The Spirit of World Art Day: Empathy

April 12, 2019
By Beth Herrild

World Art Day is an international celebration of the fine arts declared by the International Association of Art (IAA/AIAP), a partner of UNESCO. The goal was to promote awareness of creative activity worldwide. The date, April 15th, was chosen in honor of Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday, as a symbol of world peace, freedom of expression, tolerance and brotherhood. This is the eighth year for World Art Day, and the fifth year it will be celebrated in the United States.

It is no mystery to me why World Art Day is meant to be a symbol of world peace, freedom of expression, tolerance and brotherhood. We all pretty much understand how art is good for kids’ brain development helping to develop creative problem solving skills. But the hidden gem is that making art and viewing art helps children to develop empathy! Helping children (actually everyone,) develop empathy is the single most powerful thing we can do to facilitate building bridges between individuals, gaining diverse perspectives, and leveraging relationships for collaboration and progress in everything from personal relationships to world peace.

Interestingly, the word, empathy, was modeled after a German word coined in relation to art appreciation. I love how Edward Bradford Titchener said it in his Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes in 1909: “Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness, but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles.” We would call this walking in someone else’s shoes or understanding the world from someone else’s perspective. Empathy is about more than understanding someone else’s reality on an intellectual level, but involves actually feeling their emotions. Art shows us that there are many ways to see, experience and interpret the world and that there is more than one right answer. As a parent, that is worth its weight in gold raising my children to be caring, decent human beings.

Roman Krznaric, an expert on empathy, says empathy “has the power to transform relationships, from the personal to the political, and create fundamental social change.” The prospects are so compelling that The Minneapolis Institute of Art is collaborating with other art museums, scientists, artists, educators, and others to research and explore practices for fostering empathy and global awareness through the power of art in their Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts. And, in 2015, Krznaric, launched the Empathy Museum, a traveling arts exhibit that allows people to walk in someone else’s shoes. 

In honor of World Art Day, do some art with a child, read a book about an artist, and/or go to an art exhibit and see if you can empathize. Empathy is, after all, a learned skill.