‘Art As Therapy’ – Alain De Botton

Art as Therapy by Alain De Botton

“a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.”
I purchased this book a while back, and it sat on my shelf for almost a year untouched. When it came to picking it up, i was drawn in to continue to read further. I found it engaging, lively, and in ways controversial. What is arts purpose? That is what Art As therapy comes down to. The author and art historian John Amstrong propose a new way of looking. A way of looking at familiar masterpieces, and suggesting that they can be useful, relevant, and – above all else – therapeutic for their viewers. De Botton argues that certain great works offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life. Chapters on Love, Nature, Money, and Politics outline how art can help with these common difficulties – for example, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter helps us focus on what we want to be loved for; Serra’s Fernando Pessoa reminds us of the importance of dignity in suffering; and Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus teaches us how to preserve and value our long-term partners. Art as Therapy, is trying to offer an unconventional perspective, demonstrating how art is able to guide us, console us, and help us better understand ourselves.

I very much enjoyed the first part of de Botton’s book, which he calls “methodology”. In this section, he elucidates seven areas of the human condition commonly addressed in art (suffering, love, etc.). This section reads as a very moving meditation on old ideas brought into very thoughtful new focus.

According to Alain De Botton, there are seven functions of art:

1. A Corrective of Bad Memory
2. A Purveyor of Hope
3. A Source of Dignified Sorrow
4. A Balancing Agent
5. A Guide to Self-Knowledge
6. A Guide to the Extension of Experience
7. A Re-Sensitization Tool

At one point in the book there is a thought-provoking two-page section, where the authors discuss how art can “correct or compensate” for psychological frailties, such as when we are unbalanced and lose sight of our best selves; if we often succumb to superficial, prejudiced judgments; and when we are distracted by all the “so-called goodies of consumerism”

Art and the Sorrows We Face

One of the seven ways art can be a means of assistance is to remind us of “the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life, so that we panic less about our difficulties and recognize them as parts of a noble existence.” De Botton and Armstrong make note of the paintings from the Middle Ages that centered on the cycle of “sorrowful mysteries” Jesus suffered and endured. They boldly suggest that modern artists take on the challenge of creating paintings and sculptures on our inner sorrows. De Botton and Armstrong elucidate:

“Consider just some of the essential sorrows we face: the inability to find love, panic around money, unhappy family relations, frustrating work, adolescent uncertainties, mid-life regrets, anguish in the face of one’s own mortality, and unfulfilled ambitions.”

Surging with Fresh Ideas

De Botten and Armstrong stretch our minds with some of their views. For example, they think the gift shop is the most important place in the art museum. They suggest that art be studied with the following question in mind: “What lessons are you trying to teach us that will help us with our lives?” They assert that the values captured in art should not remain in the museum but be transported to the playroom, the kitchen, the bathroom, the park, and the office so these spaces can become “temples to our values as much as the quiet, marble halls of galleries once were.”

Missions for Art

Art can open our hearts and minds and senses to the thousands of different shades of love. The authors imagine a “Love Gallery” which uses the resources of this virtue to enhance attention to detail, patience, curiosity, resilience, sensuality, reason, and perspective. In a painting by Sandro Botticelli, they discover the message: “Physical attraction lending support to, rather than undermining, our interest in kindness and virtue.” And in a painting by Edouard Manet they unearth: “There are lessons for long-term relationships in the way that Manet approached asparagus.”

In a section on “Nature,” de Botton and Armstrong write about artists who challenge us to see the landscape with fresh eyes, to appreciate its beauty, and to reframe our images of the world. This is followed by a section on “Money” where the authors explore art as a guide to the reform of capitalism, the problem of taste, the role of the critic, and career advice to artists. A final section deals with “Politics” and its thematic concerns.

An Agenda for Art in the Future

What of the future? In a “Hypothetical Commissioning Strategy” at the end of the book, De Botton and Armstrong imagine a time when: “Artists would be invited to follow an unapologetically didactic mission: to assist humankind in its search for self-understanding, empathy, consolation, hope, self-acceptance and fulfillment. No longer would the questions ‘What is art about?’ or “What is art for?’ be opaque. There would still, of course, be greater and lesser artists, but what they were up to would be obvious — and their benefit to society would be eaier to grasp and to defend.”



My Opinion

What is slightly frustration in my view, is de Botton’s misunderstanding/misreading of the art market. The idea that “we abandon to chance the hope that our key needs will be covered by the unstructured and mysterious inspiration of artists” is simplistic in the extreme. There’s this little thing called the market. If artists aren’t creating things that buyers can respond to, those objects won’t sell. There are plenty of starving artists out there, still. Gallerists, art consultants, artists can all push as hard as they want (and they do…) but they also get a lot of push back from the folks with the money – the collectors.
The patron doesn’t need to be able to “direct” the art in order to determine the outcome, as de Botton suggests. He or she simply can keep their wallet shut unless and until they identify a piece that they respond to. (Alternatively, they can find an artist whose work they admire and, yes, commission a specific piece: it happens quite frequently, contrary to de Botton’s assertion, although more on a one-to-one basis than on a societal basis…) Nor, I’d suggest, is it always desirable that we do direct art as a society, as de Botton so often suggests might be wise. Yes, the Catholic church created some great art, along with the Inquisition, but great art was born in rejection of it, too. And more great art was born in opposition to the agendas of those who tried to “shape” art in the name of the totalitarian agendas of the 20th century than ever was created by its state sponsors. Do we really want to go down that road? And if we did, what suggests that we would end up with anything more than what we already have as popular culture?
Repeatedly, de Botton misunderstands the art market: he argues that people buy art solely because of the “brand name”. That may be so for some collectors, but almost invariably, if you talk to collectors (as I’ve done, as a journalist writing about the topic) they have a tremendous passion for certain artists and kinds of work (like hedge fund manager Dave Ganek and photography). Similarly, there are big brand names whose works the biggest galleries and auction houses struggle to shift: I’ve seen gloomy works by Lucian Freud remain unsold at high-profile auctions. Regardless of how big the brand, there are some things nobody wants in their homes. Again, there’s that personal connection that triumphs over everything.


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