The Creative Power of Empathy
Elizabeth Catlett and Art that Changes Lives
"A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience."
To this observation by Mark Rothko, Elizabeth Catlett would say a hearty “amen.”
Like Rothko, Catlett’s artistic philosophy and social awareness were melded during the WPA era. Unlike Rothko, Catlett, thoughout her life, intended her art to be a moving visual, psychological and visceral experience in the lives of all people, not just the art cognoscenti. This comparison is not intended to elevate Catlett’s intent over Rothko’s; their motivations were both brilliant, just different.
Now, 100 years after the birth of Elizabeth Catlett on April 15, 1915, we are reminded of her empathetic spirit, in addition to her monumental body of art and her association with Hampton University. And we are imagining what the example of her selfless spirit implies for contemporary styles of art.
Catlett's empathy motivated her interest in improving the lives of others. She wanted her art to be a healing, motivating, empowering experience for people.
During her undergraduate years at Howard University Catlett was interested in sororities, fraternities and partying but lynchings in the South propelled her protest with a noose around her neck in front of the Supreme Court and her political consciousness continued to increase.
A photograph in Samella Lewis' book, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, shows Catlett in 1938 or '39 working as a swimming instructor and guard at Banneker pool, across the street from Howard University. At the time, she easily could have married a Howard medical or law school student or graduate and lived comfortably at the pinnacle of black bourgeois society. Instead, she headed in the opposite direction: off to study with Grant Wood at the University of Iowa. Then she taught at Dillard University in New Orleans where she challenged Jim Crow law and bourgeois social convention and mentored student Samella Sanders (Lewis).
Catlett’s sculpture and prints were reproduced in the premier issue of the IRAAA journal (then called Black Art) in Fall 1976 with an article by Samella Lewis that focused on Catlett’s humanitarian spirit.
"Elizabeth Catlett is a dignified, humble, intelligent person who is an artist," Lewis wrote. "The fact that she is an international figure is not important when measured against her warmth and sensitivity as a human being.”
Lewis emphasized that Catlett feels that artists have a special responsibility to the people, and that art should be public and in places like prisons where people need special support.
Catlett told Lewis, “We know the deprivations that exist in the black community and how mental and emotional frustrations lead to wasted lives. If we can enrich the life of one black man woman or child then we have fulfilled our function as art producers. Artists are the sensitive area of the community and can clarify so many things. We can project the beauty of our people, the grace, the rhythm, the dignity. We can explain frustrations and stimulate joy. The artist must be an integral part of the totality of black people.”
Samella Lewis stressed that Catlett’s politically informed art did not compromise its quality.
The black arts, feminist and human rights movements were peaking in 1976 and many artists in the emerging generation were vociferous in their political stance. Among her middle-aged, African American artist contemporaries, however, Catlett was among the most emphatic and persistent in her populist intent.
Much of the raised fist and bristling afro iconography of the Black Arts Movement never migrated from the street to the walls of museums and discerning private collectors and became ephemera or lost. Catlett’s residence in Mexico challenged her ability to take her similarly iconographic art to the street and into the homes of impoverished African Americans. But, in being in being acquired by important public and private collections, her work's recognition, longevity and experiences are assured.
Today, when celebrity and flashy affluence trump social consciousness in the mass culture and envelope-pushing motivations trump altruistic ones within the art establishment, Elizabeth Catlett’s example shows that it’s possible to do it all. An artist can create art that is of an uncompromisingly high caliber while inspiring a mass public, wowing critics, and commanding strong sales. Living in Mexico as a Mexican citizen in an analog age, Catlett was not able to pull off every aspect of this feat in her lifetime. But the fact that she almost was able to do so is why she is such an outstanding and compelling figure in American art. She represents the vast potential for populist “fine art.” This potential is even more unlimited now than it was for much of Catlett's career, a period before the advent of conceptual art.
The Elizabeth Catlett centenary prompts us to consider how humanitarian empathy can be expressed in new ways, how it can shape contemporary, public art experiences, reach people needing special support and still impress critics and other art insiders.