empathy

Producing Culture, Provoking Empathy

I am continuing to puzzle over the intuitive leap I made the other day to “There is no transcendence, only empathy.” If you haven’t read the post about that, you probably should do so before you read what follows. Today I’m writing about other ways of trying to understand creative work. For better or worse, much of this post is going to be in an academic mode, though I’ll do my best to clarify any jargon. Ready? Here we go.

There’s a game academics play that involves reducing your dissertation to a single sentence. Mine (which you can find a link to in the “works” tab) boils down to “music is a product of its time.” This is a pretty common conclusion for musicologists to reach. It is also, on its face, facile. How could something not be a product of its time? Is it instead something from the future, accidentally abandoned by time travelers? Seriously.

I find, though, that a lot of nonacademics need reminders of this common sense point. People—westerners, anyway—have a tendency to buy wholesale into both Romantic mythologies of music and the ancient Classical ideas of music of the spheres and universal harmony. This pushes music, especially “classical” music (stuff written for the concert hall) into a transcendental space, and leads to utter nonsense like “music is a universal language.” (Uuuuuuugh.) I listened to somebody at a workshop (for English teachers) expound enthusiastically on this idea as he explained how he was learning about jazz. (Aside: music is not a language. The semiotics of music are hella messy and culturally constrained. Philosophers who write about music frequently have unhealthy fixations on the European canon and zero understanding of any kind of nonwestern music.)

Music is cultural production. It is made by people, mostly for people. As cultural production, it is limited by cultural constraints. That doesn’t mean innovation is impossible, only that it is limited. You can do crazy things from inside cultural context! Late Beethoven (especially the quartets), for example, is a marvelous cul-de-sac of musical geometries that have only tenuous connections to what surrounded them. Even rebellion takes its form from what it rebels against.

Anyway. My idea about empathy as a kind of transcendence sidesteps the question of cultural production. Fundamentally, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” occupies a shaky conceptual space that is simultaneously about audience response and about the ontology (philosophy of existence) of art. The transcendence-empathy theory also involves epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), because it suggests something about how art functions to encode and convey understanding. Culture doesn’t come into it until you get several layers in.

I leaned a lot, in my dissertation, on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote about culture and power;  the idea of “cultural capital” derives from his work. (Cultural capital is the set of knowledge and skills that marks one as an elite without necessarily involving material power. As an academic with a broad liberal arts education, I have a ton of cultural capital despite what I get paid as a high school teacher.) Bourdieu writes about “field” and “habitus.” Field is the available conceptual space. The field of cultural production, for example, includes everything from romance novels to symphonies. (There are axes to the field, usually, but they’re not mandatory to understanding the concept.) The field of power, which Bourdieu (and I) spend a lot of time on, is a way of understanding who has power and who doesn’t. Habitus is the way individuals navigate the field.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert

You have some expectations about what you do in a place like this. That’s the field at work. [Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

Bourdieu’s theory doesn’t touch empathy or anything about the semiotics of art…at least beyond representing spaces in the cultural field and field of power. By Bourdieu’s theory, concert hall music (“classical”) occupies a space in the field closely aligned to the field of power. Think about the stereotypical image of a classical concert: musicians in tuxedos and black gowns, wealthy older people dressed up for a night out. There’s a lot of stereotyping in that image, but there are reasons it exists. It’s important to understand that music’s place in the field changes over history. Opera, which carries the same associations as classical instrumental music, began as a display of aristocratic wealth and became popular entertainment before gradually resuming its place as music for the elite.

So where does empathy fit into that? Let’s go back to the specific works I mentioned—particularly the Vincent Valdez paintings. Like most artists, Valdez occupies many different spaces in the field depending on how we’re looking at it—as a Latino from San Antonio, as an art school graduate, as a recipient of grants and awards. I saw his work in a museum on the campus of a state university, which has its own place in the field and lends a certain institutional credibility. By working in a “prestigious” medium (painting) and having that work displayed in an institution with authority (the Blanton), Valdez occupies a space in the artistic field that aligns to a significant degree with the field of power. None of that takes away his experiences navigating the broader field of power as a human being.

This is how we fit the one thing into the other. Art as a vehicle for empathy rather than transcendence can bridge distances in the field of power, even if the work as a cultural object is limited to a specific spot in the field (concretely as the museum, abstractly as a work in a medium with high cultural weight). Conceiving of art as cultural production doesn’t automatically preclude the intuition that I had at the museum. I can look at Valdez’s work and experience it empathetically despite the raft of privileges that go with standing in an art museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

I’m still not convinced that “There is no transcendence, only empathy,” entirely holds together. Experiencing art empathetically is great, but ignores many of the other elements of cultural production that affect the work, the creator, and the audience. The paintings that provoke an empathetic response in me won’t do the same for everybody else, because my experience is mediated by all the things I bring into a museum with me. The harder we push to universalize, the more the holes in the idea show.

Can something be true without being universal? Probably! Next post in this series is going to come at the question of empathy and transcendence from the other side, focusing on where our western idea of transcendental art comes from.

Thoughts?

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We Make Because We Must

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. I’d last been there two years earlier, when some of the exhibits were in the midst of renovation. There’s definitely something to be said for the experience of walking around quietly, looking at things humans have made. The Blanton’s current visiting exhibit is of Aboriginal art. That blew me away because its system of representation is profoundly distinct from Western modes, a difference more profound than anything I’ve encountered with natural language. I am still trying to make sense of it.

When I’d worked a little on digesting the visiting exhibition, I dutifully went upstairs and set in on the ancient European art. It was my usual mode of operation in a museum: I was looking at objects and images and thinking about what I could borrow or transform to use in my writing. In that mode, I was most struck by an ancient Armenian bronze belt. I scribbled some notes about it to perhaps use in a book.

I couldn’t cling to that “I’m a writer in a museum” mode, though, as I moved through the exhibition halls. The next line in my notes is “What place art in a disintegrating society?” The news has been awful. To say “our institutions are under assault” is a lame euphemism for “corruption is destroying our democracy.” Art has seemed so…futile, especially when I’ve been reading about 19th-Century revolutions.

I kept going, though, because I still love art. I particularly wanted to see again some pieces I remembered from my previous visit, two selections from Vincent Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit. These are life-sized paintings of Latino men in the physical attitude of being bound and hanged. The backgrounds are white. Neither noose nor ropes are shown. They hit me. I remembered them and wanted to go back. They hit me again. So did Charles White’s Homage to Sterling Brown, a painting that hadn’t been on display during my previous visit because of renovations. In it, Sterling Brown sits, holding a target before him.

Other works have, of course, arrested my attention. I vividly recall just staring at Picasso’s Woman with a Crow for long, long minutes at the Toledo Museum of Art. The colors of the Blanton’s 17th-Century copperplate paintings hold my attention in the same way. But neither the Picasso nor the copperplates forced me to think the way Valdez and White did.

We Make Because We Must

That was the next thing I wrote down: “We make because we must.” I’ve been messing about with writing with various degrees of seriousness since I was in third grade. (That’s when I first tried to write a novel.) I distinctly remember telling a teammate at an alumni tournament that I was working on my dissertation but kept getting distracted by wanting to write stories. (Best handler I ever played with, and a fine writer himself.) I don’t really seem able to stop.

That drive to make art doesn’t go away just because our hearts are sore. It’s harder. Some days it’s impossible. I don’t have it figured out beyond trying to take breaks from social media (especially Twitter, which seems to be fine-tuned to send me into fury or despair). Some days I get things written. Some days I don’t. Some days I do a bit of research. Some days I just stare out the window and think about made-up places.

There is no transcendence, only empathy.

When I was in high school, a wonderful English teacher got me the opportunity to go to a writing workshop near Sun Valley. While out in the woods near a stream, I was, for lack of a better term, thunderstruck by a poem. The world slowed down and sped up simultaneously. I could not make the words come out of my fingers as fast as they were coming to my brain. It was a paroxysm of language that felt more like a beast I was riding than a poem I was writing. I thought then that I had found some kind of transcendence.

The closest I ever really came to re-experiencing that feeling was a few years later during a breakdown. The quality of feeling like a spectator to my own mind, of grappling with something impossibly large, was nearly the same. I did not for an instant think of it as transcendence.

That statement up above, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” came to me in the art museum as I reflected on Vincent Valdez’s work, on Charles White’s work. I don’t have an entirely firm grasp on what, precisely, it means, but it resonates for me. It resonates so much for me that for the first time in a very long while I caught myself thinking about Capital-T Truth.

The idea of transcendence I had as a teenager, whether I knew it or not, was Romantic: the solitary artist walks in the wilderness, searching for the sublime. That sublime thing is higher and deeper than our usual perception and understanding, glimpsed and able to be glimpsed only in moments. It was absolutely a Capital-T Truth that only the most profound artists and thinkers could find. When they did, it was transportive.

There’s something to the idea that art can take you outside your habitual boundaries of self. That’s why we fall in love with stories. That’s why I could stare at that Picasso and be sucked in. That’s why I felt the need to return several times to the Valdez paintings, why they stuck with me after my first visit. Beyond the skill of their rendering and the brilliance of the approach, the images pushed me past my habits, past my usual inclinations. That’s empathy, and art puts you in a place where you cannot help it. You can’t “well, actually…” a painting. You can’t fence in a piece of music with questions. You can’t turn away from the discomfort a story might make you feel without turning away from the story itself.

We make art so we can understand. As creators, the process sometimes becomes the understanding. Sometimes we have something specific to say. Sometimes, we even manage to say that thing. We want to be understood even if—especially if—what we’re expressing can’t be articulated. Sound transcendental? Maybe. But there’s a hell of a difference between Ferdinand David’s wanderer up on his foggy hilltop, looking for something beyond human experience, and looking at Charles White’s interpretation of Sterling Brown against a backdrop of the man’s achievements even as he sits holding a brightly-colored target.

None of this means art “must” be about social justice, or about politics, or about experiences that cross the vast gulfs humans have collectively inflicted on one another. (Be wary of anybody who says “art must.”) We can make art about what we know intimately, experience things that remind us of what we already understand. Those are choices we face as makers. We just have to remember that choosing to avoid hard questions doesn’t make them go away, and that the avoidance is also a choice.

As a fantasy writer, there’s a degree of escape in my work. If I want to write a world that never experienced chattel slavery, I get to do that (although it leads to a lot of questions about what an industrial revolution might look like). I can tell myself “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and just do it. Try it, anyway. I make because I must.

Really, though, I make stories and go experience art because art is a place where empathy lives. We make because we must, because we wish to understand and to be understood and to connect, whether it’s with another person or an idea or an experience. It’s awesome, in both the casual and formal senses of the word.

We make because we must; there is no transcendence, only empathy. I feel like those are semi-colon close, and want to keep working on figuring out how.

Bones?