Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
The Art Institute of Chicago has worked with students and professionals in healthcare for years. When I joined the museum in 2017 I began to lead our work in that area, designing and facilitating workshops for occupational therapists, medical students, and physicians that emphasized observation and communication skills, and concepts such as collaborative problem-solving.
When the pandemic hit I scrambled to bring resources to my partners in hospitals in hopes that art could function as therapy for frontline providers struggling to keep up with the onslaught of illness. As I noted in an article I wrote for Hyperallergic, at the time those partners were often too overwhelmed to respond to my outreach, so I shifted to thinking long term. How could we lay the groundwork for the collaborations of the future? How could we be prepared for the aftermath of the first wave and beyond?
In summer 2020, around the time I started calling our vocational programs “Civic Wellness,” I was asked to co-facilitate a virtual workshop on art and implicit bias for the Illinois courts. Around one hundred judges and other legal professionals gathered online to look at art and think critically about power and race. This was a follow-up to workshops we had led in the museum before the pandemic. It was becoming more apparent than ever to me that the function of these workshops for healthcare professionals and for legal professionals was largely the same, and that social justice was at the core of both.
One of the exercises I originally designed for physicians but which I first used with judges explores the concept of objectivity. I ask the participants to look at an emotionally charged artwork and describe it “objectively.” Immediately their language becomes stilted and abstract. They’ll do anything to avoid using emotion words like “fear” or “sadness,” even when the artwork can’t possibly be understood without them. We talk about where this impulse comes from. Who says that emotions can’t be fact? Who decides what is true and what isn’t? These are important questions for anyone, but they are crucial for physicians and judges who are in positions of authority over communities that are exceptionally vulnerable: the ill and those who are seen as offenders within the justice system.
I am currently collaborating with occupational therapists Evguenia S. Popova, PhD, OTR/L; Hillary Napier-Gondek, OTD, OTR/L; and a handful of talented students at Rush Medical College on a study of the ways in which Civic Wellness workshops impact empathic thinking. The more closely I have come to understand the mechanisms of empathic thinking the more I have come to respect the ways in which the unique experience of art can train individuals and groups to develop care for themselves and other humans. Perhaps most useful for me has been the concept that a guided disorienting experience can lead directly to transformational learning.
Disorientation, of course, is fundamental to the art experience. Many modern and contemporary artists skillfully utilize disorientation as a medium. But even a traditional sculpture or painting can pose questions that are not easily answered, which in itself, especially for science- and logic-focused individuals like doctors and lawyers, can be disorienting.
I have also come to understand that empathy is a through line in social justice and anti-racist practice. I would argue there is no anti-racist practice without empathy, without the capacity to overcome bias and think deeply about the experience of others, and to treat them with care. This is especially true in moments when difficult decisions have to be made, whether those moments come in courtrooms, emergency rooms, or in staid art museums struggling with legacies of systemic racism. Among other things, empathic thinking means adaptability, a capacity to practice compassionate change. To alter processes that have proven themselves to be harmful, even deadly, given the grave consequences of negligent healthcare and punitive judgement.
In an equitable society the powerful are accountable to the vulnerable (vulnerability is not at all synonymous with weakness). This group I’m naming as powerful includes judges and doctors; it also includes large art institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago. It has rarely been more clear than it was after the onset of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd: All hands must be on deck; choosing the future is the only righteous choice. We are “of Chicago,” therefore we answer to Chicago. All established art museums have to answer to their communities. We must. We have a role to play in the collective struggle for justice and well-being.
It isn’t always easy to make a clear case for how art can change minds and improve society. Even in the Civic Wellness program there is no obvious answer to the question of why art makes the world a better place. But when I hear a powerful person asking thoughtful questions about truth and compassion — questions made possible through conversation with art — I can see the mechanisms of empathy at play.
Empathy, like love, has a reputation for softness. It too often reads as compromise or pandering. But empathy, like love, can be radical. It asks everyone to give and see more than they may otherwise feel is possible, and has the potential to be a guiding force in the pursuit of an anti-racist tomorrow. This is why connecting legal and medical students and professionals to art is essential. Art bends and distorts perceptions. It demands comfort with ambiguity, and in an ambiguous world, there may be no more valuable skill.
New works by one of Bangladesh’s most prominent photojournalists, writers, and activists are on view at the Chicago art space through November 27.
Council often uses humor as a political tool to expose systems of power and inequality in a society in which even death carries a high price tag.
An exhibition at the San Francisco Opera House pairs the work of incarcerated artists with Beethoven’s story of unjust imprisonment.
Many works take disruption and repetition as their themes, and many artists resurface in different sections, creating multiple affinities.
Hear from Holly Jean Buck, Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas, Simon Denny, Elizabeth Hoover, Renee Kemp-Rotan, Joseph Kunkel, and more at this free public event.
In Cooking with Paris, Hilton capitalizes on her portrayal of being a competent woman, while highlighting its anachronism through her absurd performance. Rosler manipulates the camera in the same way.
EFA Open Studios offers a portal into the creative habitats of over 65 artists working in Manhattan’s longest-running studio program, including Dannielle Tegeder, Wafaa Bilal, Cui Fei, and Anina Major.
A man says Blue Bayou took details of his life without his permission. Several women who appear in the documentary Sabaya say they did not consent to be filmed. How can filmmakers avoid these ethical pitfalls?
Ursula Biemann, Nicolas Bourriaud, and others said they will no longer participate in the event.
There is an official ban against the public mourning of Tiananmen Square victims in Hong Kong and mainland China.