Alain de Botton is like a set of philosophical training wheels: essential for a very short time, then quickly superfluous and trivial. He writes well, and seasons his arguments with points ranging from the insightful to the painfully obvious. As a result he has had considerable success with books, including How Proust can Change your Life (1997), The Architecture of Happiness (2006), and others. His book, Art as Therapy, written with the philosopher and art theorist John Armstrong, leans heavily toward the latter kind of point. I don’t know how collaborative the book is; it reads like Alain de Botton’s work throughout.
Although Art as Therapy is about art, and is published by Phaidon, well known for its art books, it is not a book intended for the art lover. Its target audience is the victims of a broken educational system, people who have managed not to learn that art has emotional weight that can be used in a therapeutic manner – not art therapy, which is making art in a therapeutic context, but looking at art, going to museums and galleries, as a tool in therapy. This is a book for people who have never looked at a work of art, for to even glance at art produces emotional reactions. whether those espoused in the book or otherwise. Are there such people?
In a way this is a book not about art at all, but about a much broader and shallower concept: that we can draw solace and learn lessons from most anything. To the authors, art is only important for the ways it can help us emotionally. Could this book be remade with pizzas instead of art? Absolutely. Deep dish, flatbreads, pissaladieres and stuffed crusts provoke a variety of emotional responses – from hunger to a sort of exaltation, followed by a desire to go to the gym and work off some of the extra calories – as can art. A pint of Ben & Jerry’s can be therapeutic, but does anyone have to be told that? As soon as we are moved emotionally by a work of art the idea is there for good. Armstrong and de Botton’s argument seems to be that unless an institution spells it out for you, you’ll never get it. Curators, they argue, do the soul a disservice by concentrating on history instead of emotion.
Why single out curators, when museum educators are the interfaces/intercessors between the work and the public? (Some institutions have a Curator of Education, but the term is not universal, so I’m separating curators from educators). Consider this from the book: “Museum curators tend to assume the existence of an audience that, broadly, already likes the kind of art on display and just needs help with the details of particular works…”(p.53) Up to this point the authors are correct; too often labels and essays are written by experts for experts, buried under the patois of art theory, a language no one speaks well, and it is the job of the educator to hold that in check and translate for the layman. But then the idea goes astray: “…which is blind to the way in which someone might be deeply resistant to an entire esthetic category” (p. 53). This concept, aside from being wrongly handed to the curator, suggests that museums should concern themselves with the tastes, or lack of same, of its audience; that there is one correct taste and interpretation to which the viewer must be led. Museums do this, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but that leads to pitfalls. Art history is filled with artists who went outside the accepted canon and, despite rejection in their lifetime, have become icons. How do you teach one way when history is filled with rebels? The art innocent, to coin a phrase, must be coached and coddled at every step. Nothing too difficult, nothing which is outside his/her daily emotions and issues, need enter into the exchange.
There are hypocrisies and contradictions built into the art world that can be hard to swallow: the billionaire who pays his employees poorly and denies them benefits endows a wing of a museum, or spends millions on works of art that end up in a public collection. The artist who was bigoted or violent. It is not the museum’s job to soothe the viewer’s feelings. Other issues – difficulty with spiritual themes, expressions of sexuality, etc., are so wide-ranging it would be impossible, or at best quixotic, to cover them all. Perhaps a list of potential offenses should be posted at each gallery: “Warning – art in this gallery contains nudes (male and female, with and without pubic hair), religious themes (Christian, Jewish, and something we haven’t quite identified yet), and the consumption of gluten. Use caution.” The authors do bring responsibility back to the viewer, but too late and too briefly. Not every story pleases every reader. Art is stories; art history is an alphabet by which we read those stories.
Art as Therapy deals primarily with representational art. I would have expected the impact of, say, the Rothko Chapel to be a prime example, but no. They make their preference clear when discussing James Turrell (p. 158): “Art is turning from creating memorials to, or representations of, nature toward creating opportunities for the closer or more meaningful perception of nature.” This reduces art to a medium through which we see the world, something it has always done, but stripping many more complex associations. Kudos to them for discussing Richard Serra, at least. though Serra’s abstractions relate more to nature than, say, Helen Frankenthaler or Josef Albers. All this makes the statement “We need to move beyond thinking of an artist as someone at an easel (p. 159)” that much more baffling. Don’t artists like Turrell and Serra prove we’ve been doing that for decades?
Armstrong and de Botton present a strange world, in which abstract art is not expected to have the same sort of emotional impact as representational art – curious, in that they repeatedly make clear that there are a multitude of attitudes possible from viewers. It is at best a mid-20th century conservative viewpoint, pre-modernist if not anti-modernist, in which abstraction exists but has only a small foothold in the gallery and museum world and can safely be ignored. (Safety is important. Art must not disturb.) Yet the emotive power of representational commercial illustration – for example, Norman Rockwell – is also all but absent. The art world becomes a spiritual medicine cabinet, from which only some pills are worth taking.
And more: “We shouldn’t be surprised, or see it as a loss of what art has always been about, if many of the artists of the coming decades do not produce traditional objects, and instead head directly for the underlying mission of art: changing how we experience the world.” (p.159) Where to begin? Writers and artists have long tried to predict the future of art, and most of their prognostications have fallen flat, whether it be the death of painting or the death of the object. Digital art has been greatly influential in recent years, and, while it does change how we experience the world, many would argue it does so in the opposite direction from that desired in Art as Therapy. Yes, desired, because its agenda not only ignores digital art, it is implicitly opposed to it. Art goes where the artist goes, and trying to imagine or create some herd movement (Stop making objects, but stay off the computer) is bound to fail. Just by depicting something, capturing an image that can be seen after the subject is gone, changes how we experience the world. Art makes memories concrete, even the memories of others – here is the face of a man, here a bowl of flowers. Both are consigned to history, yet they remain here for the present and the future to see.
Continue to part two here.