Art as a Catalyst for Cultivating Empathy
PROCESSIONAL, oil on canvas, 60 x 120 inches, 2019
by Karleen Gardner
Director of Learning Innovation
Minneapolis Institute of Art
Art is an expression of what it is to be human. Through his work, Tiko Kerr aims, in his words, to “spark people viscerally,” to connect individuals across our “shared humanity,” and to change “perceptions about how we see the world.” At the heart of his work is empathy, which is the ability to step into the shoes of another person and to understand their feelings and perspectives. That understanding then guides our actions and leads to fundamental social change.
In our increasingly divisive world, fraught with conflict and polarization, our failure to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings is exacerbating prejudice, conflict, and inequity.We must find ways to identify and connect with others, especially those who come from cultures and backgrounds that differ from our own. Empathy is key in developing such understandings.
Neuropsychologist Jamil Zaki believes that experiencing art offers opportunities for exercising our empathy muscles. “Empathy is often work,” he explains. “It’s an effort that you make to find the commonalities between yourself and someone else.”The arts provide us “with a very low risk way of entering worlds and lives and minds that are far from what you would normally experience.”Tiko Kerr’s Reframed exhibition offers possibilities for fostering new ways of seeing, developing new methods of perspective taking, and changing the way we view and act in the world.
To develop these potentials of the exhibition, the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art has worked in consultation with the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) to develop a public engagement program that encourages viewers, as Kerr says, to “puzzle out for themselves” their relationship to the artworks and to consider the emotions and thoughts that the paintings and collages evoke. Mia, through its Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts (CEVA),is dedicated to creating positive community impact by using the power of art to foster empathy and understanding among art audiences. This work is based around the power of art to spark curiosity and creativity, connect people across cultural differences, and engage our individual and shared values.In our turbulent world, art museums and galleries have the opportunity to become more integral to and impactful in the lives of their communities by serving as places of reflection, connection, discovery, and dialogue.
The Reframed exhibition challenges audiences to ask themselves: How might we do some perspective taking and contemplate the artist’s intent and thoughts and feelings in the creative process? How might others with backgrounds and experiences different from mine view or respond to the artwork? How can we create space for dialogue that engages diverse people with multiple perspectives and worldviews?
Kerr’s collage works incorporate found images from historical art movements such as cubism and surrealism, including those created by artists during times of tumultuous social and political upheaval, much like we are experiencing today. How might the works in Reframed act as catalysts for connecting people and events of the past with those of the present?