Lessons in Empathy at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
“I PAINT WHAT I SEE AROUND ME, AND I LOOK WITH AN ACCUSING EYE AT WHAT MAN HAS CREATED … I AM JUST A FILTER, A MANY-COLORED VOICE … I PAINT TO KILL LA MUERTE, AND ALSO TO KILL CRUELTY, INJUSTICE, VIOLENCE, IGNORANCE, AND HYPOCRISY.” – LUIS CRUZ AZACETA

How often do you look “with an accusing eye” at what is around you? How often, in this age of the black mirror, do we look at what is around us at all? At Spectacle, we try.

We are responsible for helping our clients navigate the cultural zeitgeist. As strategists, empathy is our currency, and looking with an open mind is what gets us there. What was once a part of everyday life is now a genuine discipline, and sometimes truly opening your eyes to see, means going somewhere you’re not used to seeing. 

Four times a year, the full Spectacle team takes an offsite together for a quarterly business review. Our QBRs are equal parts strategic meeting, happy hour, and inspiration. Because we typically try to go somewhere new, we make sure to soak in and bring back with us, to our work, as much culture as we possibly can. 

This quarter’s “cultural excursion” was a trip to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. We saw scores of amazing art but were most deeply moved by the work by Luis Cruz Azaceta

Azaceta is a person whose eyes are wide open. As a Cuban-American, he constantly exists in two realities and seeks to bring them — and the tragedies and cruelties each of them hold — together in his work. He uses art as a way to convey his fears and anxieties while drawing attention to the critical issues we face as a planet and species. 

His multimedia art can be scary. Some of his work dares to depict tragedies and disruptive events in a very visceral and honest way. Some of it seems to touch on the deeper realities and horrors each of us face within our own souls. One thing is certain: despite the difficult reaction his art can provoke, we walked away inspired and reassured of the connections between all of us as human beings. 

Not everyone can travel right now. But we all need inspiration and honesty. So we thought we’d bring some to you. Here are five things we learned from Luis Cruz Azaceta’s art:

When words alone can’t say it, art can.

In Baz Luhrman’s new movie, Elvis, Presley says, “A reverend once told me that when things are too dangerous to say, sing.” When it comes to expressing ourselves, words will take us a long way, but sometimes they’re not enough. To express a feeling, a heartache, a horror, a tragedy — or in our case, even the heartfelt beliefs of a company trying to change the world — you need everything at your disposal. Azaceta uses anything that will help him express an idea, whether it be cardboard, a chair, a teddy bear, or images of the human body. To take thought beyond words alone helps to express it in its full-bodied form, and in a way that has a better chance of connecting deeply with more people. 

Honesty takes guts. But it’s often what we’re hungriest for.  

Azaceta’s What a Wonderful World exhibit looked like nothing else we’d seen before. And yet, his pieces felt like the first true glimpse we’d received into some of the biggest tragedies of our lifetimes. Azaceta is brave enough to depict events he experienced — like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the rule of Fidel Castro — in stripped-down detail. Telling the truth in the most personal, authentic way you know how is sometimes what is called for when it comes to the biggest problems we face.  

Generational gaps can seem vast…but we’re often linked by similar pain. 

Walking through Azaceta’s exhibit, it was easy to spot events and issues we are familiar with — war, crime, gun violence, terrorism, poverty, and deep anxiety. Almost every piece was relevant to what we face today as a society and species, and yet, several of the pieces in the exhibit were created in the 1980s. It’s a sobering reminder that we have more in common than we think, even across generations, and that empathy should always be a priority. 

When you want to know more about a place, look at the art it values.

We went to New Orleans to open our minds, and to learn more about a new place. What we saw was a community that has experienced lots of hardship, and used that experience as raw material for the creation of something new. Luis Cruz Azaceta is representative of that legacy and identity, and his energy hums and buzzes through both the bars of Bourbon Street and the churches of the French Quarter. 

As strategists, it’s the narrative through-line upon which one can build a strong and authentic brand. As humans, it’s the hope and inspiration upon which one can build a meaningful and resilient life.