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Empathy and Socially Engaged Art

June 18, 2020
More Art

Header image: Gary Simmons, Collective Portrait (2005) — Simmons invited middle-school students to write down statements that could serve as self-portraits, then asked them to partially erase and combine those phrase to create on long group statement, reworking individual assertions to produce a collaborative affirmation; the final sentence was printed on a billboard and displayed in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Project commissioned by More Art.

Working Collectively Towards Self-Emancipation

Earlier this year, More Art published our first book, More Art in the Public Eye, a reflection on the organization’s first fifteen years of collaborations, an exploration of socially engaged public art’s past and present, and a call to action for the future of the field.

In the book’s preface, More Art’s Founder and Director Micaela Martegani writes:

As we see it, socially engaged art puts art in the service of the social body. We maintain a healthy skepticism toward terms like “education” and even “engagement,” which suggest a top-down approach to encountering art. Instead, as an organization, we believe in producing projects that are experiential and highlight our shared humanity.

What does that look like now, and how does it happen, in light of a global pandemic, continued state violence against Black communities, mass protests and widespread, urgent demands for fundamental, systemic change?


Jenny Marketou, Sunspotting a Walking Forest (2012) — In collaboration with Marketou, cultural theorist Otto von Busch, and choreographer Wanda Gala, students from Parsons School of Design and Clinton Middle School and senior citizens from the Fulton Houses in Chelsea explored the use of fashion and language in collectives as powerful, performative tools of public engagement, culminating in a choreographed parade along Manhattan’s High Line. Project commissioned by More Art.


Some of the meta-questions behind socially engaged public art — those that guide individual projects as well as the organization at large — take on new-found resonance given current conditions, while still remaining firmly of our particular niche in the art world: What is the value, in our capitalist society, of works that are ephemeral and do not have a quantifiable monetary value? what are the evaluation criteria and ethics for this type of work? what is the role that sensory pleasure plays or should play in our civic society?

Other provocations, though initially considered through the lens of artmaking, become even more trenchant and germane to achieving greater goals, for the greater good, as with Martegani’s reappraisal of empathy:

When presenting a project, achieving a general consensus is not our primary goal. We are more interested in championing the vision of the artist and in exposing issues of injustice and inhumanity, creating debate, and inspiring alternatives. The space of civic engagement is rife with potential misunderstandings, and we do not try to hide or skirt around them; rather, we embrace the idiosyncratic multiplicity of feelings and points of view.

Recently the concept of empathy has received a bad rap in progressive circles, as it has been seen as coming from a position of privilege and therefore actually leading to further inequality in society. [See, for example, Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016).] Much of the problem with empathy, as critics see it, is that it can be skewed and misplaced, as people tend to empathize with what they are fed by the media — normally large tragedies — and in the process do not pay attention to the abuses that happen just around the corner. However, in a polarized and alienated society, empathy can become a carrier of active, not passive, bonds. Empathy is a much wider and more full-bodied concept than merely feeling regret over the misery of others. Etymologically it comes from Greek and is composed of en, meaning “inside,” and pathos, meaning “emotion”; it literally means getting inside and identifying with the emotions of others. Therefore it also means celebrating their joys, or intimately feeling their anger and cravings for change. If seen in this light, empathy can aggregate individuals, making them come out of passive isolation towards active and constructive engagement. Empathy is a good place to start as a strategy for human connection: it works to break down the barriers between us and the perceived “other,” and identification moves us towards kindness and social care, the building blocks of collective self-emancipation.

Has the meaning or relevance of empathy changed for you in recent weeks? Join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.

This article is also published on More Art’s Medium site here.