Empathy and Abstraction

Empathy – another definition

When I wrote about empathy in a previous posts (Empathy Take 1, Empathy Take 2, Empathy and Sympathy, Emotion & Empathy Circuitry in Infants), I was concentrating on the relationship between people. I found this interesting definition of empathy in Fiona Gray in her article, The Synthesis of Empathy, Abstraction and Nature in theWork of Kandinsky, Steiner and Mendelsohn:

“The English translation of the term, empathy, generally refers to the attribution of one’s own feelings towards an object. However, in German the term denotes a more complex transference of one’s ego into the object, whereby the object and the observer become united.” [1]

Process of creating expressive art

I am interested learning more about the ability to express one’s self without mediation by one’s intellect. I am still exploring the linkage that must exist between the impulse to create and the mechanics of creating an artwork. Motivation is an appropriate word to use in this instance, since it implies both a mental pressure, which leads to action as well as the motion that the body must perform a creative act.

In my view – subject to change by reader feedback – an person who creates personally expressive art successfully breaks the link between intellectual involvement and a creative act.

What is it like for an artist who, after successfully disengaging her intellect and creating an expressive piece of art, becomes an observer of that artwork? With her intellect re-engaged, is she likely to empathize with it? Perhaps it would take some work, in the same sense that one who dreams is is the dream’s creator but nevertheless must process and analyze understanding it.

Abstraction and Empathy

Wilhelm Worringer’s influential doctoral thesis, Abstraction and Empathy defined art of empathy as that associated with realism; he considered abstract art, on the other hand to reflect a more primitive worldview. “Worringer was influential because he saw abstract art (for example Islamic art) as being in no way inferior to ‘realist’ art, and worthy of respect in its own right” [2]

While it is a truism that the perception of art depends upon the individual, Worringer said the following: “Just as the desire for empathy as the basis for aesthetic experience finds satisfaction in organic beauty, so the desire for abstraction finds its beauty in the life-renouncing [?] inorganic, in the crystalline, in a word, in all abstract regularity and necessity.” [3]

Actually, instead of his characterizing abstraction as “life-renouncing”, I would say that abstraction in service of expression is “inner life-affirming.”


[1] Gray, F. The Synthesis of Empathy, Abstraction and Nature in theWork of Kandinsky, Steiner and Mendelsohn. Proceedings of the XXVth International Conferenceof the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand Geelong, Australia, 3-6 July 2008

[3] Worringer, W. Abstraction and Empathy pg 36 in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Worringer

One thought on “Empathy and Abstraction

  1. Pingback: Are Lolcats and Memes art? | Cameron D

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