Art historian John Armstrong joined philosopher Alain de Botton in the writing of Art As Therapy (2013), in which it’s posited, according to the publisher, “that certain great works offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life. Chapters on Love, Nature, Money, and Politics outline how art can help with these common difficulties…Art as Therapy offers an unconventional perspective, demonstrating how art can guide us, console us, and help us better understand ourselves.”
Furthermore, from de Botton’s website: “The authors propose that the squeamish belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential.” It should be noted that de Botton has said he’s using the term “therapy” in a broad sense.
Book Reviewers Recap the Notion of How Art Can Serve As Therapy
Publishers Weekly: “Upending the art world’s self-referential culture, the book assigns seven functions to art: ‘Remembering,’ ‘Hope,’ ‘Sorrow,’ ‘Rebalancing,’ ‘Self-Understanding,’ ‘Growth,’ and ‘Appreciation’…(T)he proposal that art dealers function as therapists, that museums be organized into galleries of suffering and compassion, and that scholars ‘analyze how art could help with a broken heart’ boldly positions art at the center of our daily lives.”
Joshua Rothman, New Yorker: “Museums, de Botton believes, would be more energetic, unpredictable, and useful places if curators thought less like professors and more like therapists. Instead of being organized by period—’British eighteenth-century painting,’ say—galleries could be organized around human-scale themes, like marriage, aging, and work. Rather than providing art-historical trivia, wall text might address personal questions: How do I stop envying my friends? How can I be more patient?”
Art builds up self-knowledge, and is an excellent way of communicating the resulting fruit to other people.
The true aspiration of art should be to reduce the need for it. It is not that we should one day lose our devotion to the things that art addresses: beauty, depth of meaning, good relationships, the appreciation of nature, recognition of the shortness of life, empathy, compassion, and so on. Rather, having imbibed the ideals that art displays, we should fight to attain in reality the things art merely symbolises, however graciously and intently. The ultimate goal of the art lover should be to build a world where works of art have become a little less necessary.
Art can do the opposite of glamourizing the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it.
Below is a brief clip of de Botton explaining his “art as therapy” idea: