America stands on a pedestal — perhaps self-anointed. Seen as a beacon of freedom and democracy throughout the world, we must finally rise to our promise. The duplicity under which we operate must cease to exist. As is emblazoned on Lady Liberty, the words of Emma Lazarus’s New Colossus serve as an example of the hope that America wishes itself to be.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These values mark the gateway to our nation. My America is a place where hope beats out fear, where fairness overtakes privilege, and where empathy replaces intolerance. The Age of Empathy exhibition serves as a real-time emotional analysis of the year that brought America to its knees. The artwork poignantly suggests vulnerability and compassion as an antidote for our societal struggles.
We collectively experienced the onset of COVID-19, the tumultuous and existential 46th presidential election, as well as the deafening cries for racial and social justice. Twenty-twenty gave way to extremist thinking, violence, pervasive fear, and disdain for one another. In the chaos of what was, we now find ourselves trying to make sense of it all. While the past year still reverberates through our collective conscience, it is the lessons we glean through our discomfort that must guide us. The Age of Empathy tackles issues that affect us all — feminism, racial justice, COVID-19, mental health, antisemitism, sexual abuse and human rights — to name a few.
However, as fear and hatred took center stage, so too did empathy and compassion. The experience of 2020 aided in exposing and amplifying the extremes in our society. The American people were and continue to be at a precipice. The Age of Empathy exhibition challenges whether ignorance and exclusion will continue to drive power politics. The artwork begs the question: will tolerance and justice embrace the ever-changing face of the United States? While this is a question generally posed to an entire nation, it is critical to understand that “We, the people” comprise that nationhood. Our voices are our choices and therein lies the power. We must bring our individual sense of empathy to the nation at large. In this way, we can steer a path towards inclusion and equality.
The creation of this exhibition was a long time coming. I have always been very drawn towards social issues and standing up for the oppressed. Having gone to a Quaker school for 14 years, social awareness and empathy were ingrained in my psychology. Being raised Jewish, has also given me a level of awareness around injustice that is tremendously personal. While these are developmental conditions, concrete events surely spurred me to shift gears and focus on making work that sparks conversation.
It started with COVID-19. Suddenly, I found myself far away from the studio and print shop I call home. Struggling with what to make and how to help, I decided to create a series of paintings to auction off to homeless and trafficked youth in NYC. Soon to follow were the atrocious murders of George Floyd, Ahmed Aubry, and Breonna Taylor, which brought racial justice to the forefront of the American conscience. I quickly followed suit and created an auction to donate 100% of proceeds to support the Black Lives Matter movement. I realized that it was time to allow my artwork to reflect the times and struggles of our country which so deeply affected me and so many others. Next the election reared its ugly head. An election where so much was at stake. History called upon all with a voice to rise up and speak, and that is exactly what I have been doing ever since. While my work spans from antisemitism to feminism, from climate change to voting rights, it all stemmed from the experience that was 2020.
Since the start of COVID-19 and the exacerbation of our societal issues, I have learned the incredible importance of urgency. Waiting is no longer an option. The time is now, and that is exactly the point of this show. The Age of Empathy holds a mirror up to anyone willing to look. It will highlight your morals, your vulnerabilities, your complexes, your short-comings, and principles, but ultimately it will point you towards compassion and acceptance not only for yourself, but for everyone else that shares this earth.
Additionally, The Age of Empathy is a rallying cry for actionable generosity, for community engagement and empathic caring. While it is important to consume and share artwork, it is also critical to engage with the issues such work addresses. Galvanizing excitement and educating around humanitarian issues in conjunction with partnering with not-for-profits and human rights organizations enables others to become involved and speak about the issues they face. It is critical that the work does not simply take up space but contributes to a society and/or community in a tangible and effective way. The ultimate goal of The Age of Empathy is to inspire others to contribute positively and meaningfully to their community, help those in need, or speak up for what they believe. Then the ripple effect of Tikkun Olam begins to take place, something I hold dear to my heart. The mission is to elevate empathy to become a valued and typical characteristic of the American people. We are far from this reality, but art is an essential tool in the struggle to attain compassion for all.
To enact tangible change, for the inaugural exhibition at Jersey City City Hall, I partnered with four local charities who have done substantial work in their community. Twenty percent of all proceeds were distributed between these charity partners. The ministry of the York Street Project is a weaving of innovative programs which provide an environment to shelter, feed, educate and promote the healing of persons in need, especially women, children, and their families. Sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, the York Street Project expresses in direct service to the poor the religious congregation’s commitment to peace through justice. The project begins a second century of loving ministry of the sisters and their collaborators who work with the poor and oppressed in Jersey City.
For over 115 years, WomenRising has been helping women and their families. Their clients are in need – in need of jobs, safety from domestic violence, freedom from homelessness, safe lives for children. WomenRising meets these needs by providing supportive counseling, crisis intervention, workforce development and job placement, permanent supportive housing, shelter for survivors of domestic violence, outreach, advocacy, referrals, and much more. WomenRising is the foremost community-based organization for women in Hudson Country. WomenRising assists women and their families to achieve self-sufficiency and live safe, productive, and fulfilling lives, through social services, economic development, and advocacy services.
Hudson Pride Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit community-based organization situated in Jersey City, one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in this country and home to the largest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) community in New Jersey. Hudson Pride was established in the early 1990’s to serve as an advocate and social service provider for both the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities in Hudson County at a time when few organizations in our area were willing and able to do so, and more than 25 years later, we continue to deliver a wide array of services, programs, and events to meet their on-going health and social support needs.
Last, but certainly not least, the Women’s Rights Information Center provides knowledge and opportunities to support the economic aspirations, self-sufficiency, and emotional well-being of individuals so they may live with hope, security, and dignity. While discussing women’s issues around a kitchen table in the spring of 1973, founder Phoebe and several other inspired women, organized to create a clearing house of reliable information for women striving to become self-sufficient and facing difficult decisions.
The Age of Empathy exhibition furthers conversation and spreads awareness. The purpose is to create dialogue, promote actionable change, and to spark personal introspection and growth. Art is the great communicator, and it is my firm belief that artists are the gateway to a deeper truth about the human condition. Art allows viewers to connect, empathize, and feel on a deeper level through powerful images. Effective art begs the viewer to contemplate, to sit in discomfort, and to confront. If we can manage to connect the head to the heart and engage with issues that truly matter to us, we can bring about a new era. The arts have the power of aesthetic force; the ability to shift one’s critical awareness around an issue. That being said, using creativity as a modality and vehicle for change is a tale as old as time. Think of Emory Douglass and his revolutionary poster design for the Black Panther Party, of Rosie the Riveter and her rolled-up sleeves, of the Beatles “All you need is love.” The list goes on. The power of the arts are simply transcendent, so we must allow them to transcend us.
While our recent struggles have called for a realignment of principles, it has also forced us to take inventory of our lives and reset our moral compasses. empathy must become our new true north. By tackling topics that touch most of our lives – social justice, feminism, racial equality, climate change, and religious intolerance to name a few – it becomes easier to envisage a true Age of Empathy. Let this series act as a model for how empathy can shift one’s critical awareness regarding the issues that remain at the forefront of the American conscience. In this way, perhaps we can learn to see one another with more compassion.
The future of the Age of Empathy Exhibition is bright. The exhibition will begin to travel starting in 2022. I am looking forward to sharing this show with as many cities and people as possible. The Age of Empathy is a movement, and we are just getting started.
Author’s bio: Alex Rudin is a NYC based multimedia artist & illustrator focused on social justice and abstract political theory. In 2019 she founded her creative studio Rudin Studios, LLC. Alex’s artwork is narratively focused with a strong emphasis on expressive portraiture. The majority of her work attempts to comment on the complexities of the human experience through stylized portraiture and anecdotal commentary. Alex’s focus lies in uncovering and expressing the truths of what it is like to live in modern America. She is currently focused on creating work to galvanize action around social and political issues. This year Alex has partnered with organizations such as Women For Biden Harris 2020, Women for the Win, WomenRising, Women’s Rights Information Center , and Her Bold Move among numerous other female led socio-political orgs in addition to working in the human rights space with organizations such as Article 3, The Representation Project and the Sam & Devorah Foundation for Trans youth. Rudin’s work has been featured in publications such as Art Daily, Authority Magazine, yahoo!, and USA Today, to name a few. Alex’s fine art work has been shown in both solo and group exhibitions in New York City, Great Neck, Delaware, Philadelphia, and the Hamptons. Alex recently debuted the inaugural 32 piece exhibition of The Age of Empathy at Jersey City, City Hall. The Age of Empathy is slated to start touring in 2022.
All images by Alex Rudin.