Art can be a tool, Alain de Botton argues, to help us with the challenges of everyday life.
What is art for? The question is rarely asked and seldom answered. In conventional wisdom, art doesn’t need to be for anything; its importance is supposed to be self-evident, its value implicit. And when we view art, our attention is directed – seemingly rightly – to its various stylistic and historical concerns. But this framework robs us of art’s profound potential, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong argue in their recent book, Art as Therapy (Phaidon). The co-authors propose that art does, in fact, have a purpose, one we can talk about in terms as plainspoken as their title: Art can be a tool, a therapeutic medium to help us become better versions of ourselves. We need only to learn to look at it in new ways. We asked de Botton to tell us more about the pair’s intriguing and provocative project.
How did you conceive of Art as Therapy? What prompted you to undertake this project?
It started from a sense that though our culture is very good at restoring, keeping, and displaying art, it is very bad at asking why art really matters. The assumption is that all good and clever people know the answer to that one already – and therefore, that there’s not much need for guidance or structure in the way one looks at art.
But I was intrigued by the way religions use art. Far from adhering to the modern dictum that art should be “for art’s sake,” they carve out an explicit role for art, arguing that it is a medium that can lend color and visceral emotion to the truths of the holy texts. This led me to think: “What if we learned to use art to guide us to certain truths and ideas, not theological ones, but psychological ones?” Of course, art does this anyway, but the way it’s presented throws into shadow its more utilitarian, didactic side.
In short, my goal was to throw into relief art’s capacity to guide, to cheer, to lend solace, to rebalance our characters – things that art lovers know art does, but that are curiously not spoken about so much in formal art circles.
Why is that dictum, “art for art’s sake,” problematic?
It was a formulation designed to distance art from agendas: in particular, agendas set by religion and by politics. It was a call to leave art alone, to let it be a realm of play, paradox, and ambiguity. It’s my feeling that this methodology has now run its course – and I’m intrigued by the idea of art as a medium of didacticism, art for life’s sake.
We are told there are certain “great artists” determined by their technological breakthroughs and their mastery of particular techniques. This can be deeply impressive – but it’s important to recognize that many of us value art works for criteria that are rather more personal, that are, for want of a better word, psychological and connected up by a desire for their therapeutic potential. Most of us like, for example, Caspar David Friedrich not because he overthrew certain neo-classical traditions of landscape painting, but because the sadness in his work speaks to a melancholy within us.
How did you come to partner with John Armstrong? You’re a writer, a philosopher; he’s a philosopher too, but also an art theorist. What roles did you each play?
John is a good and old friend, a wonderfully intelligent and sensitive observer of art. His background is in the academy, in art – and it seemed great to combine with a professional who shared my own reservations about the way many professionals go about things. I tended to take care of the overall structure of the book, the main philosophical direction; he tended to take care of the readings and interpretations of specific works. It was a very happy collaboration.
Getting back to art’s capacity to guide: In the book, you home in on seven specific functions, such as offering hope or teaching us to suffer more productively. How did you identify those seven areas?
We asked ourselves why certain works of art seem to have a powerful effect. We looked at hundreds of works, and from these, tried to extrapolate the benefits of art in general. We invented new categories: works that cheer us, works that make us feel less alone, etc. It was a classic piece of empirical investigation: Look at many works of art, ask yourself where their therapeutic impact seems to be coming from, and then arrive at some theories.
You considered quite a range of work – for your purposes, art includes craft, design, and architecture. Why?
We were keen to make sure that the word “art” was considered in its entirety; that means not only painting, but also the design of chairs, airline meals, flags, and park benches. That’s because the realm that elites call art is in fact only a tiny proportion of what one might more accurately call “the aesthetic realm.” Far more people care about their cars and their clothes than they do pictures – and that’s OK; it’s where their aesthetic sense is being directed. We wanted to engage with that larger sense of art.
You write about beauty as it relates to art’s capacity to foster hope, and note that, though often dismissed as sentimental or superficial, beauty affects us only because life can be so ugly. Contemporary craft often wrestles with those same doubts about beauty. What would you say to the maker of beautiful things?
We are taught to be embarrassed about a concern for beauty. Anything else seems more important: function, a political agenda, a religious message… And yet beauty goes right to the heart of why anyone cares about the art or craft we make.
There is a particular decadence therefore in turning away from beauty – it is like a novelist getting bored with plot or a chef with tastiness. Yes, these pleasures may be basic, but they are also essential.
Another essential function of art, you argue, is that of rebalancing – providing that which we lack. You write, in fact, that we “can understand the particular imbalances of a historical period by considering which artworks have achieved new popularity within it.” What about forms of art-making that have become popular recently, such as the revival of traditional crafts?
There’s no doubt in my mind that in an age of mass manufacture, when so many of the goods we own were made by machines, there is terrific nostalgia and appetite for the handmade, the imperfect, the thing that bears the marks of its human creator.
If everything we touched were a bit wonky, a bit handmade, we’d long for the machine-made – this is the situation in Africa. But we love crafts precisely because there is such a shortage of them. They promise to rebalance us. Thoreau would never have gone out into the woods if America hadn’t been industrializing and threatening wilderness. The same holds true for crafts: It is a symptom of our over-technological culture.
Your book proposes this exciting new way to approach art – and yet the idea that art can be therapeutic is widely accepted if you’re talking about making it. What is the relationship between art therapy and art as therapy?
The two versions – art therapy and art-as-therapy – are two sides of the same coin. One focuses on the producer, the other on the spectator. But they are united in a search for a helpful relationship to art, one where one isn’t merely “enjoying” art in a nebulous way, but comes at art with an intention, an intention to cure or be cured.
Approaching art therapeutically has implications for how we acquire and present it, as well. The book includes a beautiful explanation, for example, of the impulse to buy and display art: “We’re not merely boasting. We’re trying to let others know our characters in a way that words might not permit.” In a consumer culture, it’s easy to feel conflicted, even cynical about the desire for things – especially things that are considered status objects. How do we cut through that noise?
The goal is to live surrounded by objects each of which has a function; it’s a kind of self-aware form of consumption, as opposed to an incidental form, where one is simply surrounded by things one has picked up without choice, by chance, for reasons one can’t remember or sympathize with.
The purpose of a “home” is an environment filled with things necessary for one’s survival, which means not only a toaster and a fridge, but also things that will help psychological survival and flourishing – everything from family photos to a serene painting of two lemons and an apple.
Say I am intrigued; I am persuaded by the arguments and observations in Art as Therapy and I wish to start forging such a relationship with art. Where do I begin?
It’s about recognizing that the way museums put art in front of our eyes is only a part, and a small part, of the work we have to do in order to make art powerful for us. We have to ask: “How can I find a place for this work in my heart, how can I build a bridge between it and my deeper concerns?”
It’s about learning to be usefully selfish around art, not merely being intimidated and dutiful in front of art, but also productively self-centered; making sure we are enjoying it for our sakes.
Julie K. Hanus is senior editor for American Craft.