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The Other Teammates

How could I forget them? I muse mid-stride in a briar patch clearing, ready to smack my forehead. The other teammates: Culture, Politics, Economics, History, the quiet ones. Pop culture, the great Zeitgeist, too, although these are not so quiet, the teammates that make themselves heard, their presence known, their influence in the artist’s creative process clear.

Sure, writers have editors and publishers and readers on their team, just as artists have gallery directors and curators and viewers on theirs. Performers on The Voice have their coaches and managers and fans, and yet like any other artist, they live and work in a particular time and place. They are influenced by the particular cultural, political, and economic contexts in which they find themselves even if they fail to acknowledge this. And most important, artists and performers, scientists, inventors, for that matter anyone creating anything, stand on the shoulders of those who came before.


Funny, I think, the Western aesthetic canon would have us believe that every work of art, every piece of literature, every performance is original, and thus unique. Some might argue that each creative act by its very nature must be unique, a one-of-a-kind created in a particular time and place.


The clearing widens and briars fall away. To me, the better argument to be made is that no act of creativity is entirely original. The creator is suffused with the particular ideas floating above, the cultural-political-economic ones that both shape and reflect the Zeitgeist of the times. Ideas float and dangle, but remain connected to—informed by—all that came before. The collective wisdom of generations and generations. Connections, I smile. What makes us a human community, and takes us from the particular, the local, to something more general and global—“think local, act global” has a ring to it. Ultimately though, great art, great acts of human creativity are universal. This, to me, is what makes them hopeful, spiritual, universally-understood metaphors for us all, condensing, distilling the messiness of human nature. We can share them, see ourselves in them, and believe that we are here, and still have a chance to go on.


I am flooded by the images, the memories of paintings my students chose over the years to serve as their “personal” metaphors. Different students, different classes, different circumstances and motivations, yet they so often chose the same paintings. Tiepolo’s large Roccoco ceiling painting Triumph of Virtue and Nobility over Ignorance and Van Gogh’s post-Impressionist The Mulberry Tree, for example, both found at the Norton Simon Museum of Art, are still so vivid, memorable for what students saw in them, and saw in themselves. Tiepolo, like other artists of his day focused on allegorical themes, painted the saints, and the their stoies of overcoming, staying true to their beliefs no matter the price. Van Gogh was well aware of what other artists were exhibiting in Paris galleries, even invited Paul Gauguin to help him establish an artists’ colony in the south of France. To my students, the Tiepolo always told stories of good and evil, the Van Gogh showed them what confusion looked like, made them feel their own fears about losing control.


Their personal metaphors took the class and me from particular reality to universal truth. The students and their stories are deeply intertwined with my own. They have made me a better writer, and a more empathic person. They are teammates, critically important to the project of empathy, to the inception and development of my book The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity. Their personal metaphors are vivid, and I am compelled to share them—to offer them as illustrations—throughout the book.

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