N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2010/02/11/eight-surprisingly-touching-commercials/

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.

Nope.

Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
______________
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8

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