Alain de Botton's Healing Arts

Modern day philosopher, and one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, in The New Yorker discussing how museums could re-position their missions to be places were people experience art as therapy:

Somnolent visitors drifted from painting to painting. Faces registered pleasure, but also weariness. People stepped through the familiar choreography of the art museum: lean in to look for explanatory wall text; when you don’t find it, elegantly shift your lean toward the painting to scrutinize some arbitrary detail. We paused in front of Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs. Peter William Baker, an aristocratic beauty in a golden dress. People walked up, looked, and then walked away. “These very nice people have taken immense trouble,” de Botton said. “They’ve come to New York, they’ve come to the Frick. It’s clear that we’re in a place of great value: this Gainsborough is worth maybe twenty million dollars. And, yet, it’s done nothing for any of these visitors, and spends ninety-eight per cent of its life ignored.” De Botton is soft-spoken, with an open, sensitive face; his lips, lifted at the corners, hinted at ironic self-awareness—wasn’t it silly to get upset about other people’s museum-going?—but his eyes suggested alarm, even outrage. “People think there is no problem with art museums,” he said. “But there is.”

 

In “Art as Therapy,” de Botton argues that museums have taken a wrong turn. They should never have embraced as their guiding paradigm the discipline of art history; it’s led them to lose track of what actually makes art interesting. Most people, he thinks, care only a little about who commissioned what. When a visit to a museum succeeds, it usually isn’t because the visitor has learned facts about art but because she’s found one or two works that resonate in a private way. And, yet, museums do very little to foster these kinds of personal connections; if anything, they suggest that our approach to art should be impersonal and academic. “The claims I’m making for art,” de Botton said, “are simply the claims that we naturally make around music or around poetry. We’re much more relaxed around those art forms. We’re willing to ask, ‘How could this find a place in my heart?’ ” “Art as Therapy” is large, beautifully designed, and filled with images of paintings and sculptures alongside explanations of how those artworks might be approached in a more personally helpful, therapeutic way. (De Botton co-wrote it with a longtime friend, the art historian John Armstrong. “John is very in sympathy with this approach,” he said, “even though his colleagues are not.”)

 

Alain de Botton: Art for Life's Sake

If art is to deserve its privileges (and it does), we have to learn how to state more clearly what it is for and why it matters in a busy world. I would argue that art matters for therapeutic reasons. It is a medium uniquely well suited to helping us with some of the troubles of inner life: our desire for material things, our fear of the unknown, our longing for love, our need for hope.

We are used to the idea that music and (to an extent) literature can have a therapeutic effect on us. Art can do the very same thing. It, too, is an apothecary for the soul. Yet in order for it to act as one, we have to learn to consider works through more personal, emotionally rich lenses than museums and galleries employ. We have to put aside the customary historical reading of works of art in order to invite art to respond to certain quite specific pains and dilemmas of our psyches.