Art, Labour, and Empathy

Ann Henderson

Ann Henderson is Assistant Secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and Secretary to the STUC Women’s Committee. Her responsibilities include government and parliamentary liaison. STUC is an umbrella organisation, with 37 Trade Unions and 20 Trades Union Councils, representing over 560,000 members and their families, from all sectors and communities in Scotland. Prior to joining the STUC in 2007, Ann worked in the Scottish Parliament as a researcher, with a labour and women’s movement background.  Ann worked and was an active trade unionist in the rail industry for a number of years, including as a station staff member and a train driver. Recent public appointments included: Passenger View Scotland, representing rail passenger interests, and the Women’s National Commission prior to its closure in 2010. Ann lives in Edinburgh.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.12

This year marks the Edinburgh International Festival’s 70th anniversary. Since 1947, Edinburgh has hosted a growing bevy of arts and cultural festivals in addition to EIF. These programs bring performers, writers, artists, and musicians to the city. In our time of uncertainty, this annual gathering in Edinburgh must be cause for optimism, as a willingness to look outwards, and to listen, and to share experiences.

In Arts and International Affairs, J.P. Singh (2017) suggests in his editorial that “In a globalised world, otherness is bound to displace familiarity”. His observation caused some reflection. Looking forward to this year’s festivals brings for me the strengths of “familiarity”, not an unsettling “otherness”. The arts and cultural expressions provide visitors from any background a space to think and feel. There will be something for everyone.

But more importantly these experiences, if approached with empathy and an open mind, will open up new ideas and perspectives for their audiences.

And for networks such as the trade union movement, the festivals are opportunities to rediscover familiarity, solidarity, and common purpose. Performances at every venue in Edinburgh require the support from many unseen and unheard voices. The attention given to art, music, and theatre should also appreciate the technical, administrative, production, and practical support that goes into every event.

Moreover, unpaid labour, often female, also contributes to families and communities that participate in the festivals in Edinburgh.

The common purpose to invest in arts and culture—those creations created by the many and accessible to whichever national or class background—has long been foundational to the international labour movement.

The most recent edition of the Chambers Dictionary defines empathy as “the power of entering into the feeling or spirit of something (esp. a work of art) and so appreciating it fully.” Fully appreciating all that surrounds us means looking beyond first impressions, being open to all the contributions, and valuing strengths that have brought so many people together.

Edinburgh is a crowded, expensive, impatient city in August. Yet the festivals create so many spaces to imagine and build on experiences and feelings. It is always a powerful time.


Singh, J.P. (2017) Editorial: Performing Culture. Arts and International Affairs 2 (1) 9