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 elsewhere.
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!
Guest 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
The 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, killing time.
It’s 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.
Presumably 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.
So, 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.
Regarding my own definition of inspiration, allow me to throw some description at it:
‘a 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.
Stained 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!
II – Empathy
I 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.
Ramachandran 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.
A 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.
I 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?
When 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.
Another 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 reality.
We had to rally behind scientific and rational facts to combat his ‘alternative facts’.
We 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?
Then 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.
We 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.
Of 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!
III – Apraxia
Attributed to Kant: ‘theory without practice is empty; practice without theory is blind’.
Me: Art without craft is blind, craft without art is empty.
Inspiration 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.
While 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 connecting.
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.
Is 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?
In 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’. The next 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.
Ramachandran 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.
Covid 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.
And 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, right?
If 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.
Then 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.
We remembered these things are essential to life and not to take them for granted.
IV – Impathy-emspiration
It’s easy to see how stained glass windows are inspiring – but are they empathic too?
Well, light is sensed by the skin, so there is that. But stained glass is also often employed as a story-telling medium.
People 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.
There 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!).
When 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!
Do 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.
Paintings, 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
As 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.
Glass 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.
Stained 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?
No 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.
On 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!
That 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.
1 Roughly, subconscious, intuitive vs rational thinking.
2 ‘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’ <https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/apraxia/>.
3 ‘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, <https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/04/harvard-researcher-on-psychology-of-art/>.
FRONT COVER/FIG. 1: Judith Schaechter FMGP, Dirty Snow (2020).