• A Festival of Ideas
  • May 2 - 5, 2024
  • Guelph

Art is Empathy

During a recent trip to Nairobi, I participated in a conference on the development of the arts and the creative economy in the African Community. Not having defined the conceptual differences between the expressive arts and “lucrative” arts, the mixed group of creative industry leaders, fine artists, community leaders and academics was soon mired in a debate on the power and role of the arts. Is art primarily about economics (overcoming poverty by creating video gaming jobs) or about social change (addressing poverty by promoting awareness through the arts)?

Clearly, it seemed, the participants were not going to relent in favour of one perspective or another. The debate shifted when somebody pointed out that the most compelling points were illustrative ones, making use of narrative: we all agreed on the power of storytelling. Rather than debating economic motives versus artistic integrity, stories were told about change: stories about artistic practices, stories about successful gaming companies, stones about impoverishment, unemployment and exploitation, and stories about survival, catharsis, and renewal.

Over the course of the week in Nairobi, I spent a lot of time with Njalis Ole Shuel, a Maasai leader from Ngwesi, near Mount Kenya. He told me about the storytelling traditions of the Maasai domestic herdsmen who, when evening descends and the herds are home, gather around and share experiences of the day. The stories take a revolving form in which one person initiates and the story rolls from one teller to the next: a collective form of creation.

The stories of the Maasai are stories of empathy: empathy for other, empathy for the land, and for the wildlife. And this empathy carries directly from their storytelling into the ethics and actions of the community. For example, because they have suffered severe poverty and recognize that survival is a collective right, they have banded together to create a magnificent guest lodge. Not only does the lodge create jobs but it also funds an expansive wildlife conservancy and provides scholarships for Maasai youth. This form of economic development supports their deeply entrenched wildlife conservation traditions. (A Maasai man who eats wild meat is forever banned from eating domestic meat.)

The Ngwesi Maasai practice the art of story-telling to create a common bond and a way of acting together. And whether we realize it or not, as we participate in the arts we imagine ourselves into being. Through the aesthetics of seeing, feeling, moving and hearing, the artist provokes in us a way to know and understand the collective and individual human experience, enabling the possibility of change and igniting our empathic and critical energies. A reader immersed in a novel, a dancer moving through a choreographed sequence, a visitor to an impoverished land, and a loiterer in a public square can all experience the same intensity of empathy.

But does this empathy lead to empowerment and to action? It is within the context of this question that Musagetes designs its initiatives in neighbourhoods and communities. We seek to empower and activate through participatory, socially engaged artistic practices. We engage in dialogue about the power of the arts and demonstrate it through experimental and expressive projects that cross the boundaries of art and the creative economy, and that crosscut the realms of our human experience.

Art is a way of knowing—a way to know the world around us and a way to know our fellow beings. Art is empathy.