Dissecting ‘Art as Therapy’ part two

Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

You can read part one here.

It is hard to read Art as Therapy without laughing or, now that the internet has given us a word for it, facepalming. The authors’ naiveté dazzles, while their earnestness makes it hard to dislike them. They want so much to help the world, and are not afraid to state their ideas plainly and wear their Utopian ideals proudly. About objects bought at museum gift shops: “…the encounter we have with the postcard may be deeper, more perceptive, and more valuable to us, because the card allows us to bring our own reactions to it….We consult our own needs and interests; we take real ownership of the object, and, since it is permanently available, we keep looking at it. (p. 84)” This flies in the face of the argument, made best by Walter Benjamin in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), and John Berger in Ways of Seeing (1972), that the bombardment of reproduced images in popular culture does not encourage closer examination. A postcard is eminently disposable, whereas a painting in a museum is not. Which, then, is going to command our deeper attention? We throw away images every day with hardly a glance, in magazines and newspapers, and tune out the commercials on TV and online. Aren’t our numbed reactions to the blizzard of images in popular culture part of the need for a therapeutic vision in the first place? Armstrong and de Botton would seem to be arguing for a counter-monumental approach, pleading the opposite of what seems obvious, elevating the easily obtained over the rare, though that flies in the face of their old-fashioned attitude elsewhere. When their diagnosis is weak, as with the postcard, there is reason enough to question their prescription.

From page 83, about the museum gift shop: “Its job is to ensure that the lessons of the museum, which concern beauty, memory, and the enlargement of the spirit, can endure in the visitor…” A fine sentiment, if incorrect (shops exist to sell things, the museum’s mission being a secondary component of that at best), and surprising considering the authors spent pages making the point that museums do not pay attention to the spirit at all.

Their old-fashioned approach extends most comically to “Appendix: An Agenda for Art, (pp. 234-5)” wisely sub-headed “hypothetical.” It makes the case for a parochial art, spelling out necessary virtues while diminishing unwanted vices – Hogarth without the subtlety. I would suggest hanging works from category #9, “The Pleasures of Work” and #10, “The Sorrows of Work,” in one gallery and let them fight it out for themselves. (As they are drawn from de Botton’s 2009 book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, this is only appropriate.) And #12, “Pride,” formerly condemned as sinful by many religions, becomes a venue for propaganda bordering on jingoism: “Works would zero in on aspects of the community and nation in which legitimate pride can be placed. (And who, pray, decides what is legitimate pride? – SP) They would demonstrate a selective idealization of national life, and a responsiveness to objects in which national traits can be found and celebrated – a road sign, the evening light. (p. 234)” Road signs – that’s why I go to museums.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong

The therapeutic model also smacks of anti-intellectualism. Replacing the scholarly approach of providing historical/technical context with “What lessons are you trying to teach us that will help us with our lives? (p.87)” throws out facts for a generalized self-interest, reducing art to “What’s in it for me?” The authors repeatedly refer to the museum’s duty to “guide the response of the beholder (p. 88)” which, while that might be the role of the therapist, is doomed to mediocrity at the institutional level. Therapists learn about the individual from close observation, and the therapeutic process works with the patient’s needs and abilities. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy people are alike; each unhappy person is unhappy in his/her own way. With a museum, therapy would depend on a generalized sampling of “the psychological needs of the nation” (p. 81), a common ground to which everyone fits inexactly. Thus, art therapy of this kind would be hit-or-miss, a session with an therapist who hasn’t been listening to your concerns. It’s therapy by a committee of amateurs. Even if museums began stacking their staffs and boards of trustees with therapists, they could draw no specific conclusions. Their patient is of many minds; Tea Party, atheist, feminist, Socialist, stressed-out, depressed, neurotic…

One of the great misunderstandings concerning museums is the idea that you are expected to follow a certain intellectual and/or emotional path, an error museums unwittingly perpetuate. “Just look around,” Alain de Botton said to Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker. “No one’s got a clue what they’re supposed to be doing!” Museums make claims for their collections, but they also allow the visitor the freedom to interpret emotionally as they wish. You don’t have to like Monet, though the canon says you should; emotional judgements are not the historian’s purview, and curators are historians. Though there is accepted wisdom, there is no official thought to which you must conform. Couching labels in “the language of an intelligent 12-year old,” as Mr. de Botton said at the Art Gallery of Ontario, doesn’t encourage. People don’t learn if you talk down to them, and learning is the point, regardless of approach.

The idea of how things are “supposed to be” is a sour vein that runs through far too much of this book, including artists as well as their audience. “What Should Political Art be Aiming At” (pp.198-203) is one of the more explicit examples. Political art, according to the authors, “…should take the pulse of a society, understand some of what is wrong with group life, arrive at an acute and intelligent analysis of the problems, then push the audience in the right direction through supreme mastery of a chosen artistic medium. (p. 199-200)” It’s not clear how this differs from the current state of things, or how this approach will help prevent political art that espouses wrong causes. They are not specific, but I’m assuming that decrying art ”for motherlands that don”t deserve sacrifice and regimes that torture the innocent (p. 199) they have foremost in mind Nazi and Soviet propaganda. Whether artists in those places and times truly believed the causes they espoused is beside the point…I guess.

I’ll pass over their critique of Capitalism and its relation to art. Capitalism is such a wounded behemoth that there is merit in almost every critique. I am not an economist, and neither are they, so I will let us both be. I would be a poltroon or worse if I didn’t mention their defense of critics, an unexpected pleasure that somehow ended up in their section on Money (“The Role of the Critic in the Education of Taste” pp. 168-75). While it is confined largely to a deserved tribute to Herbert Read (1893-1968), though only in terms of his art criticism (he was also an anarchist and poet), any time art critics are deemed valuable is welcome. I might be biased on that count, though.

Art does not tell just one story. It meanders and divides, sometimes recombining; it brings tears of joy and sorrow, separately or simultaneously. No longer the sole property of kings and popes, it belongs in a spiritual sense to everyone. (I wish Armstrong and de Botton had addressed the economic injustice of rising museum admissions fees, and the brave choice of some museums to become free to all, but that is a little more worldly than their approach seems to allow.) To channel art into one sanctioned meaning, what we’re “supposed to be doing” verges on an act of metaphysical violence. If there is value in the therapeutic approach as spelled out in Art as Therapy, it is not as a replacement for the historical model, but as an addition. Some people like the backstory of paintings, both artistic and sociopolitical; why deny them that? An audio tour could offer the option of hearing either approach. Digital wall labels and texts could be made to allow visitors to switch back and forth. There’s an idea there for some tech company – the paper-thin museum label. Put it up, program and reprogram it as often as you wish. This is not an either/or proposition. Museums do an excellent job of teaching the historical model. They do more and better than many schools, which have foolishly cut programs in the arts. Perhaps the greatest fault in Art as Therapy is that the authors are not thinking big enough, not matching their dreams to the world-changing ambitions of…let say, artists.
But I might be a bit harsh toward Messrs. Armstrong and de Botton. They are right in one essential element: that the educational systems in many countries has failed when it comes to teaching about art. Art is not hermetic, abstruse, recondite, or any synonym of those. Art is as simple as drawing what is in front of you, and as complex as you want it to be. The idea of a museum as a secular temple is a mixed one; a temple to learning, to the various aspects of history and, yes, emotion, but not merely for the initiate. The answer does not lie in dumbing down the amount or type of knowledge available; it lies in teaching more and better. You can debate whether a museum educator works harder than a curator, but I would argue that to teach in a museum is more work, and work that never ends. There is always someone new coming in with new questions and insights, not to mention all the old ones. The author’s definition, “Criticism is the process of going behind the scenes in the hunt for true reasons”(p. 170) is limited but a fair attempt.

Art as Therapy continues to be flawed right to the very last sentence, aside from the aforementioned appendix: “The ultimate goal of the art lover should be to build a world where works of art have become a little less necessary” (p.232). The author’s dreams of a better world, and the whole purpose of the book, are intricately bound up in the idea that everything should aspire to the level of art, whether it be the cities we live in or the spoons we eat with or (in a different way) our own souls. The perfect cities dreamt of by Alberti, Sant’Elia, Niemeyer and countless science fiction illustrators, perfect and all of a piece, would become reality. They conclude the book without understanding their own arguments. The ultimate goal of the art lover should be to build a world where art is omnipresent and more important than ever, for art guides us and makes us better. It’s a hopeful, innocent, probably impossible goal in this darkling and cynical age, but aiming for the impossible can be worthwhile sometimes.

Philosophers are not really here to give us the answers to life, but to propose questions that could lead us to examine life more deeply – like therapy but not quite. I can think of no other book in my recent experience that relies so heavily on the words “may be.” Everything is conditional – 235 pages of “What if?” That most of Armstrong and de Botton’s recommendations are unworkable, or even counter-productive, is not that important. They have made me think about art in different ways, albeit only a little, and that is sufficient success to call the book worthwhile. They have even test-driven their ideas, presenting captions inspired by Art as Therapy, through Alain de Botton’s School of Life, an alternative school that seeks to teach “developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.” Artworks in the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Ontario carried new labels for several months in 2014. Reviews of the installations and the book have been highly mixed, noting among other things that labels were not limited to galleries, but also took the form of aphorisms in the halls, the restrooms and elsewhere. This treads on an essential rule of the therapist – the constructive use of silence. At times it’s necessary to let the patient think for him/herself; the best therapist does not preach, but suggest. The curator, therapist, or what-have-you should stand back, at the ready, and wait until called for.


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