F is for Forcing Life into Art

| April 15, 2014

Most of us understand the term “empathy” as a state which allows us to tune in the affective states of others. However, this term is actually an English translation of the German word “einfühlung” (which literally means “feeling into”). Unlike its English counterpart, this term was originally proposed (at the beginning of the 20th century) by the philosopher and psychologist Theodor Lipps not to describe the interaction between people, but to indicate the relationship between a work of art and its observer. Lipps originally came up with this theory to propose an “aesthetic-mechanical” model which explained geometrical illusions. According to his theory, humans have a tendency to project a “living” quality onto the objects being observed. For example, we tend to see the purple lines below as intersecting and interacting with each other in an almost life-like manner (illusion of waves moving towards each other) even though, as we can tell from the grid, the middle segments of those lines are actually parallel to each other).

Another example used by Lipps involved observing an acrobat performing on a tightrope. As the audience observes the artist skilfully move along the rope (while bearing facial expressions representative of distinctive affective states), each member automatically and simultaneously forms an internal emulation of the acrobats’ kinesthetic actions and emotions.

Is this unconscious mechanism, based on our intrinsic and automatic tendency towards inner imitation, what allows us to “fuse with” the work of art we are being exposed to and hence have an aesthetic experience? Lipps might just agree with this suggestion.