One of the dictionary.com definitions of empathy is:
the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
I am struggling to come up with an example of that from my experience. I can think of examples that seem tangentially related to this but don’t seem to be quite the same.
I understand that what a person sees in an image is at least as much about the viewer as the image itself. I believe that is part of the theory behind Rorschach testing. But naming an image doesn’t necessarily ascribe feelings or attitudes to it. Is this empathy as defined above? I don’t think so.
Picasso’s Guernica is an image that always affects me on an emotional level. Since I don’t actually know what PP was thinking so I suppose I could be ascribing my own horror of war to the image but I am confident this was part of his message. Is it ’empathy’ that I am open to being affected by it? I don’t think the feelings and attitudes I experience are ascribed by me. I think the artist expressed them.
Another image I always find haunting is Hopper’s Nighthawks. There is a loneliness in this image that is palpable. That seems to come closer to the definition above but it still fails for me. If the artist meant to convey a feeling and succeeds then I don’t think it is accurate to say the emotion was ascribed by the viewer.
Many years ago I sought the services of a psychiatrist. Early in our relationship she asked me to bring in a photo of myself as a child. Seeing the photo, she observed that there seemed to be some sadness in my eyes in the picture and wondered if I recalled what that might have been about. Much later in the process I asked her about that exercise and she explained that she could just as easily ascribed some other emotion to the picture. The goal was to provoke talk about emotions. (Manipulative but effective.) That experience seems still closer to the definition above than the other examples but the emotions ascribed weren’t my own….or even necessarily her’s.
I recently posted a photo of my mother as a child. I have always thought that picture had a lot of emotional content (making it a good portrait) but I know the emotions it evokes in me are not necessarily the ones she was feeling. Maybe that is the closest of these examples but it still seems removed somehow.
Additional consideration is called for.