Wilhelm Worringer posits a spectrum for the impulse behind art – the extremities of which can be defined as an impulse towards empathy at one end and an impulse towards abstraction at the other.
The fundamental notion at the heart of Worringer’s thesis is that beauty derives from our sense of being able to identify with an object; empathy. This has clear relationships with phenomenology and is a starting point for further research. Worringer is looking to understand the reasons behind how and why a human being is driven or drawn towards a work of art. This will inevitably have to include psychology – the level of the individual – and zeitgeist – the level of the broader culture.
Worringer argues that representational art produces satisfaction from our objectified delight in the self, reflecting a confidence in the world as it is as in Renaissance art. By contrast, the urge to abstraction, as exemplified by Egyptian, Byzantine, primitive, or modern expressionist art, articulates a totally different response to the world: it expresses man s insecurity. Thus in historical periods of anxiety and uncertainty, man seeks to abstract objects from their unpredictable state and transform them into absolute, transcendental forms. Abstraction and Empathy also has a sociological dimension, in that the urge to create fixed, abstract, and geometric forms is a response to the modern experience of industrialization and the sense that individual identity is threatened by a hostile mass society.