In Alain de Botton’s recent book “Art as Therapy” he summarizes his work with this simple goal: art should create a world where less art is needed. Taking an emotional point of view on how to engage with art and how that engagement can be applied to notions of love, politics, and money, de Botton presents a positive if not utopian opinion on the possibilities of art.
de Botton contends that looking at art (which includes architecture, sculpture and design) can help us develop into more reflective and satisfied individuals who, therefore, are better community members. In de Botton’s estimation, communities that are more emotionally functional lean less on art as an instructive tool and more as an opportunity for contemplation and enjoyment. By focusing on specific emotions and supplying examples of works that can assist us in uncovering an emotionally balanced orientation, de Botton makes the case that there is as much to learn from a work of art as there is from William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow.”
In his description of art’s ability to teach us sensuality, for example, de Botton surprisingly chooses architect Oscar Niemeyer’s Casa de Canoas. de Botton tells us that Casa de Canoas “repositions sensuality as part of a sophisticated, mature life” by using rock and glass to create a structure that both reveals and conceals – the epitome of provocativeness. When discussing sorrow, de Botton uses sculptor Richard Serra as one example. He claims “Serra’s work presents sorrow in a dignified way. It does not go into details; it does not analyze any particular cause of the suffering. Instead it presents sadness as a grand and ubiquitous emotion.”
Although these examples are clear for people who have experienced a Serra or have been in a modern home, de Botton’s weakness is his assumption about how well a normal patron can understand and engage with these works of art to begin with. His attitude, which is highly optimistic, assumes too much. For de Botton to expect the therapeutic aspects of art to help everyone, he will first need to educate the masses on how to be comfortable around art .
de Botton forgets that the initial feeling people encounter when looking at art is not enlightenment but its absurdity. The fact is that not all art makes sense and, further, not all art looks like art at first blush. No matter your level of art sophistication, before walking in the door of an institution, you have to be open to the unpredictable nature of art and its ability to intrigue and excite you. As someone walks up to sculpture, she must first understand that art, like her own life, is simultaneously reasonable and absurd. She must confront the notion that in art there will be no promises and no answers. In art, like life, she will create meaning for herself. Until that orientation is in place, de Botton’s method cannot proceed.
In “Art as Therapy” de Botton implies that every work of art has something to teach us about ourselves – which is not true. In the same way that three people can tell us that our work is good, but it takes a fourth for us to really believe it, time and exposure to different types of art allows us to learn about ourselves and the world around us. While a Picasso may inspire us, a Michelangelo may leave us lackluster.
Once we have opened ourselves up to the absurd, that, in large part, transcendental meaning will be defined by our own participation in its discovery, de Botton’s questions can be answered more reflectively.
The greatest gift that art can give us is learning to be at home with the fact that nothing is given. That by living in a world of absurdity, we have greater license to approach its people, objects and concepts with reason, curiosity and grace.