Art As Therapy by Alain de Botton

26 Feb
Soleil Levant by Monet

Soleil Levant by Monet

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.

- David Hume

Being a long time fan of Alain de Botton I jumped at the chance to see him talk on a new subject – Art As Therapy. His previous work has been fun to read and often helpful, and given I know very little about art, this is an interesting concept where I could learn some new things.

His idea is that “art is ultimately a therapeutic medium, just like music. It, too, is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism“.

Grand claims.

He added that some of the consolation that people previously found in religion can be found in art.

He says that this can be achieved using “a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks“.

After a fairly short introduction to this approach, he dived right into interpreting paintings, pottery and the like, making some excellent points with his psychological and philosophical interpretations, and I enjoyed hearing them.

However I found I had a real blocker with this approach. I actually wrote a comment on his Facebook page, on a post where he’d ‘interpreted’ some art, hoping to get some help with my problem. Here’s a snippet:

Alain,

I’m one of the 96.5% you referred to on Friday night, that don’t ‘get’ art, in the way that those ‘in the know’ apparently do. Sure I appreciate the colours and shapes, the aesthetics of a picture. I also appreciate when a picture is skilfully produced.

I did enjoy your pithy aphorisms when looking through the works of art. But when you showed the Korean jug, I just saw a badly made jug – I didn’t extrapolate the commentary on the imperfections of human nature. Again the two-tone picture by a Japanese sounding artist from which you drew parallels to our human perspectives was a nice comment, but I just didn’t get it from the picture.

If we could all have our own mini-Alain to take around galleries with us then we could derive such consolation and insight from art. Otherwise it feels that – rather than drawing out from the works deep meanings intended by the artists – you’re projecting your philosophical and psychological expertise and experience onto the artworks.

Hence I could gain way more insight and consolation from an essay, a chat with a friend, or one of your books, than I could from a picture…

Alas the picture was taken down and the comments with it, even though I got quite a few likes beforehand!

I guess part of the problem is the certainty; he often phrases comments as if he’s telling us what the picture is saying, rather than what it might be saying. It’s blatantly subjective, because there could be plenty of alternative interpretations.

The other part of the problem is, as I say above, that contrary to the famous phrase that “a picture speaks a thousand words“, I disagree, and find I can gain so much more from words than a picture.

Now before I go any further, I should be clear – I’m not really into art. I think the Mona Lisa is crap, and find most art galleries exceptionally dull. I’ve been to loads of galleries including the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Prado, Musée de l’Orangerie, Tate, Vatican and the National Gallery and not found too many artworks that make me look twice.

But then I came to a bit of a eureka moment when idly jotting notes for this post. I was writing down what I thought of the few pieces of art that I have enjoyed, and some interesting things started to come out. Amusingly, it seems in writing this post, that maybe I’ve started to get what Alain is on about. Here you go:

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Even though I am not that ‘into art’, I have found an occasional piece that I really enjoy looking at. I can appreciate the technical prowess of some art works: say the Sistine Chapel. I was very impressed when I realised what looked like three-dimensional pillars with sculptures on them, were in fact just a part of the painting. I can appreciate the accuracy and detail in Canaletto’s painting of Venice.

Aesthetically, I appreciate beautiful landscapes, especially impressionist ones. I suppose an art aficionado might turn up their nose at such a populist viewpoint. But then I don’t really care.

I really like Monet – I’ve got Soleil Levant hanging up in my living room. But it took me being pissed in a pub in Edinburgh for this painting to catch my eye. Alain did argue strongly that the context in which we usually see art, namely galleries, is not conducive to getting the best out of art.

Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillère

Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère

Since then I’ve seen Monet’s stuff in four or five different galleries and I love staring at it. I think it’s something about the way that with really simple brush strokes he can project a quite complex and beautiful image. Perhaps part of it is that I, as an observer, fill in the gaps. Just pondering it now, in the light of Alain’s approach, perhaps I like it because one of my primary joys in my work is to solve a complex problem with something very simple, elegant and easy to understand. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence. His pictures certainly look nice.

I was stopped short by one image of Jesus on the cross in the Prado. Usually they show a chilled out dude looking all holy with a bit of a glow, but this one showed the agony of a man being tortured to death. The realism was good, though I suspect what drew me is that the artist was able to break a taboo.

Goya's Dog

Goya’s Dog

The only other one that really made me look twice in the Prado was Goya’s painting of a dog. For some reason this forlorn looking fellow, looking lost against the vastness of it all, stood out to me. Perhaps because that’s how I can feel when I contemplate the vastness of time.

So perhaps it is possible for someone like me to get something out of this method. But given the thousands of artworks I’ve seen, compared to the handful I’ve enjoyed, it’s pretty hard work.

If you want to explore the idea further, check out his website . I’ll be interested to hear your views on the way he interprets the art.

If you’re interested to ponder on questions such as what is art, and what is art for, then I recommend Grayson Perry’s excellent attempt at answering them in last year’s Reith Lectures.

One Response to “Art As Therapy by Alain de Botton”

  1. Sigrun March 14, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    I am, what you call, an art aficionado, and I really enjoyed reading your side of the story! I like De Botton’s idea, I think it would be very enriching for most people to have a close, personal relationship to art, but I’m less certain about its healing effect. Denis Dutton tells an interesting story about the place of art in our lives in this TED talk:

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