Alain de Botton's guide to art as therapy
Source:The Guardian Date: 2014-01-03 Size:
Can visual art offer solace, hope and reassurance as music can? The writer chooses the works that make him feel less alone...

It comes naturally to most of us to think of music as therapeutic. Almost all of us are, without training, DJs of our own souls, deft at selecting pieces of music that will enhance or alter our current moods for the better. Yet few of us would think of turning to the visual arts for this kind of help. Few of us involve paintings or sculptures in our emotional lives. We don't have playlists of favourite images on our phones. We don't assemble our own private galleries on our computers. The cost and prestige of art typically draws us back from such steps. The way the establishment presents art to us doesn't invite us to bring ourselves into contact with works.

In the solemn galleries of museums, which is still where most of us pick up cues about how to behave around art, many of us are – in our hearts – a little lost (the gift shop is more helpful; it may be embarrassingly easier to have a fruitful time with the postcard than the original). We look at the caption and dutifully learn some key dates, the provenance and perhaps an explanation of an allegory. But could this really matter to me? What should art really be for?

The second question has long felt either vulgar and impatient or else simply unanswerable. This is dangerous. If art deserves its enormous prestige (and I think it does), then it should be able to state its purpose in relatively simple terms. I believe art is ultimately a therapeutic medium, just like music. It, too, is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism.

But for it to do any of these things for us, we need to approach art in the right sort of way. It needs to be framed not principally according to the criteria of art history (however interesting those can be), but according to a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks. What does a psychological therapeutic way of reading art look like? A selection of works suggests the way.

Hope

Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies (1899) by Claude Monet


Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lillies (1899) by Claude Monet. Photograph: National Gallery London

Monet's painting is one of the most popular works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is worrying to many people of taste and sophistication, who take a taste for "prettiness" as a symptom of sentimentality, even stupidity.

The worry might be that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life, which include war, disease and political error and immorality. Audiences need art constantly to remind them of this kind of material, sophisticated types will propose, or they might end up deluded as to what life is actually like.

But this is to locate the problem in completely the wrong place. For most of us, the greatest risk we face is not complacency; few of us are likely to forget the evils of existence. The real risk is that we are going to fall into fury, depression and despair; the danger is that we will lose all hope in the human project.

It is this kind of despair that art is well suited to correct and that explains the well-founded popular enthusiasm for prettiness. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach ... these are the visual symbols of hope. Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate.

Empathy

The Twilight of Life (1894) by Sydney Tully


Photograph: Art Gallery Of Ontario

It's hard to take much of an interest in other people, especially perhaps elderly people. In Tully's portrait, an elderly woman sits stooped and thoughtful against a stark background. We're being encouraged to look for longer than we normally would. She used to be strong and decisive. She had lovers once; she carefully set out with a quiet thrill in the evening.

Now, she's hard to love and maybe she knows this. She gets irritated, she withdraws. But she needs other people to care for her. Anyone can end up in her position. And there are moments when a lot of people – at whatever stage of life – are a bit hard to admire or like. Love is often linked to admiration: we love because we find another person exciting and sweet. But there's another aspect to love in which we are moved by the need of the other, by generosity.

Tully is generous to her sitter. The painter looks with care into her face and wonders who she might really be.

 1 2 3  

[Editor] 孙雯

    Artintern