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Brian D. Cohen

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Does Art Make You a Better Person?

Posted: 10/10/11 06:56 PM ET

"If you want to be a better musician, become a better person." -- John Coltrane

Making art may seem pretty selfish. One fears the creative soul will withdraw from social interactions, into self-absorption, solipsism, and neglect of societal expectations and ordinary responsibilities. The often obsessive nature of art-making exacerbates our fears of these tendencies.

Maybe we've been taught to think that inwardly directed attention is a little bit shameful, egotistical, or self-indulgent, and the products of introspection are effete, impractical, or useless, at best. "You can't eat beauty." While you're making art you're not doing anything for anyone else, and you're probably not helping out much around the house.

There may be more to it than that. The composer George Rochberg (I painted his garden furniture in 1978 while we argued whether Prokofiev or Shostakovich was the better composer; I had some nerve) stated: "The pursuit of art is much more than achieving technical mastery of means or even a personal style; it is a spiritual journey toward the transcendence of art and of the artist's ego." Art helps you get over yourself, beyond yourself.

The Greek philosopher Plotinus likened our lives to the creation of a work of art:

"How then can you see the sort of beauty a good soul has? Go back into yourself and look; and if you do not yet see yourself beautiful, then just as someone making a statue...must cut away excess and straighten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright and never stop until the divine glory of virtue shines out on you..."
The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault recalled that the ancient Greeks sought:
"to make their lives an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values" He had no fears that a self-aware individual would withdraw from outward social responsibilities, but would "be able to conduct himself properly in relation to others and for others."

We tend to admire with less hesitation the discipline, direction, mastery, stamina, persistence, and the ability to live with ambiguity and uncertainty of artistic practice. Some schools have also figured out that while kids are making art, they're staying out of worse kinds of trouble.

What about experiencing art? The concept of empathy began in 19th-century German psychology as a description of emotional and kinesthetic responses to works of art -- engagement with works of art provokes empathic response. Empathy is how we know others' minds and others' experiences. It is a redefinition and expansion of oneself through recognition of the experience of another, resonance with another's experience so immediate and complete it is experienced as one's own response. Starting early in our lives, with children's books, then music, movies, novels, poetry, and visual art, we discover through art worlds that belong to others, and they immediately become our own.

Recent studies in neuroscience have pointed to the role of mirror neurons in empathic response. Wikipedia tells us:

"a mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another...the neuron 'mirrors' the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting."
Is this the neurological basis for empathy? For understanding what other people are feeling? For moral behavior? Is this the basis for power of art to move and transform us?

The development of empathy in an individual from art mirrors the original derivation of the term; it is art that makes us empathic; art that models others' inner lives for each of us; art that attunes us to experience and suffering beyond ourselves. It is imagination, the other signal attribute of creative thinking, that lets us see how the world can be changed to be better for ourselves and for others.