Mimesis — Creative Contagion

How and Why we Empathize with Art and Why it Matters...


Been noodling on some connections — BTW, thanks once again to the excellent Brain Pickings website by Maria Popova, to which you really should subscribe. In the March issue, Popova explores the idea of empathy as articulated in Rachel Corbett’s book, You Must Change Your Life. Despite the ubiquity of the idea of empathy as “a centerpiece of our very humanity,” (see Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle, who challenges our preoccupation with virtual relationships and the consequent loss of empathy) as it turns out, originated in art. It’s only a little over a hundred years old, and “empathy” only entered our lexicon,

…when it was used to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art in an effort to understand why art moves us. — Popova, Brain Pickings, 3/5/17.

In the late 19th century a German philosopher named Theodor Lipps, building on the earlier work of Dr. Wilhelm Wundt, was trying to figure out why art impacts us so powerfully.

[He] originated the then-radical hypothesis that the power of its impact didn’t reside in the work of art itself  but was, rather, synthesized by the viewer in the act of viewing. —Popova, ibid. Emphasis mine.

Pretty heady stuff.  So, art “works” — that is, it affects us most deeply — when we participate in the art. Well, that raises other questions: How do we, the observers participate in the art we are observing? Is it something over which we exercise conscious control? Or is such sympathetic response, as V. S. Ramachandran claims convincingly in The Tell-Tale Brain, completely unconscious? Is our virtual participation in an event part of a complex neurological auto response to stimuli that excite a cluster of what Ramachandran labels mirror neurons? And what about Corbett’s claim that,

The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist. —Popova, ibid.

Through the act of viewing, the observer becomes a participant rather than a clinically detached observer. This idea stops shy of the hypothesis proposed in The Dancing Wu Li Masters that the act of observing electrons in flight (as if we could do more than trace where they have been—nobody can see an electron in motion) influences their trajectories; however, the idea expressed by Corbett is similar. By projecting ideas, emotions or memories onto a work of art (any work of art in any genre), a person may,

…unconsciously move in and with the forms. (Popova, citing Robert Vischer, ibid. Emphasis mine).

Way back in 1873, Vischer, a German aesthetics student, named this process,

…einfühlung, literally “feeling into.” The British psychologist Edward Titchener translated the word into English as “empathy” in 1909, deriving it from the Greek empatheia, or “in pathos. … He dubbed this bodily mimesismuscular empathy,” a concept that resonated with Lipps, who once attended a dance recital and felt himself “striving and performing” with the dancers. He also linked this idea to other somatosensory imitations, like yawns and laughter —Popova, ibid (see Ramachandran on mirror neurons).

Popova notes Mark Rothko’s observation a half century later,

 “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” He was articulating the model of creative contagion — or what Leo Tolstoy called the “emotional infectiousness” of art — that Lipps had formulated. (Popova, ibid).

So—the simple act of viewing art can change us (see the title of Corbett’s book!).

So what?

Bottom line: the more we Christians immerse our hearts and minds in the Word of God—the more we consciously, prayerfully enter into and submit ourselves to the Author’s intended influence, the more likely we are to participate in the great work of His Holy Spirit—nothing less than the transformation of a casual sin-stained observer, into a holy participant in God’s Masterwork.

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