend or control. This is why our own responses to great works are so often unexpected. In painting, Dalí’s Surrealist dreamscapes have a harmony absent from most eighteenth-century landscapes; Leonardo’s Virgin paintings, a holy subject, have an ambiguous energy, mildly sinister; Agnes Martin’s hand-drawn grids, severely Apollonian, feel intensely personal when seen up close; Caravaggio invented photographic techniques centuries before the first camera; Cy Twombly’s most abstract masterworks, seemingly chaotic, are coherent as the rites of the Dionysian Mysteries; J. M. W. Turner’s sea storms capture human passion without a person in sight.
We each have a spirit life that does not heed society. Our spirit lives rear up out of the unconscious at all the most intense moments in our existence: during sex, meditation, and illness; when dreaming, in danger, and falling in love; through encounters with great art. Artworks speak to us in their own registers. It is on us to cultivate the many ways we can respond.