It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.
Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Can art really convey empathy? What can an image really do in the world to empower or encourage empathy? I pose those questions rhetorically, partially to myself as I think about Roland Barthes’ ideas (in Camera Lucida) about the studium and the punctum; a theory that allows us to think about photography in the general sense and in the particular as related experiences. For Barthes, the studium is how “I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.” In short, the mise en scène, which can be taken in at a glance. It positions us in the photograph and creates a context for the enjoyment of the picture without deeper engagement. The punctum is the second element that Barthes describes as breaking or punctuating the studium. He notes, “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me, but also bruises me, is poignant to me.” This is where photography can wound the viewer, and in that wound, perhaps, lies empathy.
It is in this context that I often think about the lack of media images generally available to us that actually capture and convey the suffering of others. During the Vietnam War, often referred to as “the living-room war” as the first war to be regularly covered by the nightly broadcast news, we saw regular broadcast and print images of the destruction of that war. It was literally brought into America’s living rooms thanks to the technology of television. The startling images that pervaded 1960s and early 1970s culture forever altered the way in which the body was imagined and staged. Wounded soldiers, their bodies and psyches fragmented from battle, flooded our cultural consciousness. Broken and eviscerated bodies became the “others” by which we examined ourselves, the “whole” ones.
Mediated images of war—televisual bodies—though powerful in their context, were at the time generally viewed on smaller-than-life black-and-white screens. Thus, the critic Michael J. Arlen noted that television may have made such images less real:
Diminished in part, by the physical size of the television screen, which for all the industry’s advances, still shows one a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall, and trivialized, or at least tamed by the cozy alarums of the household.
As the bodies of returning soldiers became reintegrated into the public consciousness both in the flesh and via televisual imagery, they inscribed onto the culture a new and different sense of corporeality. The generation of artists who came of age during and shortly after the war in Vietnam were constantly confronted by such bodies and their mediated images. Unlike the aftermath of other wars, television made these images ubiquitous, and this manifested itself as a sense of absence and loss in the work of many visual artists, composers, and filmmakers. And certainly we recall the photo-journalistic images of the period, shocking in their dispassionate archiving of violence and trauma.
While we no longer see graphic images of wounded soldiers returning from battle on our screens, we do see countless images of suffering children and of entire towns burned by wind-whipped fires and bombs exploding in faraway places. In fact, perhaps we are experiencing a pendulum swing of experience that has inured us to such images. Perhaps art is no longer able to pierce the veil of empathy. What can Art really do?
Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, suggests:
People don’t become inured to what they are shown – if that’s the right way to describe what happens – because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.
So perhaps we as artists and teachers need to once again look to art as a method of explaining the unexplainable and of making the unbearable bearable. Perhaps our ability to feel empathy in the pain of others can be found in the act of such creation and in the gift that artists give to the viewer when content finds its proper form.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department