Art: Instant empathy booster

I am currently working on a project about art and its impact on community belonging – one of the most significant determinants of well-being.

That’s how I came across a book called Gifts of the Muse* which explores the personal and social benefits of exposure to – and participation  in- art.

One aspect that intrigued me was the assertion that being exposed to art and literature gives us  different ideas and insights into unfamiliar cultures or contexts. This new knowledge makes us more empathetic. I filed that under “Hmmm…. Interesting.”

Then today I listened to a story titled Gone With A Trace: The story of lost items on the US/Mexico border on CBC’s The Current. It looks at the work of California-based photographer Richard Misrach and composer Guillermo Galindo who are bringing attention to the plight of  thousands of desperate Latin American migrants who scale the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico each year.

These two artists are using everyday objects that are lost or abandoned along the border to create art and, in the case of Guillermo, haunting music. Guillermo uses very sensitive, low frequency microphones to record sounds made by items that have been left behind – often by children. These are items like a Blues Clues backpack, a pair of tiny tennis shoes, a child’s bible, pesos, a ball, etc. It struck me that, through Guillermo,these items gave a voice to these voiceless, possibly missing children.

I started my day thinking about getting my kids to camp and a looming deadline. Thanks to the magic of radio and the power of art I have to say I have an instant boost of empathy for the plight of these unaccompanied children. Quite frankly, I am haunted by what I heard.

I invite you to take 20 minutes to let art enrich your day too.

Don’t have 20 minutes? Take 5 to check out 7 art initiatives that are transforming the lives of refugees. I especially liked the girls reclaiming themselves and their space in Saddam Hussein’s castle in Castle Art.

Has art ever given you deeper understanding of an issue? Has it ever propelled you to act? I’d love to hear your story.


*McCarthy, K. et al. (2004) Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the debate about the benefits of the arts, Rand Corporation, 125p.

Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

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