19 Comments
Nov 4, 2021Liked by Alice Gribbin

This was wonderful to read. I feel like I see so many people - even private people, speaking away from the eyes of the Internet - who can only engage with art now by standing outside their experience, watching themselves watch the art, ready to intervene quickly if it seems it might not make them a “better” person. There’s a smug derision even among self-styled artists for non-didactic work; and any work that is both non-didactic *and* regarded as potentially morally important must immediately have its non-didacticism turned into a lesson, proof somehow that art that’s too “serious” is elitist - and therefore does not engender empathy. It often doesn’t seem that they’re having a lot of fun creating, or talking about other people’s creation.

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Really enjoyed this. There is a certain brazenness to your writing, an utter disregard for what the Very Smart People think. There's also a subtly acerbic tone that I relish. It is apparent in this paragraph:

"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."

Ouch.

I also want to note that even the most moralizing of premodern art, such as passion plays, still has a certain universality because it is based on a transcendent foundation. If we reject all metanarratives and any notion of transcendence, we're left with a sort of insipid social morality. And that's how we commit the tremendous stupidity of basing our morality on "empathy."

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Nov 7, 2021Liked by Alice Gribbin

A brilliant essay, and a necessary one--I couldn't agree more. I would argue though that the empathy racket began in literature and philosophy in 18th century England and France, in the novels of Richardson and the treatises of Rousseau. You could say that Richardson had a sophisticated grasp of how empathy can lead us into dubious and threatening regions, since we also empathize with his magnetic villain Lovelace, but he was determined to lead us back toward empathy with his sainted heroine Clarissa. Identifying with a fictional character is seen as dangerous in Plato; Richardson wants to make it wholesome. This debate continues in Diderot and Rousseau. Many great works make the reader feel empathy for complicated reasons--Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Nabokov's Lolita, Mailer's The Executioner's Song. The point is that now empathy is being presented as a wholesome channel to having a better character and forging a better society, which it's not. The other point, of course, is that in disciplines like lyric poetry and visual art empathy isn't very much in play, and so political messaging has taken over these forms of art as another path to easy moralizing. As Alice Gribbin implies, a poet like Jay Wright --or Louise Gluck, our recent Nobel prize winner--are ignored in favor of poets who stuff their work with leftist political slogans.

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Did Rousseau have empathy for the multiple children he fathered and put up for adoption?

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No, of course not, but that'snot my point--rather that the idea of feeling others' sufferings was basic to his theories, which had a massive influence

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The source of this idea that you must feel, and only feel, the sufferings of others -- Jean Jacques Rousseau as well as Karl Marx -- were people who, fairly objectively speaking, were extremely neglectful in their personal lives, somehow qualifying them to pen treatises on how to remake the World. As ever-angry Christopher Lasch put it, “The left has too often served as a refuge from the terrors of the inner life… political movements exercise a fatal attraction for those who seek to drown the sense of personal failure in collective action”. Let me tell you about the endless possibilities for humanity! (If only the rest of the humans weren’t human at all… and never mind how terrible the World would be if everyone else shirked their life responsibilities as had I.) Art is something which can increase your human understanding, as Alice so brilliantly put it in her essay; empathy is but one component of it. Empathy without understanding – complicated reasons as you say – is a one-way ticket to Gulags. So long as there are authoritarians who would rather live the lives of others than their own, which is to say as long as humans go on being all-too-human, the hubris and lack of humility coexisting amongst Rosseau and his ideological descendants will persist.

Alice, I loved your essay. Really great. One-person NGO, ridiculous lawn signs an 8 year old could see through, staring in the fridge; really funny. The spirit-smothering, tyrannical nature of top-down dictates is all-too-true.

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Nov 15, 2021Liked by Alice Gribbin

this is a really great piece, it's really inspirational to me and my studies-- thank you. please keep writing.

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Dec 4, 2021Liked by Alice Gribbin

Really good essay. I think that art is a big mystery because it merges with communication, and I love to investigate it. I'm from Brazil and here art is used by the indigenous people for healing purpose and Rap music changed countless lives in the favelas, wich for me, contraditcs the ideia that art doesn't have that power and the artists shouldn't worry about it, or considerate it when making art. That's just a few examples that i wanted to bring up because i think that we should look at art as a tool that changes over time, and now is being used for empathy purpose because we are living and a fucked up world that needs people to be more empathic.

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Nov 23, 2021Liked by Alice Gribbin

What a wonderful essay: thoughtful, informative, and surprisingly wry. The current understanding of art as a utilitarian tool, having meaning only in the context of serving an external, supposedly superior purpose, reminds me chillingly of Tolstoy's "What is Art." Tolstoy's rejection of art as having any worth outside of moral representation results in an eradication of art itself. It would serve the members of Empath, Inc. to take notes on the inevitable conclusion of their own undertaking: the utilization of art as moral instruction turns empathy into a dictatorship and art into an empty weapon.

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That was such an excellent essay, I have not stopped thinking about it for the past day. BRAVO!

I knew Empathy (TM) had become the latest American racket/product launch/moral crusade a few years ago when I saw that waxen posthuman Mark Zuckerberg giving some speech about Empathy and how important it is, and how one of his products fosters it, etc. (Yes, an autistic billionaire lecturing about Empathy! Just like the good ol' days when the robber barons lectured about morals and charity.)

Now that all our cultural institutions have become willing wings of the corporate state they've joined forces and (as always happens when Church and State unite) agree that their first duty is to make the unwashed plebs and other dissenters into BETTER PERSONS, aka into obedient yet diverse widgets who know to mimic their betters in all things moral, political, and artistic.

Every trend and buzzword excreted by our approved Culture Class is some combination of moral preening (if only everyone had my New and Improved Empathy (TM) they would share my exact enlightened opinions and be as morally spotless and constantly concerned about the feelings of the marginalized as I am) along with moral coercion and manipulation (the only possible reason you disagree with us is that you need more Empathy! If only you would read this Empathy-infused book or watch this Empathy-infused movie, you would think and vote the right way!)

There is just something about art and the realm of the imagination that attracts an eternal army of zealots, censors, church ladies, priests, professors and various other moral entrepreneurs who need everything to either be wrapped up in a bright happy bow or instrumentalized for whatever holy crusade they're wedded to...may they all be condemned to live in the gray joyless Utopia of their dreams.

"Political man ordained imagination as the fateful sin."— Wallace Stevens

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this is great

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I enjoyed reading this. I've always found art that's made and presented in this way to be a bit suffocating and weird. Putting this kind of imperative and direction on kids taking in art, teenagers very much included, is unfair.

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thank you just thank you

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Sorry for clogging up the comments, I just also wanted to post this (untitled) poem from Thom Gunn:

Save the word

empathy, sweetheart,

for your freshman essays.

Doesn't it make

a rather large

claim? Think you can

syphon yourself

into another human

as, in the movie,

the lively boy-ghosts

pour themselves

down the ear-holes

of pompous older men?

Don't try it. Only

Jesus could do it and he

probably didn't exist.

Try "sympathy." With that

your isolated self may

split a cloak with the beggar,

slip a pillow under the head

of the arrested man, hold tight

the snag-toothed hustler with red hair.

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This point is well taken and incredibly written. Great post

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There is so much here that I like and appreciate - not least the historicising of 'empathy' - but the idea that 'art' is any more out-of-time - spiritually, aesthetically or otherwise - feels suspect, particularly when you take such a historicising eye to the target or your essay. Much the same for terms like 'ambivalence' and institutions like museums, I don't think you can leave the idea of 'art' as a frozen, ahistorical, value-guaranteed category in an argument that is pulling apart that sorta presupposition on behalf of another term.

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*target of your essay - apologies, late evening for me!

Having thought more about this, I am discomfited by the turn you take about half way through this. Amongst other moments that rang falsely for me (most particularly, as mentioned, your uncritical employment of 'art' as a unifying ahistorical, global category), your argument that '[m]useums [traditionally - and ideally] present the heterogeneous intellectual and artistic heritages that any person, living in a liberal society of individual freedoms, can claim for herself' reads as totally contextless ideology. Museums are deeply stratified and stratifying institutions; the figures speak for themselves: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11266-021-00322-0. They are continually deployed in order to carry not just milquetoast Liberal money-making ideas like 'art = empathy = good' into sections of the public but, also, in other, more concerted ways: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/07/tory-chilling-independence-national-bodies-critics-claim.

I'm not a big fan of Liberal 'empathy' talk about the arts. I agree with your attribution of that to a deathly utilitarianism. Similarly, I dislike superficial EDI initiatives across all sectors, which misrecognise the foundations of most elite institutions as within a whole system of things that maintain only certain people as producers, gatekeepers and audiences. I have suspicions about what the 'empathy' thinking misdirects - and how wilfully it might do so - but I urge you to not throw in your critical faculties just because others have. It doesn't need to be a race to the bottom. We can critically engage with what 'art' is, pull apart how 'museums' function and explore the intellectual history of 'ambivalence' as much as we can tear apart the lazy lean many Liberal thinkers have towards 'empathy.'

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I think there's a lot of effort from people who consider themselves the 'true left' to avoid association with this type of the thing, but it's still grounded in permutations of left wing thought. It's tiresome, but not surprising. The whole Who Sold Out thing in the 80s and 90s got very nasty.

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Not sure I entirely understand what you’re getting at here. Do you mean the essay is a version of ‘who sold out,’ or that my comment is? I read the original essay - and commented - months ago so it’s long gone in my mind unfortunately!

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