I post this editorial which I wrote last spring for the Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters in memory of Caroline Benyon. For more than two
decades Caroline served as Chairman, leading the Society through
challenging times and resolutely championing the art and craft of
stained glass with selfless commitment. Her sudden death is a
devastating loss to the stained glass community in the U.K. and
I did not know her well, but I do know she championed my work and was a kind person and beloved friend to many. I wish I had had the chance to know her better. Please check out some of her work at her website or or at the BSMGP website!
editorial: Hands ON! Inspiration and empathy
If you wish to buy a hard copy of the lovely journal you can do so here. It is an informative, scholarly and overall beautiful publication!
I – Inspiration
word inspiration, when taken literally, means to breath in. What happens to a
metaphor like that in the days of a potentially fatal airborne respiratory
contagion? Bad times for inspiration, I
guess. But that’s OK because art needn’t be ‘inspired’, right? I have heard it said that ‘inspiration is for
amateurs’ and I do believe this was meant as a put-down; a way of distinguishing
the hard-core artists from the hobby crowd, who are just amusing themselves,
really hard to find scholarly readings about inspiration for my Creativity and Inspiration Master’s
level seminar class at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Apparently, it is too far into the realm of
the metaphorical or mystical to be of much use as a topic of rigorous study.
And inspiration is emphatically not a science or even a liberal art! You either
got it or you don’t, it simply can’t be taught.
the word ‘inspired’ also has something to do with ‘spirit’. To be inspired
isn’t to be the subject of artificial respiration – it is something ‘communicated
by divine or supernatural powers’, according to the online Etymology Dictionary. To be inspired, then, is to be penetrated
within from the outside by something alien, but alive. No wonder it’s not
taught in school – this is the realm of the supernatural or religious as well
as possibly the erotic.
this inspiration is a (metaphorical) puff of life force. Does art need this? Of course it does – otherwise it is just material,
technique and its own maker’s ego bouncing around referring back to itself.
Just a husk carrying an imitation of life, like a zombie. Without that
metaphysical moment, nothing is transferred to the viewer’s experience other
than the exact sum of its parts.
my own definition of inspiration, allow me to throw some description at it:
feeling of enthusiasm, a sense of wonderment and/or transcendence regarding an
idea (or array of ideas), a form of energy that feels sudden, positive and
involves insight, a brain orgasm that leads to the birth of a creative endeavor
that will mature and, in turn, pass its inspiration on to the next person which
will, in turn pass its inspiration on to the next person… and so on and so
forth.’ When people imagine art to be a form of communication, I imagine this
chain of telepathic inspiration. Inspiration is the secret special sauce!
Inherent in most of what defines inspiration is unknowability and
uncontrollability. So, when I get asked about inspiration – as artists
inevitably are – it’s tempting to say: ‘I am inspired by GOD!’. Of course, I am
an atheist, so there is that.
glass is a mystical art form and not just because it’s been associated with the
Christian church for centuries. What hasn’t been said already? Stained glass is mostly experienced as
transmitted coloured light, generally seen in darkened, often quiet
spaces. Its modulation of shining light
hearkens to time as well as space – something that the art of a reflected
surface cannot do. It is perceived by
the eyes, but also by the skin. Stained glass is absorbed as much as seen. It comes as no surprise that it is useful for
drawing associations to gods. If inspiration means to be filled by life force,
then stained glass enacts that process by filling us with light and colour
(which is really a form of light deprivation). And, if there’s one thing I know
about stained glass, it’s that even the worst pieces have an appreciative
audience that finds them inspiring!
like to read ‘neurology for the layman’ type-science books in my spare time and
I just finished The Tell-Tale Brain
by neurologist V. S. Ramachandran. I
will resist the urge to use this platform as a review – but he includes two
chapters on the burgeoning field of neuro-aesthetics. The punchline of them,
for me, was his assertion that he imagines crowds of worried artists and
unfortunately, no: neurologists won’t ever be able to fully explain the mystery
of art and provide us with a recipe. Actually, V. S., we aren’t that
worried! But this wasn’t the aspect of
the book that interested me as an artist.
is known primarily for his research into ‘mirror neurons’. If you don’t know, mirror neurons are the
cells in your brain associated with empathy.
Not necessarily compassion, but the basic ability to imagine what
another might be thinking or doing, which is a prerequisite for compassion. In order to learn, we must first be able to
imitate and in order to imitate, there must be a part of our brain that watches
the actions of another and sets forth to do the same.
friend of mine who is a real, honest-to-goodness professor of philosophy was
not impressed by my excitement over mirror neurons. Basically, he believes empathy is the
miracle, not the neurons themselves.
Calling them ‘mirror neurons’ tells us exactly nothing more about
it. Ramachandran might disagree, as in
his book; he is big on saying that locating these things in the brain means we
have a shot at fixing them when they go wrong. But, as my friend explains, a
mechanical understanding is not the same as a philosophic one and ‘fixing’
empathy can be addressed many ways, depending on the pathology. Art is one way,
but I get ahead of myself. By the way, I once asked my philosopher friend if he
was worried about conceptual artists impinging on their field. He felt about as worried as I did regarding
all those neurologists figuring out how art works.
have been interested in art and empathy for a while now. I think we all have, as we watch the world
around us with all its cruelty – the rich getting richer, the poor getting
poorer and in the USA: gun violence, the crisis at the US southern border with
Mexico, Black Lives Matter, the destruction of our environment…. Most of us
think ‘a little empathy is called for’.
And how can art help? The most
obvious answer is to create what is essentially propaganda for one’s
enlightened point of view. But does that
really help to change minds? Or does it just preach to the choir?
Trump was elected, I felt an incredible urge to become a ‘political’ artist
myself and I know I was hardly alone in that impulse. It felt like the only
responsible thing to do – bring resistance and protest into our work. I really didn’t want to… but I felt it
was a moral responsibility. I felt the need to be ugly because the truth, the
reality I was suddenly submerged in was so hideous and hateful that making
anything ‘pretty’ felt like a lie, it felt like denial and the epitome of
privilege and luxury.
thing that Donald Trump and his ilk ‘accomplished’ was putting everyone in the
position of having to choose between mythos
and logos1 for our definition of
had to rally behind scientific and rational facts to combat his ‘alternative
should be very skeptical of situations which force us to pick one and not
both. Donald Trump did nothing less
than devalue the human imagination – to turn alternative, fantastical realities
into suspicious lies. Donald Trump put artifice in the gap where art
should be. And with that, the option to explore personal reality, re-emerged as
identity politics (instead of, say, as visionary experience) and artists
sought desperately to create compassion by making this literally the subject of
their work. All of which is perfectly logical and understandable but again, it
made me wonder: how does art best encourage or enable empathy? By moral lecture or by attraction?
Covid happened. And all around me (meaning,
on social media), I saw people utterly desperate for bread recipes. For beautiful photos of sunsets. For knitting
patterns! People were soliciting friends for suggestions for movies and
books. People, in short, were craving
inspiration in the form of the arts, in particular, art that was aesthetically
pleasing. People wanted beauty. It was
so obvious why. We were scared. We were
overwhelmed. And we were incredibly depressed.
didn’t need this beauty – all these arts and crafts – entirely as an escapist
anodyne or solely as a form of sugar-coated denial. No! We needed reasons to
remember life is worth living, because we were alone and scared and to live
life without inspiration is a terrible thing to contemplate. Inspiration, it would seem, isn’t just life
force, but love itself or maybe love of life itself. In isolation, many felt
like their lives were deprived of its most meaningful transactions with loved
ones, with anyone.
course, Covid meant we had to isolate. As
for me? I was born Covid-ready. My studio is in my home, I love solitude, I
am not a hugger. But I can see that
isolating is not good for empathy, which is learned and needs continual
practice (ask a neurologist or philosopher!). No chances to see distant loved
ones, no chances to share our lives in person.
No hugging! And definitely NO EXCHANGING BREATH! Covid has tested our
compassion. On the one hand, people have done heroic things to keep people
alive, to keep society going and to help with mass morale. If we didn’t know
this already, we all found out during Covid how much we want/need/love to be
within breathing distance of each other!
Attributed to Kant: ‘theory without practice is
empty; practice without theory is blind’.
Me: Art without craft is blind, craft without
art is empty.
without empathy is empty and empathy without inspiration is blind and vice
versa. The take-home message should be
that these seeming polarities need each other to be meaningful.
breathing and inspiration are ethereal and have a metaphorical dimension, what
about hands? During Covid, I found out
there was such thing as ‘skin hunger’.
We require some physical contact, some actual material touching and
indeed, during Trump things seemed to really fall apart. The divisiveness wasn’t just Covid, but also how
society seemed to be collapsing and shattering around individual opinions on
civil rights, human rights and the environment, to name a few things brought to
the fore during the Pandemic.
it possible to see this as related to the decades-old de-materialisation of
crafts (and art) in academia? I do think
so. I won’t go into this too much here, but de-skilling is one of those things
that seemed, on the surface, to be a good idea – it seemed democratic,
practical. It seemed a remedy for Craft that was nothing but technical
chops and shiny material glitz. In short, it seemed to bring some crucially
needed brains to the brawn. But what’s with all the Cartesian mind/body duality
stuff? Can we say – now that Covid has
taught us – that we can have ‘skin hunger’ in our art too?
his book, Ramachandran brought up a rare neurological condition called
‘apraxia’.2 In a case study, he
described it thusly: ‘…her hand and arm muscles are fine: she can untie a knot.
Her thinking and language are unaffected and so is her motor coordination, but
she cannot translate thought into action’.
time I hear someone who should know better separating ideas from materials, design
and process – as though hands-on process and design are somehow not integral to
the subject of an artwork unto itself – I am going to refer them to this book.
And then I shall resolutely describe my practice as ‘handcraft’! So there!
De-skilling does not equal conceptual art, or even barely
intelligent art, so much as it encourages apraxia. As neurologists, and I presume some
philosophers, are eager to tell us, our brains don’t exist in a vacuum and they
don’t end at the neck. Consciousness is in a dynamic feedback relationship
with its environment. Our bodies
are synonymous with our selves – not just our brains.
talks about how mirror neurons are the agent which makes learning skills possible. That
made me think about how much, especially in Covid, we enjoy what I call ‘craft
porn’. You know what I am talking about: all those short videos of disembodied
hands making things – from cooking, to mixing paint to using a lathe – these
short videos are just about everywhere.
People love watching people make stuff!
And I think the disembodied hands are crucial because we can more easily insert our own selves into the video and
imagine it is us making whatever’s being made. Clearly the experience is a form of empathy.
forced me to figure out how to teach stained glass remotely – something I
initially fought bitterly against. But
in the end, I had to give in, and I had to learn how to video myself making
instructional demos for YouTube. I am glad I did this, because, as a teacher of
stained glass, I dearly hope to pass on my knowledge (arcane and ever-more
obsolete every day) to others. And if
they get off on watching my hands in these demos, well, great!! I would say that in-person teaching is still
preferable – but I am hoping that disseminating these videos will reach people
who are interested in my techniques but can’t afford a workshop.
so, I have a question for Dr Ramachandran: given that people have a ‘monkey
see/monkey do function’ when watching a person make or do something: is this
then transferable to merely beholding the handmade object? When I look at a thrown pot or a stained
glass window, something obviously handmade and not manufactured, is part of me
(my mirror neurons!) enacting the making process? Even if I have never thrown a pot in my
life? If watching people creating craft
objects, or even just looking at the objects themselves, piques this brain
function, can we say that we are closer to touching? That we are closer to
understanding each other? That we are closer to compassion? I mean, why not,
one does a brief survey of English near-synonyms for beauty, we find a lot of
words implying connection, cohesion and harmony. In short, to describe something as
‘attractive’ one must use words that mean attachment. Likewise, we tend to find
things that are falling apart, chaos, and ruination to be either repellant,
repulsive or a type of anti-beauty. This
is a deep concern of craft. Craft is, after all, wholly about getting stuff to
stay together that does not necessarily want to stick. Trump-era art required
ugliness, the art of chaos, discontent.
Art that reflected our inability to use glue, solder and stitching to
hold together our culture, our families, our lives. Burn it to the ground and start over.
Covid taught us how desperately we wanted to try to stay together after all, so
we craved art of coherence and ‘beauty’. We learned inspiration is more than a
luxury, it is required for us to thrive.
We learned touch is more than a ‘feel good’ routine. We struggled to
hold on to the idea that our imaginations aren’t ‘alternative facts’, but
mythic visions that sustain us when we need hope, beauty and meaning. We discovered
that our minds were actually attached to our hands, our respiratory system and
the rest of what makes us people.
remembered these things are essential to life and not to take them for granted.
easy to see how stained glass windows are
inspiring – but are they
light is sensed by the skin, so there is that.
But stained glass is also often employed as a
occasionally have the courage to ask me why my
work is so ‘depressing’. And while my true answer would be ‘speak for yourself,
I don’t find it so!’, I usually make the effort to address their concern a
little more deeply than that.
is a reason why we are compelled towards the art forms of tragedy, the sad song,
the miserable play or heartrending novel, and other types of art that might be considered
negative. And it’s not just masochism,
or schadenfreude or some weird need
to be morose. I believe there is a real
connection between beauty and grief. So, no, I don’t do ‘depressing’ work to
add to gross national per capita
misery. Nor do
I do it because I need to express my own personal sorrow. I do it
because this is the very best way I can demonstrate empathy (I told you I
wasn’t a hugger!).
I was young, and found myself depressed, I was told to ‘cheer up’ and given
many good reasons why I shouldn’t be unhappy: I wasn’t mistreated or
starving! I lived in a nice, safe
suburb, not a war zone or a slum. This was true of course, but all those
rational arguments ever did was make me feel guilty. What made me feel better
was sad, sad songs and pictures of martyrs!
you know what no one needs to learn how to cope with? Happiness.
People need to understand how to deal with their messy feelings and to
make their suffering meaningful. People want to understand that all this isn’t
a terrible joke at their expense. Who hasn’t experienced comfort and
understanding in the company of a good sad song or painting or story, seemingly
created just for you? If this analogy does not explain the empathic power of
art, nothing will.
stories and songs are a low-risk opportunity to rehearse real-life situations.
When engaging with art, you only contemplate sorrow – you don’t experience a
real loss (although you may re-live some).
It’s a ‘safer space’ where the tragedy isn’t real. Art gives you a
chance to confront the unbearable, the intolerable, the unendurable in a way
that helps you feel the feelings deeper than you might risk otherwise.3
for the connection of beauty to grief, well, that’s simple. The reason we
experience attraction at all is because we are not immortal, and we must
reproduce. The reason we experience attraction is because we are a social
species, and we feel the imperative to take care of the sick and the weaker so
that they don’t die or suffer. Attraction is a call to care.
objects can’t be thrown around the room like plastic ones can, because
apparently, glass is mortal, and plastic isn’t. Or so it seems.
glass windows were originally employed to speak to the glory of god, to create
a sense of wonder and awe. Above all, in
the face of what can seem like endless trials and meaningless suffering, art
creates ‘alternative facts’ in the form of suggesting a meaning to life. It is nothing
less than that. What is spirituality if not the alchemic process of transforming
despair into hope?
one needs advice on how to change a nice day.
No one requires input on how to improve happiness. But we are delusional if we imagine that we
can handle despair or grief without consolation, understanding and love. You know… those things you just can’t affect
all by yourself.
my many Covid walks, I have noticed something that made it into one of my
pieces (FIG. 1, SEE FRONT COVER). And it was so silly I was afraid people would take
it as a joke. Everywhere around me people were walking around with little bags
of poop. (Never mind this practical aspect of dog
walking, I literally saw it completely afresh as
if I were an alien on their first visit to earth: ‘Oh, look at the
humans with their little icky bags!’). It may sound amusing, but I truly found it to be a
poignant human thing. For starters, don’t we all walk around, metaphorically speaking, with a little bag of… well,
something? Just a small one, one we seek to dispose of so others don’t have to
step in it. What a decent thing to do!
is inspiration and empathy in a nutshell – the enthusiasm for love and life
that makes the willingness to dispose of our
own little bag of poo not a chore, but an honour and even a pleasure.
Roughly, subconscious, intuitive vs
‘Apraxia is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to perform
learned (familiar) movements on command, even though the command is understood
and there is a willingness to perform the movement. Both the desire and the
capacity to move are present but the person simply cannot execute the act’
‘Other studies have shown that people report being highly moved by art with
negative content, and the experience of feeling moved combines negative affect
with an equal level of positive affect. In short, we can allow ourselves to be
moved by tragedy and horror in art because it is not about us; we have entered
a fictional world of virtual reality. And the experience of being moved by such
works is not only pleasurable, but can also be highly meaningful as we reflect
on the nature of our feelings.’ Psychologist Ellen Winner,
COVER/FIG. 1: Judith Schaechter FMGP, Dirty