Cover Your Eyes: Considering Empathetic Response in Reviewing Visual Art Conveying Trauma
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It is no longer enough for the artist to rely on pain to [inspire compassion or] simulate art… An audience is necessary with the purpose of engaging spectators in the entire process of suffering along with the artist. —Dana Milstein.
In the process of considering art, especially images of pain and trauma, the audience serves an important role, as their reaction is an integral part of the experience. Milstein recognizes this relationship as part of the process of art making. Artists may overtly or covertly attempt to manipulate the reaction of the audience, to guide the empathetic response of the viewer. As both a visual artist and a critical thinker, I am interested in the effect of this empathetic response and the complex relationship that exists between the artist, the viewer and the artwork. In this paper I will be taking into account recent neurological research into Mirror Neuron Systems (MNS) in the brain, sociological studies on empathy in relation to trauma and pain, and psychological theories, specifically abject theory as explained by French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva, to synthesize a holistic understanding of the viewer’s response to pain and trauma in art. I will engage the work of recognized artists, such as Marina Abramovic and Yoko Ono, interpreting their performative iterations of pain and trauma through this understanding of the mechanics of empathetic response. For example, the experience of a viewer watching as a young man aggressively approaches Ono and removes large portions of her clothing in the performance of Cut (1965). The value of understanding the empathetic process will be immediately applicable to my creative process. The paper ends with a brief explanation of my own work, which seeks to convey the trauma of living within a gendered body that is constrained by society.