Contemporary aesthetics of empathy

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Bachelor's thesis
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This paper is an inquiry into the relationship between empathy, aesthetic education and contemporary art. Empathy has become something of a buzzword across discourses ranging from trans-national politics, via neuroscience to contemporary art. Not surprisingly then, within the department of art at Aalto university, empathy is frequently evoked as one of the most weighty promises of art education. However, discussions about what is it exactly about art and aesthetic education that is thought to foster empathy are rare. Stemming from these observations, bringing together phenomenological research methods with discourse analysis, this paper considers the following questions: what is empathy and how does it work? How might works of art activate, cultivate or, better still, call into question our empathetic capacities? The paper discusses these questions with reference to Ed Atkins’ Ribbons (2014), a three-channel HD video work exploring themes of intimacy, authenticity and human affection in digitally mediated surroundings. The study first considering the etymological roots of the modern concept of empathy. Empathy is defined as a powerful affective state, differing from sympathy in that it hinges on a projective, vicarious relationship between the self and the other. Hereafter, placing empathy within the framework of visual culture, the study considers a model of empathetic spectatorship elaborated by David Benin and Lisa Cartwright. Proceeding then to a discussion of Ribbons anchored in the author’s own experience of the work, the study draws on scholarship in photography and phenomenology to focus specifically on Atkins’ protagonist avatar called Dave. In light of empathetic spectatorship, three key themes are outlined: the protagonist’s status as digital simulation, his performance of vulnerability and, finally, the eeriness produced by these features respectively. The findings of this analysis are summed up in a discussion of how art educators might bring Ribbons into their classrooms in dialogue with three select works of art, all approaching themes of empathy and intimacy from different points of view. Finally, the paper briefly considers the transformative potential of empathy, looking beyond mere affect towards politically meaningful action.
Haveri, Minna
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Haveri , Minna
empathy, spectatorship, contemporary art, intimacy
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