Empathy, The ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a life skill that could make the difference between future suffering and compassion, war and peace, starvation and satisfaction, economic disparity and prosperity, and more. To simply prepare our students for university entrance, equipping them with facts, creativity, and technical skills will do little to further and support humanity; something that globally is in desperate need of attention. Art is a subject that is ripe for providing opportunities to develop empathy. Art is emotional, personal, expressive and maps the human experience. To study art is to study people and once studied we can observe that people are all deserving of love, support, education, food, and opportunities.
In art education students are challenged to research, examine, and sometimes recreate works by other artists, cultures, and time periods in order to understand them. This practice places the students in another mindset, taking them out of their own box and placing them temporarily inside another ready to transport new knowledge back to their personal scope of understanding. Much like the study of literature, music and drama the study of visual art focuses on what it feels like to be human and as we all know, what it feels like for you is not what it feels like for me. Take the work of artist, Frida Kahlo, for example. To study her work is to study what it must have been like to live in multiple worlds, (Mexico, Europe, the USA), to suffer daily extreme physical pain, (due to a spinal injury caused by a bus crash), to love someone who mistreats you, (her tumultuous marriage to artist, Diego Rivera), and to be inspired by a political and social revolution, (her involvement with the Communist movement). It is impossible to understand her work without gaining an understanding of her human experience and it’s impossible to understand her human experience without engaging ones imagination to place yourself in her ‘shoes’.
Examples of Frida Kahlo's work.
The IB mission statement includes a nod to empathy, “These programmes encourage students across urge world to become active compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences can also be right.” As a peace keeping endeavour, the IB could not be more right about the importance of this last statement. Acceptance of diversity of language, creed, appearance, and behaviour is paramount to attaining a peaceful world. I don’t need to tell you, reader, that most of the problems we are suffering from today across the globe would be rendered moot if simple acceptance of our differences was the standard.
There are so many ways to engage our students with empathy in art class, here are a few ideas:
An example of one of these ideas in action can be seen in a unit I did with 10th graders that was inspired by the work of late artist/journalist, Dan Eldon. Information about Dan Eldon can be found on the website, http://www.daneldon.org/, but in short he was an expat who grew up in Kenya and created many artistic journals about his experience starting from a young age. He became a photographer for Reuters and was tragically killed in a mob in Somalia in 1993 at 22 years of age. We used his artistic influence visually by working with mixed-media including collage, and incorporating text. We used his conceptual influence by engaging with global, current events that resonating with us as individuals. The results were fantastic because the students really got on board with the idea that the work should be personal even though it wasn’t about them. The goal was to invoke an emotional response from the viewer that invited them to learn more about the people effected by their chosen event. Some examples of the final pieces are below.
The best kind of learning penetrates not only the mind but the heart and and invoking empathy through learning does both.