Painting by Carl Spitzweg. Photo: reproduction

* text originally published in December 2017 

NIn the recent exhibition organized by the Museum of Empathy, under way at MAM in São Paulo, people are invited to wear shoes randomly offered. The visitor is then invited to walk while listening to stories from the virtual owners of the shoes. The idea is a kind of literalization of the expression “walk with other shoes”, that is, putting yourself in the shoes of the other, in the other's shoes and assuming their point of view.

The experience is included in a series of initiatives that seek to bring the museum universe closer to people, reducing the popular impression that the appreciation of works of art is a task for highly educated people. It is about trying to reverse the average expectation that those who do not master elements of art history, sociology, philosophy or social criticism are confined to an aesthetic experience in which they will only confirm their exclusion of class, race or origin. A similar, albeit inverse, attitude occurs when the encounter with the work of art results only in an inauthentic account used only as a sign of class pertinence or as a spectacle of consumption.

It is a fact that the experience with contemporary art by the non-specialist public is often experienced as a confrontation with the incomprehensible, confirming the feeling of cultural inferiority. It is also true that since the Renaissance such an experience acquired this function of symbolic marker of the upper classes.

Particularly since the French and American revolutions and the fall of the old regime, based on the nobility and aristocracy, the ability to read, understand and own works of art became a fact of class distinction. A confirming sign that gives authenticity and social legitimacy to the wealth that one possesses. It is no longer enough to be the son of or grandson of a family lineage, it is also necessary to have gifts of education and culture, and this is expressed in the way of knowledge.

Pierre Bourdieu showed: just as financial capital tends to be concentrated, reproducing itself in an accumulative way, social capital, formed by ties, friendships and relationships of belonging, and cultural capital follow this same reproductive route. This can help us to understand the recent wave of repudiation of certain artists and their exhibitions (such as the Queermuseu in Porto Alegre), of hatred for intellectuals and professors, (such as the public bonfire in which the image of Judith Butler was burned as a “witch ”), attacks on universities and research centers (with budget cuts and scheduled scrapping).

Everything happens as if we were attacking positions, which têm as an official duty to provide means and take care of the processes for dealing with conflicts. This is the function of the different forms of curation, a term that we associate with the practice of putting together museum exhibitions, but which has a philosophical origin before becoming a medical metaphor. The cure is first of all taking care of yourself.

One of the aspects that formed the notion of cultivation, education or training is precisely the care practices.  Caring is caring for conflict, not suppressing or silencing it. Caring is a journey, not a condition or an isolated act. Caring and controlling can go dangerously together, it's hard to know when one practice is parasitizing the other. 

The term empathy was introduced by Robert Vischer in Optical Feeling of Shape (1873), defined as “projection of human feeling onto the world of nature”. It was in the English translation that the psychologist Tietchner, passed the German term “Einfullung” thus introducing the Greek derivation of pathos, in "empathy".  It is certain that pathos in Greek it refers to passion, suffering and even the ability to affect one another, however the German term adds the radical a (one) to the verb fullen (feel) what brings us the feeling of unity.

Vischer tried to discern this feeling of unity from related experiences such as feeling with (mifullen), feeling together (Zuzamenfullen) and feeling close (Refill). He also tried to separate feelings (To fill) of sensations (Empfindung). The participation of the body, the presence of common humor and compassion are underrepresented when we look at the more traditional separation between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy involves the process of identification and simultaneity, feeling together or the same as the other.

The terminological polemic would only be a preciosity if we did not pay attention to the importance of the difference between these processes. A culture of sympathy spreads through the popularization of digital images and the increasingly important condition of a preliminary aesthetic affinity as a condition for the production of feelings of admiration, respect and interest. But what we can expect from sympathy is the moral experience of tolerance through the sharing of identifications. Substance that is in short supply, but it seems very little to deal with our conflict scenario.

It is known that Freud read Lipps, that he read Vischer, and that the founder of psychoanalysis widely used the term Einfullung to designate the most promising encounters between analyst and analysand. But how to learn to develop this much-needed aptitude for care, for curation and for healing?

We could think of empathy, combining its German and English versions, as a path. She is not a fetus, but a small grammar of the encounter with the other. A grammar that is at once psychological, political and aesthetic.

Note that Vischer's definition starts from the very simple, yet powerful idea that empathy is the attribution of human traits to nature. Far from referring only to the expression of romantic ideas, in which Vischer drank, he introduces as the first step of empathy the recognition of oneself in what is inhuman by definition, nature, with its landscape expressions, with its convulsive seas, with its still lifes.

This is an important criterion, because empathy is not just putting yourself in the other person's shoes, (another shoes) but to perceive the other as another and not just as a double of oneself. Putting oneself in the other's point of view relies too much on the perspective notion of point of view. Point of view is a geometric point, it doesn't have a body, it doesn't have stones in its shoe or calluses that you don't notice when you translate to the reflective point of view of the other.     

Take the painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) that exemplifies the aesthetic landscape that Vischer had at his disposal. He can awakening extreme sympathy in producing the illusion of the same point of view when the spectator also contemplates the clouds and the distant landscape alone. The stark contrast with the plants that mimic country life, establishes saudade as an empathic feeling projected onto nature. A simple life, with organic relationships, without so much concern, will certainly arouse sympathy. 

Painting by Carl Spitzweg. Photo: Reproduction

The same loneliness that will be perceived in this canvas in which the character is crushed by the weight of the books and by his unlikely reading position on top of a ladder. But it so happens that he doesn't see himself in danger, absorbed in his task. Putting oneself in the other's point of view, yes, but to later separate oneself from him, enigmatize him, realize that he himself does not perceive his point of view, nor the gaze of those who watch him in his privacy.

The third movement of empathy refers to the return of non-identification traits, inhuman or unnoticed traits to the subject himself.  Here is the relationship with this other that Lacan called the unconscious. The Other in the Other, not the Other in the Other. This retroacts on the spectator, producing distance or approximation, involving a first phase of what can be shared. This is what will be observed in the canvases that make the landscape a strategy of approximation between the characters.

The fourth stage of empathy is the retribution of the journey to the other itself that took place in these three previous passages. The sharing of the sensible is not necessarily a sharing of love, not even of admiration or approval. Empathy is precisely an experience that involves a moment of “disidentification” and estrangement. This last moment therefore involves a kind of critique of judgment, a suspension of the determination that encloses the other in its image.

A resource or sign that this takes place can be found in the emergence of humor and the comic. After all, it is in his theory of jokes that Freud develops the notion of empathy (Einfullung). It would be for no other reason that the favorite painting of the Germans, in a recent poll, is precisely the work by Spitzweg called “poor poet” (1839):

Painting by Carl Spitzweg. Photo: reproduction

Reduced to a leaky cubicle, with his pen and his crumpled robe, he has a serious face that makes us think of the ridiculous situation of someone who wants to think about the most grandiloquent problems with the most obvious and imminent limitations before him.

But isn't that the condition and all of us? It is thus seen how empathy starts from the particular, discovers within it its own uniqueness to end up in a movement of universalization, which is well expressed in the aspect of compassion.

The limits of our capacity for empathy are also the limits of our experience of language, of our optical form and even more, of our own condition. So when we find a grotesque figure, half man, half woman, half old woman trying to make herself young, macrocephalic with disproportionate hands and inappropriate clothing, we then yes, given the occasion for the aesthetic construction of empathy.

This was also the challenge that art brute, transformed by Hitler into degenerate art, posed. This, in fact, is one of the aspects but interesting features of Judith Butler's theory, namely the idea that far from exist just two genres there are many indiscernible genres, genres that were historically treated as abject. The painting by Quinten Metsys (1465-1530) probably portrays a person who suffered from osteitis deformans, information that seems to be enough to change our initial feeling with the character. 

Work by Quentin Matsys. Photo: reproduction

Those who burn witches in our time, using Christianity to pursue new forms of empathy, those ones who see pedophilia in any nudity, or those who judge a painting by its subject, are destroying the but extensive experience of empathy. As a result, they deprive themselves of a fundamental resource for dealing with conflicts in general in order to make them productive. Care is hard to teach, but we know when he is being mistreated.

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