Judge (now Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in during the Senate Judiciary
hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Getty Images
During the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge (now Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson, Republicans raised concerns about the nominee’s character. No one seriously believed she was “pro-pedophile,” or thought she considered pedophilia anything less than a serious crime. That was just courtroom theatrics, an attempt (which failed) to knock her off balance. No, the real concern of the 47 Republicans who voted against her, the trait they sincerely feared made her unsuited to serve on the Supreme Court, was empathy. Her nuanced reluctance to slam defendants with the harshest possible sentence made her suspect.
A few years ago, a study came out suggesting that reading fiction boosts empathy. This “discovery” seemed both obvious and a little funny, as if psychologists had granted us permission to consume art, deeming it good for our mental health. Most people who read fiction don’t care if it’s good for them. We do it because we want to, even crave it, not to improve ourselves. The people we most like to read about are often quite terrible.
“Guarding the Art,” installation view, Baltimore Museum of
Art, 2022. Photo courtesy the Baltimore Museum of Art
All my favorite novels feature deeply flawed main characters, sometimes monstrous ones. The wretched protagonist of my all-time favorite novel has the same moral (or psychological or inbred neurological) flaw as the messed-up men that Ketanji Brown Jackson was accused of being overly kind to. Good fiction takes us deep into the interior of other people’s psyches. What Laurence Gonzales said of rock music could also be said of fiction: it “lets you wander around in someone else’s hell for a while and see how similar it is to your own.” When you read good fiction, you can’t help but suffer empathy for even the worst people.
The process by which non-literary arts also broaden our sense of other people’s realities, or simply connects us to them, is more mysterious but no less real. Surely music does it. When I think of some of the high points of the pandemic, I think of music. There were the balcony serenades, the playing of taps. For me in particular it was David Byrne’s televised “American Utopia,” and later, when we could gather, the soaring voice of the soprano who sang at a friend’s mother’s funeral. These performances made me feel connected, not only to the performers and others present but — sorry to be corny — to everyone.
Winslow Homer, “Waiting for an Answer,” 1972, oil on canvas, 12 x 17”
Visual art does it, too. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently probed this broader connectedness by inviting the museum’s security guards to curate an exhibition, asking each to choose two works for the show “Guarding the Art.” When guest curator Alex Lei was interviewed about why he chose “Waiting for an Answer,” a painting by Winslow Homer, he said he liked the painting because it reminded him of all the waiting he did in his job and his life. What a brilliant and timely choice. Hasn’t waiting been the theme of most of our lives for the past two years?
Igshaan Adams, “Al-Muhyee (The Giver of Life),” 2020. Courtesy of blank projects, Cape Town. © Igshaan Adams
Thinking about how art reflects personal experience while at the same time taking us out of ourselves made me think of the exhibition “Igshaan Adams: Desire Lines,” now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition title refers to the direct paths pedestrians create to reach their destinations, circumventing the ones that are made for them. In one piece, the South African artist and his friends have torn patterned linoleum floor tiles from old houses and repurposed them in the museum to create a tunnel-like pathway. Here, in their beautifully worn state, the tiles cover the wall and the floor of a narrow passageway connecting two larger galleries.
Viewers clump at the entrance to this magic tunnel, afraid to walk on the floors. That’s how beautiful broken linoleum looks in this context. The guard reassures everyone that it’s OK. So we walk and emerge only a few feet later into an airy puff of paradise — a wide room full of low-hanging clusters of loosely looped copper wire that look like some kind of pink mist. These pinkish clouds reminded me of haze in a meadow in early morning or the huge low-hanging candelabras I once saw in a mosque in Istanbul, meant to bring heaven to Earth. At Adams’ show, a guard puts her arm around a friend and advises her to exit and come back through the other door so she can pass through the tunnel and get the full experience. I don’t want to cheapen that experience by trying to explain what it all means, only that it is beautiful. It transported me — and others, I’d guess, by the looks on their faces — to other places and states of mind, all while standing still.
David Byrne (right) and band perform “American Utopia.” Photo courtesy of Associated Press
Art is the product of creativity, and creativity is only possible with the acceptance of uncertainty; the two go hand in hand. In turn, uncertainty enables empathy. You can’t feel what someone else feels if you’re not willing to allow that maybe your true way isn’t the only true way. And where does that leave you, except to conclude that there is no single true way? You can’t teach someone empathy. But maybe it can be leaned through experience with art and literature and music.
It has been said that the best qualification for a judge is that they don’t want to judge. Whoever said that got it right. The legal process is messier and slower when practiced that way, but justice without mercy is just petty and mean. Thank God Ketanji Brown Jackson made it onto the Supreme Court.