Jessica Helfand | Essays

On Visual Empathy

In her profile of the American painter John Currin in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, critic Deborah Solomon examines the somewhat quixotic appeal of "tradition" suggesting that "virtuosity can be the source of emotionally raw art, a message that goes against the radicalism of the last century."

It's an intriguing argument: classicism as the new cool.

But beyond this, Solomon offers a more sobering thought still: is "emotionally raw" what we aspire to when we look at, or better yet, make art? Let me assume for the sake of argument, here, that "design" can be considered interchangeably in this equation as I turn to another Times piece: this one an editoria that considers the powerful "appeal to the emotions" raised by the eight 9.11 memorial designs which were presented this past Thursday in New York.

Interestingly, the editorial identifies documentary records (arguably, "ephemeral" evidence) as the principal supply of factual material with which future generations will learn about this tragedy. (Obviously, not so ephemeral after all, and newspapers and transcripts have long performed this service.) But the commentary here focuses on something much more ephemeral than paper: the memorial, it suggests, is a public expression of a private memory, "a way of arranging space and light and imagination so something more than the past is evoked." Completely intangible, this "memorial for our collective loss" should, by all indications, resist being trapped by specificity.

Reports on this hugely delicate topic vary, but all raise the idea of judging the emotional value of design; or evaluating design by its emotional value, or applying emotional characteristics to design in some way: notes Christopher Hawthorne in Slate: "This is a dangerous way to judge architecture, but it's an even more dangerous way to think about memorials." Obviously, not everything makes as "overt an appeal to our emotions" as the 9/11 memorial, but it raises an interesting point, I think. John Currin may come across as bombastic when he argues that "progressive ideas are just a machine for ruining art," but he's right about the fact that being progressive for its own sake rarely succeeds in anything that truly endures. "A masterpiece, by definition," writes Solomon, "is supposed to be a consummate example of some kind of skill," and while we can not all lay claim to Currin's gift, we can appreciate, I think, the specificity with which he captures a kind of forgotton form: figurative, familiar, occasionally disturbing, emotionally resonant. (I did find it comical that such a representative painter held such disdain for photography, however.)

Is it possible, perhaps, that we need some specificity before we remove ourselves, as viewers and readers, into the more abstract provinces of our imagination? For designers, this presents an unusual challenge: how clear is too clear? Can information be more evocative if it is less clear? When I see students designing books that intentionally obfuscate information because they want the reader to work a little harder, do they know something I don't? (When I see cheaply-made American flags emblazoned on cars as a deeply personal expressions of patriotic zeal, why do I flinch?) And when I read in the Times that civillians are pleading for a resistance to specificity in their commemorative architecture, are they telling us quite simply to be less didactic in our visualization of public form?

Odd, in a way, that this brief but eloquent message about hope and spirit, about emotional resonance and visual triumph — was buried on the penultimate page of a Thursday newspaper. But in a world besieged by unpredictable atrocities, perhaps we all feel a little emotionally raw. In this view, an appeal to visual empathy may be just we need.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Social Good, Theory + Criticism

Comments [3]


Classicism is the new cool. In the world of art and the world of literature
(I can't speak for the world of design), postmodern discourse is dominant,
and has been for some time now. If postmodern discourse is dominant, then
using it as a form expression ceases to become radical; it instead becomes
conservative. Radicalism is an appeal to a non-dominant discourse, which
Classicism (and in the case of literature, Modernism) now qualify as.
Classicism is radical, its ties with "tradition" not withstanding.

Classicism is only cool when reborn for our time.

All artists, designers and brandmakers sell is a sign that imbues it's buyer
with an aura of connectedness, savvy and wealth.

One such sign is modernism. It is rational, cold and becoming tiring.

I spent 3 years developing an illustration style based around Mies van der
Rohe's "less is more" theory. I love mental rigour. I created masterpieces
of thought. The problem is that emotion is not understood by logic alone.

It's often difficult for people confident in rationality to trust emotions.
We know that feelings can lie. We know that intuition is often our best
guide. We have a resulting internal conflict.

Emotions drive human relationships.
Continued inability to solicit a desired emotional response in people is
devastating. In the case of 911, the time to solicit emotional responses may
be over.
Ben Weeks

"The heart has it's reasons that reason knows nothing of."
Ben Weeks

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