Opinion

Art After Trump: Eschewing Empathy for Self-Care

As an artist, I want to invoke something you can imagine — or even better, have experienced — and then ask you to start applying that lived knowledge outwards.

Chloë Bass, “Linger Longer Napkin” (2014), ink-block print on custom-scented paper napkin, 5 x 5 in (12.7 x 12.7 cm) (image courtesy the artist)

Editor’s note: Last week, Hyperallergic co-presented Art After Trump, a night of two-minute creative responses to the election at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. This week, we’re publishing a few of those pieces.

No matter what Facebook makes you think, the human capacity for connection is actually relatively limited. There are reasons for this, which actual experts (I’m a layperson in everything other than living my own life) have theorized about for a while now: we’re made for clans, or, evolutionarily speaking, our brains are still, at best, in “small town” mode, and so on. You know you can only have, what, 15 real friends? One hundred and fifty acquaintances you can truly hold in your mind with meaning? You get the idea.

Berlin-based, American, post–queer theory, drag-blogger Mysti has recently questioned the idea of affect sharing — the ability of a group to achieve a sameness of emotion — which he calls “an immature politics.” This feels related to my own deep concerns about empathy.

Over the summer, in a Hyperallergic article about abstraction and the value of Black lives, I wrote about empathy’s limits:

In considering what it takes to make someone else value a life, I have been thinking about personal pleas. It seems to me that there’s value in extending the bounds of the personal. (George Yancy eloquently describes it as “placing no limits on who we call our neighbors.”) But this kind of thought extension requires some delicate critical thinking — not just empathy, which is getting a bad rap in certain circles these days, but a form of engaged abstraction that allows for concrete response. More and more, empathy seems to test the shaky limits of liberal exhaustion while not constituting any actual work. Expressing sadness for the pain of others from a place of mismatched understanding is no more helpful than my saying that simply being Black and visiting St. Louis makes me an activist.

The things that we believe when we’re feeling into another’s emotions are, at best, a selfish guess based on our own personal biases. An assumption of shared affect seems both shaky and exclusionary (immature, indeed). Why do I need to feel the same as you in order to be associated with you? How is this even helpful? Great, now we both feel bad.

The public act of feeling bad has been the dominant voice in our social and political consciousness for some time now. I can break down “bad” in a variety of ways — feeling guilty, feeling tired, feeling angry, feeling helpless, feeling grief — but I think you already know that shared complaint is a least common denominator that serves to do a lot. Unfortunately, that “lot” is rarely smart. It’s often harmful.

I’m arguing for a different kind of affective value, one that asks you to put your labor into better understanding yourself, not exhaustively (and exhaustingly) understanding another. Think about the things you let yourself go without: the sleep you don’t get; the meals you don’t eat; the myriad challenges that you don’t self-correct in the process of daily living. Everything that we find acceptable at home becomes a lens through which we judge the pain of other, more remote people. I’m not asking you to engage in self-care because life is hard and blankets are soft and you’re important. I’m asking you to do it because it’s the only way you can really understand what it is to care for anyone else.

Let me put it this way: If artists are seen as potential creative solution-builders, then I don’t want to waste my work by invoking something you can’t imagine and then expecting you to change lives. I want to invoke something you can imagine — or even better, have experienced — and then ask you to start applying that lived knowledge outwards.

This is how the world changes: not petition by petition, but hand to hand to hand to hand to hand. When I make art, it’s not a balm or a distraction. It’s an invitation to come closer.

The author will co-lead a conversation related to this topic at EFA Project Space (323 W 39th Street, 2nd floor, Garment District, Manhattan) on December 22, 6:30–8pm.

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