Art as a Cure

Art as Therapy bookLet’s begin with two painfully generalized statements: Art is interesting. Art is important.

I think it’s safe to say that if you are reading this post right now then you probably consider Art to be at least somewhat interesting. It is the second question that raises an eyebrow: important? Art has managed to stick around for a while, yes. It is thoroughly engrained in our daily lives, in our society, in our culture (and dare I say in our species?). However, why is it so important? Debates have raged through the centuries, and here we are still grappling for a reason.

As confusing and complicated as it is, I always enjoy throwing another perspective into the ring. Philosopher and essayist Alain de Botton collaborated with philosophical art historian John Armstrong to publish Art as Therapy, a book that attempts to introduce Art as a psychological tool (of sorts).

“It’s the authors’ contention that certain art works provide powerful solutions to our problems, but that in order for this potential to be released, the audience’s attention has to be directed towards it in a new way (which they demonstrate), rather than towards the more normal historical or stylistic concerns with which art books and museum captions are traditionally associated. The authors propose that the squeamish belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential. This book involves reframing and recontextualising a series of art works from across the ages and genres, so that they can be approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life.” – book description

Q&A with Alain de Botton

The following is a Q&A with author Alain de Botton (found on his website). I highlighted certain passages that seemed particularly interesting…

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You suggest that art can be a therapeutic medium? What do you mean?

It is very unfashionable to think that art can ‘do’ anything for us. There is an assumption in our culture that art isn’t ‘for’ anything in particular. It’s just very interesting and important. However, this explanation doesn’t seem focused enough to me. I believe that art is a tool, and that like all tools, it has functions. I also think it is important to know what the tool is for, so that we can better know how and when to use it.

In Art as Therapy, we argue that art is a tool that can variously help to inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us. The books runs systematically through these functions of art, and in each area, we pick out a selection of works from across the history of the subject that we feel show art performing its task in optimal ways.

You claim that artworks can help us become better versions of ourselves. What do you mean?

Works of art are almost always more accomplished, beautiful, intelligent and wise than we manage to be day to day. By surrounding ourselves with works, by looking at them repeatedly, they function as implicit role-models that can invite us to become a bit more as they are – and therefore help us to become better versions of ourselves.

Religions have always known this: in Buddhism, part of becoming a good follower of the Buddha involves regularly looking at a smiling statue or image of the face of the Buddha. The same might hold true for a Catholic in relation to an image of the Virgin.

However, there are secular analogies to this. One could imagine seeing an image of a Manet or an Edward Hopper or an Andreas Gursky and thinking: ‘I too would like to be a little more like this work. There is a promise here for how I might rejig aspects of my life…’

What are the seven functions of art? Can you give me an explicit example: What is the function of, for example, Adrian Coorte’s Bowl of Strawberries(1704)?

Let me list the functions in a rather dry way, the book will explain more: art works can help us to remember what matters; they also lend us hope; they dignify sorrow; they expand our horizons; they help us to understand ourselves; they rebalance us; and lastly they make us appreciate the familiar anew.

Let me take the very last point, which is where Adrian Coorte’s image comes in. In theory, we already think that strawberries are nice. But Coorte has made a monument to them. He wants to re-sensitise us to them. He’s reminding us that we love an aspect of the world more than we thought, that there are things we take for granted, but don’t quite appreciate fully. He’s looking at strawberries like an appreciative stranger, refinding sense of wonder and encouraging us to do the same. There are no distractions: a simply-patterned cream and green Chinese bowl and a white flower provide the ideal setting to reconnect us with a simple delight. The artist knows something about us: how familiarity dulls our appreciation of what is on offer. By inviting us to concentrate just for a minute or two he can refresh our curiosity and sense of value. We need to do with many things what Coorte did with strawberries. Starting with, at the very least, our partners and spouses.

Coorte strawberries

A lot of people would hesitate to speak about ‘art as tool’ or the ’functions of art’ and claim that art should be free of any function. You don’t. Why?

We are being shocking and deliberately so, because we believe that it should be common-sense rather than surprising to ascribe a purpose to art. Art can help us with our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas, asking: What can I do about the difficulties in my relationships? Why is my work not more satisfying? Why do other people seem to have a more glamorous life? Why is politics so depressing? The purpose of this book is to introduce a new method of interpreting art: art as a form of therapy. It’s the authors’ contention that certain art works provide powerful solutions to our problems, but that in order for this potential to be released, the audience’s attention has to be directed towards it in a new way (which they demonstrate), rather than towards the more normal historical or stylistic concerns with which art books and museum captions are traditionally associated. The authors propose that the squeamish belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential. This book involves reframing and recontextualising a series of art works from across the ages and genres, so that they can be approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life.

Art seems to be treated like a religious artefact and not like something that one can freely discuss or even dislike. Do you know why?

I think we have learnt all the wrong lessons from religion in relation to art. We have adopted the reverence, but we have ignored the purpose for which religions get interested in art. You often hear it said that ‘museums of art are our new churches’: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture, but in practice art museums often abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches (places of consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption) through the way they handle the collections entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem unable to frame them in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because Modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as ‘reductive’. We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be ‘bad art’ (Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example) and that only art which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?

Why should this veneration of ambiguity continue? Why should confusion be a central aesthetic emotion? Is an emptiness of intent on the part of an art work really a sign of its importance?

Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution (i.e. Titian). Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: ‘Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like’. ‘Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage’. ‘Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar’. The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself as a piece of art. Instead of refuting instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.

This leads to a suggestion: what if modern museums of art kept in mind the example of the didactic function of Christian art, in order once in a while to reframe how they presented their collections? Would it ruin a Rothko to highlight for an audience the function that Rothko himself declared that he hoped his art would have: that of allowing the viewer a moment of communion around an echo of the suffering of our species?

Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good or once in a while or a little wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? Perhaps art shouldn’t be ‘for art’s sake’, one of the most misunderstood, unambitious and sterile of all aesthetic slogans: why couldn’t art be – as it was in religious eras – more explicitly for something?

Modern art museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as ‘The Nineteenth Century’ and ‘The Northern Italian School’, which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. A more fertile indexing system might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to our inner needs. A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things which are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life. Only then would museums be able to claim that they had properly fulfilled the excellent but as yet elusive ambition of in part becoming substitutes for churches in a rapidly secularising society.

What would you reply to a person saying that art is just not ‘speaking’ to him or her?

I would have immense sympathy and say, It’s not your fault. The fault lies with the way you have been taught and asked to approach art works without knowing what you were meant to do with them. I would try to teach the person how to use this strange tool called art.

Does it change the canon of art if you rather look at the works from therapeutic point of view?

Yes, you stop being impressed simply because someone is ‘important’ and you start to rate works according to what they can do for you, for your soul. You stop feeling culture guilt, that sense that there are things you need to like and other things that it is good to like. You become more honest and authentic.

What would you suggest to look at if I feel miserable and depressed? And what would be good looking at if I am searching for the meaning of life?

In a moment of sad panic, I recommend the Dutch painter Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Ships in a Storm (Oorlogschepen tijdends een storm, 1695):

Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Ships in a Storm

It looks terrible. How can they survive this? But the boats were designed for this, their hulls minutely adapted for these conditions. The crew have practiced for this. This is an homage to planning and experience. The older sailors on the ship are saying to the novice, with a laugh, that just last year off the coast of Jutland, there was an even bigger storm – and slapping him on the back with paternal playfulness as the youth is sick overboard. We should feel proud of humanity’s competence and skill in the face of these dreadful but strangely awe-inspiring challenges. We’re better able to cope than we think.

For someone who feels that their work is a bit too routine, that their work has no meaning, I’d go for another Dutch painting, Pieter de Hooch’s Linen Closet of 1663:

Pieter de Hooch’s Linen Closet

It can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do everyday and in the environments where we live. We have jobs to go to, bills to pay, homes to clean and keep running and we deeply resent the demands they make on us. They seem to be pulling us away from our real ambitions, getting in the way of a better life. Art, and art galleries, feel far away from all this: they are for a day off, somewhere to visit on holiday.

The linen closet itself could easily be resented. It is an embodiment of what could, under an unhelpful influence, be seen as boring, banal, repetitive – even unsexy.

But the picture moves us because we recognise the truth of its message. If only, like de Hooch, we knew how to recognise the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life – the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships – are always grounded in the way we approach little things. The statue above the door is a clue. It represents money, love, status, vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen (and all that stands for) is not opposed to these grander hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. We can learn to see the allure of those who look after it, ourselves included.

It’s a hard message to hold on to, because we are constantly being told other things. This painting is small in a big and noisy world – but that so many people revere it is hopeful, it signals that we know, deep down, that de Hooch is onto something important.

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A Website of Examples

Would you like examples? Check out the book’s website. It features 6 categories: love, self, work, politics, anxiety, and free time. Each category lists several questions/dilemmas, which in turn display a related work of art and short discussion. For example, do any of these phrases torment you?

Sex and decency don’t mix.

Time moves so fast!

Everyone else but me has fun.

Never trust people in power.

I’m too old for toys.

I really respect these authors for their attempt to budge the public’s approach to Art. It is sad that so many people have abandoned the arts because they cannot feel a connection. Museums house vast collections of artworks that have survived the centuries, that have inspired and consoled many souls, but the modern audience leaves the building feeling underwhelmed.  This book attempts to rekindle that emotive awareness, to give Art back to the people.

My only regret so far is that “Art as Therapy” is a title that will scare away potential readers.

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