‘Art as Therapy’ is a collaboration between essayist Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong (a note on the authors below). The book is build of 5 chapters – after explaining the Methodology, the authors tell us how art can help with many difficulties in the following topics - Love, Nature, Money and Politics. The book is beautifully published (by Phaidon) - richly illustrated and nicely designed so flicking through the pages is a pleasure. I must admit I had mixed feelings about ‘Art as Theraphy’ but I decided not to jump to conclusions without examining it.
THE CONCEPT “Art can offer a grand and serious vantage point from which to survey the travails of our condition” [p. 30] – the idea is not new. Artists create art to express their reflections and unlock the riddles of life due to the fact that they see and feel more. Viewers enjoy art to make sense of the surrounding world and their own feelings. It’s obvious that a good exhibition or an art book can leave viewers responsive and that’s basically why we enjoy culture in general - because it brings both reflection and pleasure. Soothing art that heals souls or therapy through creating art are also fairly common. The novelty here is that probably no one has so far attributed, in such explicit way, particular art works precisely to solve concrete problems (perhaps too literally?).
THE VIEWER The press release says: “This book seeks to help us develop a deeper understanding of art and of ourselves in equal measure” and in principal it does improve our engagement with art, which is a good start. I could also agree with the authors’ claim that “our encounters with art do not always go as well as they might” and “the problem is not primarily located in the individual just the way that art is taught, sold and presented by the art establishment”. It is in big part true but again the concept of the viewer completing an artwork or saying that the essential in art is how the viewer responds to it, is not a novelty.
THE SELECTION As long as we use the book as a kind of guide full of hints and not an oracle, it’s fine. I mean it’s great that the authors feature 150 examples of art (including art, architecture and design which is super important to show that encountering art does not limit to visits in museums or bookshops but is present in everyday life experience) but in fact everyone could pick another work that would response to their, so diverse and variable, needs and feelings. Experiencing art is a highly personal thing hence the choice is a moot point.
THE LANGUAGE It reads well, the authors use straightforward and jargon free language and the way the art works are described is quite inviting. Interesting in a way for both groups – people who don’t know much about art as well as those familiar with the subject. I like the fact that authors pose many questions that helps seeing art (and life) afresh. Of course stating total opposition to academic art-historian studies (“Scholars should study how to make the spirit of the works they admire more connected to the psychological frailties of their audience. They should analyse how art could help with a broken heart, set the sorrows od the individual into perspective, help us consolation in nature, educate our sensitivity to the needs of others, keep the right ideals of a successful life at the front of our minds and help us to understand ourselves.’ [p.86]) or adding small notes below each image ( ‘We appreciate beauty more when we are aware of life’s troubles.’ [p. 18]) may sound a bit naïve and simplifying but the general gist is clear – to make art more accessible to a wider group of people.
THE VERDICT It’s obvious that art is inspiring and arouses (different) reactions, it’s also clear that the viewer is not a passive element. ‘Art as Therapy’ is a nice story to show us how to initiate the conversation with art, how to let art works speak to us but let’s use the method wisely, without exaggerating or taking the examples too literally. All in all any relation with art is a highly personal experience so let’s make it personal. Use the examples but also the questions to lead you to your own choices. I adore moments spent in art galleries in front of art works. I couldn’t imagine better inspiration, relaxation, pleasure. But I also know that what brings them, these are my very own choices and each of us must work out their own sources. From this point of view ‘Art as Therapy’ can be helpful.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS after Phaidon.com
Alain de Botton (b.1969) is the author of bestselling books in more than 30 countries, including The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Status Anxiety, and, most recently, Religion for Atheists. He founded The School of Life in London in 2008, which supplies good ideas for everyday life in the form of courses, classes, workshops and talks. In 2009 he founded Living Architecture, which aims to make high-quality architecture accessible to everyone.
John Armstrong (b.1966) is a British philosopher and art historian based at Melbourne University. He is the author of five well-received books, including The Intimate Philosophy of Art, Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy, and In Search of Civilisation: Remaking a Tarnished Idea.