All about Empathy, excerpt...
The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.
Lipps found a name for his theory in an 1873 dissertation by a German aesthetics student named Robert Vischer. When people project their emotions, ideas or memories onto objects they enact a process that Vischer called einfühlung, literally “feeling into.” The British psychologist Edward Titchener translated the word into English as “empathy” in 1909, deriving it from the Greek empatheia, or “in pathos.” For Vischer, einfühlung revealed why a work of art caused an observer to unconsciously “move in and with the forms.” He dubbed this bodily mimesis “muscular empathy,” a concept that resonated with Lipps, who once attended a dance recital and felt himself “striving and performing” with the dancers. He also linked this idea to other somatosensory imitations, like yawns and laughter.
Half a century later, Mark Rothko would observe: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” He was articulating the model of creative contagion — or what Leo Tolstoy called the “emotional infectiousness” of art — that Lipps had formulated. Corbett writes:
Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of “losing themselves” in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them, the hair rises on the backs of their necks or they lose track of the passage of time. Something produces a “gut feeling” or triggers a flood of memory, like Proust’s madeleine. When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body. Empathy was what made red paint run like blood in the veins, or a blue sky fill the lungs with air.
But although empathy originated in the contemplation of art, it was psychologists who imported it into popular culture, largely thanks to the cross-pollination of art and science in early-twentieth-century Europe.