At the turn of the 20th century, an Arts and Crafts movement, born in England as a response to the ailments of the Industrial Revolution and its factory slavery and inferior material culture, had spread to the United States the gospel of good taste and self-fulfillment through the creation and appreciation of beautiful objects.
A similar noble sentiment, backed by a program that smacks of an imperative of social duty, is at the heart of Alain de Botton’s new book about the uses of art, by which he means primarily visual arts like painting and sculpture, but including design and architecture.
Botton is one of three new moral psychologists (the others are Malcolm Gladwell and Goeff Dyer) who are using their considerable literary and artistic powers to redesign the “self-help” genre into a kind of intellectual cat-and-mouse game that, while harnessing powerful rational arguments to the front end of very controversial propositions, unleashes a disconcerting array of illuminating, sometimes puzzling, and always stimulating slants on modern reality. This time Botton, in league with Australian philosopher and art theorist John Armstrong, boldly proposes that art has a clear function: It is a therapeutic tool to help us lead more fulfilled lives.
The book’s argument asks us to accept the premise that while we think of art as very important, at the same time, most of our encounters with art, especially in the elevated atmosphere of museums or in the speculative auction houses in European capitals and New York, tend to be either tedious or disappointing, or both. We wonder, Botton argues, why we feel underwhelmed when the transformational experience we anticipated does not occur. Botton argues that we’re not to blame; but, rather, the problem lies in the way that art is taught, sold, and presented by the art establishment. What is art for anyway?
The authors of “Art as Therapy” answer this question by arguing that art is a tool (like any other human tool) that expands our capacities beyond those nature originally endowed us with, compensating thereby for certain inborn weaknesses – in the case of art those of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses the author refer to as psychological frailties. “Art as Therapy” proposes seven human frailties: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. These frailties hamper us. We can’t see our way through the muddle of the office-cube, junior high, jammed freeways, noisy rooms, crooked politicians, unhappy love affairs. Who or what is to answer our basic human questions – Why is my work not more satisfying? How can I improve my relationships?
These questions, among many others, are the questions that art can answer for us if it is appreciated, displayed, and recommended by the establishment, as a therapeutic tool.
“Art as Therapy” is a sight to behold, designed to investigate with art’s help our most vexing difficulties – love, money, grief, courage for the journey, patience, mindfulness, ambition, even the reformation of the capitalist enterprise in a very gentle, non-revolutionary way, of course. Illustrated brilliantly, the book is the ultimate didactic treatise. The authors would have museums organized not on historical lines (“Here is 17th century Flemish art.”), but rather on psychological themes. The first floor could be about love, the second about work and relationships.
As with most of the work of Botton (he has written books about Proust, religion for atheists, and philosophy), the arguments feel more like straitjackets than anything else. This feeling is nowhere more evident than in “Art as Therapy” – after all, the book ends with a “hypothetical commissioning strategy” and an “agenda for art,” subsuming most of the problems we think of as moral and psychological that plague us as human beings. Botton also makes an unfortunate proposal concerning censorship, arguing that we in the West already have complete freedom of expression, which could use a little reining in. Who should rein us in? Botton answers that we should give the task to the “very same people who decide tax policy, workplace safety regulations and the highway code.”
Yes, most of us would like to be happier, more autonomous, less plagued by doubts, loneliness and envy. Surely, an appreciation of great art can improve our lives. But just as surely, there is no sure path to that end.
Botton’s book – with its beautiful four-color plates, its pleasing, forceful style and its Platonic certainties – is a kind of moral Tinkerbell perched on our shoulders, waving her wand and spreading magic fairy dust, but ready at any moment to kick our art back into line.