Title: Empathy in Response to Art: The Case of Illness-related Artwork

22 February 2017; 16:00-18:00

Senate House – Room 243


Illness-related arts can provoke painful emotional reactions; take for instance Mike Nichols’ film Wit (2002) in which a renowned professor is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. The film critic Roger Ebert has titled his review of Nichol’s heartbreaking film “When a movie hurts too much”. Likewise, depictive arts such as painting or photography can provoke an emotional reaction that enhances to the viewer a sense of first-personal perspective about what it is like being in a state of illness. For example, in seeing William Eugene Smith’s photograph “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” (1971) I come to have an experience of Tomoko’s suffering from minimata, a disease caused by mercury poisoning that left her blind, deaf, and with useless legs. How is this sense of first-personal relation or presence to the other’s experience of illness afforded? Is it possible to gain an understanding and a kind of access to somebody else’s experience of illness through pictorial artworks and what would the process be for that?

I aim to discuss how artworks can trigger empathic imagination and explore the variety of ways in which we can empathically respond towards depicted figures and situations. A major difficulty within the relevant discussion is that differentiating between empathic, sympathetic or simply emotional responses to pictures is not always taken into consideration; rather, many talk as if these were interchangeable. Roughly speaking, the viewer is sympathetic to the depicted character if she understands that the figure is suffering or how disease has affected her life, though the viewer does not, in any way, feel what the fictional character feels. Although the sympathetic response comprises the understanding of what the fictional character may be feeling or thinking, it does not involve imagining being in the other’s shoes or being the other or imagining being in a similar situation. It is rather a siding with the other.

It is also possible that the viewer somehow shares the emotional state that the fictional character is depicted as expressing; this is an empathic response that comprises an understanding from the other’s own perspective, a kind of “lived bodily experience” of the other’s emotions, and affords a sense of first-personal relation or presence to the other’s experience of illness. I attempt to explore empathic responses to artworks, particularly depictive arts, by explicating this sense of presence to the other’s experience.

I suggest that a fruitful way to talk about empathic responses to artworks would require to deal with the following philosophical questions: (i) how best to understand empathy (Einfühlung) as a means of feeling oneself into objects and accessing the internal space of an artwork? (ii) what is the intentional object of empathic response to an artwork? (iii) how can we intelligibly empathize with fictional or depicted characters, given that we do not believe in their existence and thus we do not believe that they really have emotions? (a question that is, of course, part of the so called “paradox of fiction”), (iv) how and why do we respond empathically towards artworks that do not involve depicted figures, such as artworks that depict landscapes? (v) do empathic responses arise in an immediate, direct way or are they the result of an inferential process? (vi) do we empathically respond to artworks in the same way as we respond to real people and situations or is there a distinctive pictorial way of empathic response?

Determining the relevant features or information that enable one to simulate the depicted character’s or situation’s expressed emotion and hence empathize with them has proven difficult. In the last section of the talk, the issue of art’s distinctive empathic manner is explored and it is argued that the triggering of imagination rests on a process of filling-in the artwork’s narrative structure. Although fiction’s narrative structure and its role in triggering empathic imagination is much discussed, a depictive artwork’s narrative structure is less noticed; paintings and photographs are mostly considered as non-narrative since they depict a time-fragment rather than a series of events extending in time. I suggest that the bar should be set lower for a depiction to be narrative and argue that an artwork’s narrative structure constitutes the distinctively pictorial manner of triggering empathic imagination.