Tag Archives: Philosophy

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.

Essays in Love by Alain De Botton

2 Aug

Essays In LoveAnother good read from the practical philosopher Alain de Botton.

I would have called this An Anatomy of Love.

It’s a story of love with a gently philosophical explanation of the stages of a relationship.

If you’re going to read this book don’t read the next paragraph – from my perspective it’s better to read it without knowing what’s coming, to enjoy the story for what it is with no expectations.

It is essentially a story of love, from start to end. I empathised with most of the facets of his love story: the irrationality and idealism with which the loved one is initially perceived, despite the randomness of the meeting; what beauty is; what you think of during sex; the dropping of boundaries so that each person takes on the personality traits of the other; the pain of heartbreak.

And the ending is just perfect.

In some ways I would hesitate to recommend this to someone in a relationship. I suspect it is more suited to someone who has recently broken up. It may not offer answers, but the knowledge that others have experienced the same as you is helpful.

(And if it doesn’t work, then Mr Minchen’s fine tune will undoubtedly put things into perspective!)

That said, people in a relationship often make assumptions based on their parental influences, and put hope in feelings, but don’t understand the work required to keep it healthy, so this book can be seen as a helpful way to understand the different aspects of a lover’s relationship – both the good and the bad.

So I didn’t find it revelatory, but it’s a an enjoyable and easy read.

I’ve read a few of Alain de Botton’s books and you can see other reviews here.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

4 Sep

I love Nietzsche’s ideas, and he doesn’t fail to shock and impress in this book.

He says that these ideas are not for everybody and he’s certainly right on that front. A lot of people I know wouldn’t be able to take on board some of his ideas as they push at our notions of right and wrong, society, power and fairness. Not to mention his strong sexism and stereotyping of nationalities. That’s not to say there is not truth in his ideas simply because they push against what is considered right and wrong in our current moral framework.

This version, translated a century ago by Helen Zimmern, is difficult to read. Logorrheic sentences that last a whole page mean the text is hard to comprehend. The way French, Latin and other languages are thrown in willy-nilly also detracts from an easy understanding. I’d be surprised if there’s not a better translation out there.

Here are some of his ideas that really struck home:

Morality is about maintaining power. People say that the morality of the average Joe Bloggs tends to be more democratic, more meritocratic, and so on, whereas those with power and control see this morality with disdain, almost don’t comprehend the point of it; their morals lead them to maintain their position. The morality of both parties is about increasing their power.

It’s all about one of Nietzsche’s favourite concepts: Will To Power. We talk about fighting for freedom (as currently seen in the Middle East), but it is often the case that freedom is a synonym for power.

He is scathing in his attacks on philosophers and, I presume by ironic extension, on himself. He says that philosophers have ideas, prejudices and beliefs and their philosophy is less about finding truth, and more about proving their own truth, more about finding justifications for their views. He goes on to say their philosophy is a confession, or an unconscious autobiography.

One of his more shocking assertions is worth quoting directly “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.

And here is a taster of his apophthegms:

Woman learns how to hate in proportion as she forgets how to charm.

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” i.e. any moral framework goes out of the window when love is the motivation.

I could go on. Suffice to say, a recommended read for those able to take such a strong questioning of many fundamentals.

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

19 Jul

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

– Abraham Lincoln

Written in Russell’s usual say-it-like-it-is style, The Conquest of Happiness gets straight to the point with an incisive view of how to be happy, that is as apt today as when it was written nearly 50 years ago.

The book is split into two halves: the first describing the main causes of unhappiness, and the second, well I think you can guess that it’s the causes of happiness.

To summarise: live in the present; enjoy the small things; don’t compete with others; avoid boredom, yet aim for moderation in things that excite you; avoid fatigue, mental as well as physical; don’t envy others, rather aim for an expansive view, becoming pleased for the success of others; eschew guilt: be able to separate yourself from the, usually subconscious, influence of parental morals, and question your moral framework so that it is wholly rational; aim for a realistic self-perception and don’t be afraid of what others think, as that way they’ll think better of you!; show affection for others and you in turn will be shown the same, though don’t do it with payback in mind; find a balance with the work you do: one with autonomy, mental challenge, something that is constructive rather than destructive; give yourself lots of interests – the person who says he has many dislikes and is disinterested in so many things has less opportunity to enjoy life; accept what can’t be changed and work to change what you can; while introspection is good in small doses, looking outwards maintains a healthy perspective and increases happiness.

A lot of the things he says may seem obvious to me, but then I’m a happy person already. That said, some things are great and I am pondering them further. Besides, some of the simplest lessons in life are those that we have to learn over and over again. I think it can help plenty of people that want to make the effort to be happier. It’s the kind of book that can be read more than once, and will reveal more insights when you’ve had more life experience.

I’ve written an overview of other philosophers’ approaches to happiness here.

What About All The Suffering?

15 Mar

Debate on this perennial question can go on; thankfully Epicurus managed to boil it down to this beautifully succinct set of rhetorical questions:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
– Epicurus

%d bloggers like this: