When a bestselling philosopher tells you that art is the most important thing in culture today, you’d best listen up. But which philosopher would ever make such a bold statement? Alain de Botton. I’ve been a fan of his writing for years now, but his most recent project is quickly becoming a favorite. Art As Therapy asks (and answers) the question “why art?” Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend a lecture delivered by Botton at NYC’s Cooper Union, where he talked about his new book (co-written with fellow philosopher and art historian, John Armstrong). This book happens to fit into a larger scheme of Botton’s, which when coupled together, has the potential to shake-up your conceptions of viewing art.
Alain de Botton is an incredibly brilliant individual. It’s always enlightening to watch him speak. He exudes intelligence, but has a charm and down-to-earth nature in his delivery that is inviting. It’s the perfect vessel for delivering the often overwhelming concepts he deals with. This persona carries over into his writing, where he presents notions in a relatable and eloquent manner. Art As Therapy is no exception. Within it, the two authors take a firm stance in trying to answer why art is so revered. Through featuring over 100 examples of art (in a variety of media), they deal with topics such as, “why does work suck,” “why are politics so depressing,” “why can’t I find love,” and many more. In doing so, the two have asserted that art has the ability to aid in our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas as individuals, to appease the many questions we struggle to deal with day-to-day.
Art’s ‘mission’ is more than just aesthetics. It’s role is to redeem us as individuals. Botton explains this by referring to art’s modern origins in the 19th century, when social observers sought an alternative to Christ (as a result of a declining church attendance). Their answer was art, that it could provide people consolation, guidance, meaning, and a sense of right or wrong. Culture to replace scripture, which bred art as “advertising for Christ,” as Botton put it. The result was a slew of museums across the world, many of which that are the very same ones we still visit to this very day.
To Botton, the aforementioned ‘powers of art’ have all but been abandoned. Nowadays, we often struggle to discern semblance from the art we’re viewing. Admit it. Remember the last time you visited a museum? Then you surely remember thinking, “what… The… Hell… Am I supposed to make of this..?” We know we’re supposed to feel something in art’s presence, but that something isn’t always easy to distinguish. For Botton, a moment of clarity struck with Mark Rothko saying, “life’s difficult for you and for me. My canvases are places where the sadness in you and the sadness in me can meet. That way we have a little less grief to deal with.” Poignant. This relationship between artist and viewer is partly what Art As Therapy sets out to establish. Or rather, through understanding this connection, art’s remedies can be unlocked.
Friday evening’s lecture presented a few examples, three of which I’ll attempt to relay, in order to try and communicate what Botton is on about:
Claude Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, 1899
Art has the power to lend hope. According to [a joking] Botton: sophisticated people aren’t supposed to like Monet’s lilies. How can one appreciate prettiness when there’s so much horror in the world? We’re all aware of wrongs in life, but the real danger is when that thinking leads way to depression. To combat it, Botton believes art’s power to portray beauty can make do. It provides an escape, an alternative to the seemingly hopeless world we sometimes find ourselves lost within.
Henri Fantin-LaTour, Vase of Roses, 1875
LaTour was a truly tortured artist, yet Botton quipped about his paintings of pretty things. Not because he perceived the world as a pretty place, but rather because he knew the reality of it being the opposite. Beauty, to Botton, is especially moving when you’ve lived a hard or difficult life. Pieces such as the above serve as emblems of hope, fragments of happiness, that we should seek to embrace.
Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939
Another function of art, Botton explained, is for it to act as a repository where sadness can be met with an atmosphere of dignity and seriousness. We’re often not allowed to say in public what’s really going on in our hearts, because what’s going on inside is rather dark. Society has cast upon us a cheerful air that wrongfully portrays the actual inner workings. Suppression simply isn’t healthy, which is where art can step in. While we all feel awful inside, art can serve as a reminder that we aren’t alone, that everyone feels this way. That’s a very liberating thought. Hopper’s piece, for example, manages to spot each and every one of us in the usherette. We are the usherette, quietly grief stricken and watching humanity at play from the sidelines. Art provides visions of melancholy and sadness, and through facing it, we’re released from such feelings.
Ansel Adams, Aspens, 1939
Botton believes that the modern museum is incorrectly arranged (which leads to our inability to properly ascertain the artist’s intent). The biggest flaw? Sorting pieces chronologically. Imagine arranging your library by date… It doesn’t make sense, right? Art should be hung according to the purpose, by what matters most to ourselves as individuals. Imagine galleries that labeled rooms as “love” or “death” or “self-worth.” It’s an intriguing alternative. Botton stated that he’d hang Adams’ above at the entrance of an “anxiety” room. This piece reminds us of our own mortality. Death is not a curse, but something written into the contract of life. We are like the leaves on the ground that Adams has captured, and this image lends dignity to something otherwise perceived with persecution. Acceptance is freedom.
These are but a few of the 150 examples that the book delves into, every one as insightful as the last. If you have any inclination to art, I can’t recommend this book enough (from what I’ve experienced of it so far). Whether you agree with Botton’s thoughts on art or not, it’s sure to exercise your brain and force a reevaluation of previous conceptions. Accompanying the release is a website and companion app, which act as a sort of interactive, albeit brief, version of the book. It’s fun, it’s informative, and it’s well designed. If you were intrigued by the examples I recounted from the lecture, then you’ll really dig what’s going on here. Treat it as a test, spend some time there, and if it piques interest, order the $25 book.
Art As Therapy happens to fit into a bigger picture: The School of Life. Founded by Botton, it aims at presenting “good ideas for everyday life.” Based in London, it’s a cultural enterprise whose mission is to offer a variety of programs and services around living wisely and living well. Check out the site to get a full glimpse of what The School of Life offers (there’s a lot). It’s super inspiring and full of people who’re probably far more intelligent than you or I. Art As Therapy is one of the books published under the School of Life. Most of their releases are wonderfully designed and extremely insightful. Great for your bookshelf and wonders for your mind.
Over the course of 2014, The School of Life will work with the Rijks Museum (Amsterdam), the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) to bring Botton’s Art As Therapy to life. Botton explained how he’ll act as a curator and have reign over the arrangement of works within each gallery, sorting them as he sees fit (which I touched briefly above). This exhibition echoes the sentiments of Botton’s lecture and his new book, “the great public galleries of the world should not only be places where we can learn about art. More importantly, they should be places where we can learn about ourselves.”