Serious thought brings art to life

'De Nachtwacht' ('The Night Watch') by Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, where Alain de Botton is staging an intervention on the therapeutic value of art. (Olaf Kraak/EPA)

'De Nachtwacht' ('The Night Watch') by Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, where Alain de Botton is staging an intervention on the therapeutic value of art. (Olaf Kraak/EPA)

In the recently released book Art as Therapy, Swiss-British writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and philosopher and art historian John Armstrong seek to reach beyond the visual and cerebral, and, with a perfectly Bottonesque formula, to unveil the spiritual deep within every artwork.

This bumper of a book argues that the function and meaning of art can be expanded for both its makers and appraisers.

Says De Botton: “We argue that art is a tool that can variously help to inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us.

“The book runs systematically through these functions of art and, in each area, we pick out a selection of works from across the history of the subject that we feel show art performing its task in optimal ways.”

As the headmaster of the London-based School of Life, De Botton suggests that art should be a tool. He identifies six psychological frailties (love, work, anxiety, self, politics and free time) and then illustrates the function of particular artworks to address these.

Alain de Botton at Heathrow Airport, where he was a writer-in-residence in 2009 to muse on the world of flight delays, passport controls and duty-free shops. (Leon Neal, AFP)

The book’s argument resonated with Wim Pijbes, the director of Amsterdam’s newly renovated Rijksmuseum.
After a chance encounter at a party, Pijbes invited De Botton to stage an intervention at the museum. The resulting eight million piece exhibition, Art is Therapy, poses life’s important questions and offers solutions, written on large Post-it stickers, next to each of the artworks.

The exhibition, which is on until September, has drawn mixed reviews. In an article in the Guardian in April, Adrian Searle writes: “The authors have filled the place with loud, intrusive labels – giant Post-it notes that often dwarf the exhibits – along with a number of thematic displays. 

“You can’t avoid the crowds and there is no escape from the labels: in the entrance hall, on the stairs, in the grand salons that connect the galleries, as well as beside and beneath the exhibits. People are spending longer reading the damn things than looking at the art.”

He continues: “‘You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self-disgust’ reads a note next to Jan Steen’s 1660s The Feast of Saint Nicholas. ‘You are probably a bit like this picture,’ it goes on. ‘There are sides of you that are a little debauched’.

“The labels tell us what’s wrong with us, and how the artworks and artefacts they accompany can cure our ills.” 

For those of us unable to visit the exhibition, the museum has provided the useful guided-tour app, which can be downloaded for free. The tour, narrated by De Botton, begins with his description of the building: “This museum was designed in the 19th century to function as a replacement for the old cathedrals. It was to be a cathedral of art. Culture was to replace scripture.

“The ambition was huge: art would bring us meaning, consolation, direction and comfort, just as the pages of the Bible once had.”

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, De Botton shared his thoughts and ideas on censorship, art as therapy and the role of the contemporary philosopher in modern society.

Was there a particular exhibition or artwork that inspired or upset you enough to write about it?
A lot of the personal impetus came from being very bored in museums at various points in my life, simply not seeing the point – being there out of a sense of guilt, knowing there was something of value but being unsure what. Gradually, I realised it wasn’t so much that I was a fool (though I am that too) but that the way we are taught to see art leaves out so much of the true pleasure and interest.

Your work does much to explain contemporary works that seem to evade definition. Why do you feel that art needs to be demystified?
It is very unfashionable to think that art can “do” anything for us. There is an assumption in our culture that art isn’t for anything in particular. It’s just very interesting and important.

However, this explanation doesn’t seem focused enough to me. I believe that art is a tool and that, like all tools, it has functions. I also think it’s important to know what the tool is for so that we can better know how and when to use it.

Do you go to therapy?
I went for many years. I should probably go back again. Therapy is the best luxury – someone who listens intently to you for 50 minutes and makes helpful suggestions and has insights. True bliss.

In your book, you advocate a censorship of art that works towards the betterment of society. In South Africa, we’re facing exactly that. What would constitute meaningful censorship?
People associate censorship with book burning, political repression and ignorant intolerance. In the history of censorship, it always seems as if it is something of real value – profound, earnest and true – that is condemned and someone vile, corrupt and absurd who is trying to do the censoring.

But maybe that’s no longer always true. Maybe, just maybe, that phase of history (in which the censored were always good and the censors always bad) has, in the developed countries at least, passed in many ways.

The real threat nowadays is perhaps not that wonderful truths are in danger of being repressed by malign authorities but rather that we will drown in chaos produced by aggressive and uncontrolled commercial interests, that we will be overwhelmed by irrelevant, greedy, noxious and unhelpful trivia, and that we will be left unable to concentrate on what is genuinely important and good.

A key argument of those who attack “censorship” today is to claim that we need to hear all the messages all the time. But do we?
Take TV, for instance. Television broadcasts have long been censored on grounds of violence and sexuality – and there is widespread agreement that this is an acceptable, and even welcome, restriction on liberty.

We know perfectly well that images of an extreme kind are readily available elsewhere if one really wants to go and hunt for them, but an important distinction exists between what people do completely in private and what is acceptable more or less “in public” over the airwaves.

But the insight, which leads us to censor images because they are too graphic or gory, actually applies more broadly than these two usual categories. For the problem is not primarily to do with sex or violence; the real concern is that some scenes that are paraded before us are humiliating to our collective dignity. They give us a shameful view of human nature.

Censorship is not necessarily about making it impossible to view such material. What it does insist on is the private and personal character of the interest: it refuses public endorsement. The most sinister programmes and adverts are those that are confident about their own merits, when they are in fact spectacularly unworthy of regard.

In a democratic, market-oriented society, public culture is very important. It guides our collective ideas about what is admirable or shocking, what counts as normal or weird. It generates a shared perception of status. All public things shape our individual lives, and they make their way into politics and the economy.

Censoring the odd message deserves to be considered not always as an unenlightened suppression of crucial ideas but occasionally as a sincere attempt to organise the world for human flourishing.

Do you think that the internet is affecting the way we understand and use imagery?
Yes. We take images too much for granted now. We see so many yet rarely pause and properly notice a few.

The sale of art is a complicated issue. How do you understand the pricing and sale of artworks in terms of their value?
The financial value is really irrelevant for most of us. I am a strong believer in the power of postcards and reproductions. The originals are not especially valuable to the ordinary person, as the quality of reproductions is so high. Stay home with the catalogue, I always say; better not to head out to the crowded museum.

Is there an artist you envy?
I really admire the constant inventiveness and creativity of Picasso. He was constantly pushing himself to try out new things.

What is the role of the successful philosopher to society?
The answer is already contained in the word philosophy itself. In Greek, philo means love or devotion, and sophia means wisdom. Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.

The goal of wisdom is fulfilment. You could perhaps say “happiness” but “happiness” is misleading, for it suggests continuous chirpiness and joy, whereas “fulfilment” seems compatible with a lot of pain and suffering, which every decent life must by necessity have.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skills set. They have, over the centuries, become experts in many of the general, large things that make people not very wise. Six central ones have been identified:

1) We don’t ask big questions.

What is the meaning of life? What should I do with my work? Where are we going as a society? What is love? Most of us have these questions in our minds at some point (often in the middle of the night) but we despair of trying to answer them. They have the status of jokes in most social circles and we get shy of expressing them (except for brief moments in adolescence) for fear of being thought pretentious and of getting nowhere.

But these questions matter deeply because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

Philosophers are people unafraid of the large questions.

2) We are vulnerable to errors of common sense. Public opinion – or what gets called “common sense” – is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbours; the stuff that’s just assumed to be true, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. The media pump it out by the gallon every day.

But in some cases, common sense is also full of daftness, error and the most lamentable prejudice.

Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves, to be more independent. Is it really true what people say about love, about money, about children, about travel, about work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.

3) We are mentally confused. We’re not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds.

We know we really like a piece of music but we struggle to say quite why. Or someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is. Or we lose our temper but can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about. We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes.

That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge, and its central precept – articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long: know yourself.

4) We have muddled ideas about what will make us happy. We’re powerfully set on trying to be happy but go wrong in our search for it on a regular basis. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives, and underrate others.

In a consumer society, we make the wrong choices because, guided by false glamour, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things – like going for a walk, tidying a cupboard, having a structured conversation or going to bed early – that may have little prestige but can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

5) Our emotions can send us in dangerous directions. We are inescapably emotional beings but regularly forget this uncomfortable fact. Occasionally certain emotions – certain kinds of anger, envy or resentment – lead us into serious trouble.

Philosophers teach us to think about our emotions rather than simply have them. By understanding and analysing our feelings, we learn to see how emotions impact on our behaviour in unexpected, counterintuitive and sometimes dangerous ways. Philosophers were the first therapists.

6) We panic and lose perspective. We are constantly losing a sense of what matters and what doesn’t. We are, as the expression goes, constantly “losing perspective”. That’s what philosophers are good at keeping a hold of.

On hearing the news that he had lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said: “Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.”

It’s responses such as these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind; in short, for perspective.

The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on the payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.

Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought – we are always getting snippets of wisdom here and there – but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.

In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments, because the points at which our unwisdom bites – and messes up our lives – are multiple and urgently need attention right now.

Your books have covered many of the conditions of life. What’s next?
A book on marriage …

When are you coming to South Africa?
As soon as someone invites me.

Art as Therapy, by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong (Phaidon 2013) R495.

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