Art as Therapy

The writer Alain de Botton and philosopher John Armstrong want you to reconsider what you understand about art. It is not just an aesthetic, it is not just an asset and it is not just a critique of the zeitgeist. It is so much more.

They see it as a powerful form of therapy, a suitable non-medicinal way of alleviating ‘our most immediate and ordinary dilemmas’. Both Botton and Armstrong believe that certain works of art – it isn’t necessarily applicable for every painting, sculpture or installation ever conceived – can deliver momentous solutions to what woe has befallen us.

Art, as we know, has a limited audience with respects to other cultural fields, despite its universal appeal and the fact that it is a manifestation of a human need for expression. Perhaps this is where it goes wrong, Botton discusses in a recent article for the Huffington Post.

Our high regard for art – it is inextricably linked to the human existence, the meaning of life – renders it useless. He argues that upon leaving a gallery or museum, the likely emotional response is less than favourable. We are underwhelmed, bewildered and left asking “why the transformational experience we anticipated did not occur”.

We consider ourselves to be at fault, a consequence of a decided lack of knowledge about anything to do with art and/or because we are somehow emotionally or spiritually lacking, an error in our DNA leaving us somewhat nonplussed.

“I allege that the problem is not primarily located in the individual,” he discussed last month. “It lies in the way that art is taught, sold and presented by the artistic establishment. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the public’s relationship to art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Along with Armstrong, Botton sees it as more than just ‘art for art’s sake’ – the subtext being what else is there to do?  – and considers it as akin to a tool, which can be utilised in such a way as to “inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us”.

Utter tosh some may argue, but that’s the kind of retort that both the authors are actively aware of. They are actively courting rebukes because this indicates the problem of monopolised and singular thinking about what art is.

That, of course is troublesome, but this is where their book Art as Therapy comes in. It is a seed for new discourse and a spark for unhinging art from its restrained orthodoxy, thereby revealing its ‘latent therapeutic potential’.

For example, let us take the banality of work, an affliction many of us know all too well. It is difficult doing the same trite thing every day but not impossible – we do it regardless, shackled by our own ineptitude, societal prejudice, economic inequalities and the inability to roll lucky dices. It is a dull pain our souls find insufferable.

Convalesce from this ache by examining Pieter de Hooch’s At the Linen Closet (1663). Botton and Armstrong propose that the painting by the Dutch artist moves us because ‘we recognise the truth of its message’, which is the value of routine.

“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 authors suggest.

“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 may come across as New Age, but the remedial strength of art has always existed. What has been absent is a language to describe this, a set of beliefs to lend from when visiting a gallery or museum. Art as Therapy is not new, but what Botton and Armstrong have achieved is a lucid book that helps articulate another magical side of art.

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