“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 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).