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Art as Therapy

Alain de Botton

(London Times)

A decade ago I obliged my pre-teenage son to come with us to an art exhibition in New York. The deal was the kind that parents often have to make when everyone in a family is excited by different things: an hour in the Pisarro-Cezanne exhibition in exchange for half an hour in the baseball shop. 'You might like it!' I said, against all the evidence to date. Thrilled by the imminent acquisition of a Red Sox cap, he took a catalogue and disappeared into the throngs round every painting.

Fifteen minutes later he was back at my side. 'I tried,' he said, despondently, 'but I just couldn't get the feeling.' I looked at him blankly. I was enchanted by some of the pictures, disliked others, but could think of no way to make them matter to him. He wasn't going to care about Pisarro's artistic development or the influences on Cezanne. I didn't have any language or insights to offer him other than: These are great artists! You should look at them!

The truth is that millions of us who go to art galleries every year in the hope of a profound experience leave feeling disappointed because we haven't had it. Secretly we suspect that the fault lies in ourselves. Everyone else must be seeing the point or why are they all there?

This is the problem that the philosopher Alain de Botton wants to solve. He thinks the professional art establishment has hijacked art and distanced us from it by presenting it principally as art history or technique. The captions in galleries might tell us about the date of a painting, its novel use of light or perspective, its attribution, which movement it belongs to, its subjects, and the symbolism of the objects within it.

No one talks about the emotions intended to be stirred in us by images of the Crucifixion or the Mona Lisa or Matisse's dancers. The question of why we might want to look at this art, why governments and philanthropists pay for it and what we might gain from it is never addressed. It is as if we are all earnest students of art history, just requiring a few more factual details before we can place a painting, sculpture or urinal in its appropriate slot.

De Botton finds this alienating. In one of the most intellectually exciting books I have read this year, Art as Therapy, he suggests we look at art in a new way; asking how it can reflect deep truths about how best to live.

His starting point is always: what is the common human experience that this work might illuminate? He takes Chardin's 18th-century picture A Lady Taking Tea and points out that he has made this calm everyday event look delightfully desirable. It is an antidote to our longing for the glamorous life that we imagine other people to be leading, reminding us of the real small pleasures of our own. Vermeer's famous painting of houses in Delft, with women cleaning the yard and looking after children, reminds us, de Botton says, that carrying out mundane tasks, creating order and beauty, faithfully and without despair, is both life’s real duty and a source of great happiness.

A 19th-century painting of a lone ship outlined against an iceberg and a sombre sky might tell us that valuable journeys always require courage and are never easy. Manet's delicate, detailed picture of a humble vegetable, Bunch of Asparagus, could encourage us to see our spouse as similarly beautiful and surprising beneath the layers of routine. The images of suffering in religious art remind us that pain and sadness aren't the results of getting life or careers wrong, but the inevitable result of trying to do the right thing.

De Botton doesn't claim this is the only way to look at art, just an intriguing way to view it. Yet many in the art world have reacted with contempt and fury. The Guardian thinks him smarmy and banal, The Spectator a moron, the influential art magazine Apollo dismisses him as platitudinous and The New York Times rages at him as a sugary middleman. They are particularly angry that the magnificent Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has let him recaption 150 of their artworks in an exhibition running to September.

None of these criticisms stand. De Botton's book is full of illumination and insights. What we have here is the dispiriting spectacle of a guild or caste desperately fighting to preserve its exclusivity. The message is: we welcome iconoclasm from artists, but there's only one way to interpret art and we're the ones who can do it.

The proof of de Botton's work is in the seeing. Visitors to the museum crowd round his captions. The four teenagers to whom I gave the book have all been thrilled by the sense that art isn't the mysterious preserve of high priests. Best of all, I took my student son to the Rijksmuseum and, utterly absorbed, he said he would never see art the same way again. De Botton is throwing open a door and doing what art ought to do: making us think and feel afresh. I hope many people step through it.

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