Art for our sake

Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon

Art galleries are the new cathedrals, it is often said. Art used to be in the service of religion, not to mention government, but now art is its own end, with a cult-like air of the sacred. Our art galleries revel in mystification, and glorification, like the nonsense of Hobart’s MONA, with its darkness paraded as light, and its nihilist sermonizing hidden behind a veil of philanthropy. At the same time art is like a toy – an object simply for enjoyment, with novelty and gimmickry often edging out real depth.

alain de bottonjohn armstrong

Philosophers Alain de Botton and Australia’s John Armstrong have both made careers deliberately at odds with the mind-bending theorizing of much contemporary philosophy. There is a danger that they can suck the life out of something in the search for its utility (witness de Botton’s recent Religion for Atheists), but generally their books try to apply philosophy to everyday life, in illuminating but unpretentious fashion. Here they argue against the mantra of art for art’s sake.

They recognise that art is read in various ways, but Art as Therapy argues for galleries as psychologists’ couches. They propose that art museums should be arranged not historically, but in regard to the emotions of the works displayed. For example, one might visit a floor of a public gallery dedicated to helping with personal relationships. Aside from the fact that this reorganisation is unlikely to happen any time soon, this proposal has a number of problems. This way of reading art is particularly subjective, and what one person gets out of a painting emotionally might be quite different to another’s. They suggest that gallery “captions” (the explanatory cards that hang beside paintings) should spurn the detailed facts of production and concentrate on the human emotions of the scene portrayed. But their example just illustrates the problem with this proposal: Juan de Flandes’ Christ Appearing to his Mother is the depiction of the utterly unique occasion of Jesus, raised from the dead, visiting his mother, but de Botton and Armstrong’s proposed alternative text makes no mention of this and rather talks about the bonds of child and mother that most humans share. For some biblically illiterate viewers, the point of the picture may remain completely obscure.

Additionally, most of the examples in the book are held up us as pinnacles of (Western) art, and the authors seem to be conflating these pieces, which are viewed on a less regular basis, with the art in our homes and in our other public spaces, which make a more regular contribution (or not) to our wellbeing. Although the authors are hostile to art museums as “dead libraries”, and their curators as overly obsessed with the details of art works’ production, it is quite possible that people want to visit museums to find out these facts, which are less subjective. Museums as repositories of history is not a value-less concept. In fact, rather than arguing for the merits of our art galleries’ overhaul, the authors might be better simply to argue for the merits of a book such as the very one they have produced, which is much stronger when they simply respond to the art work displayed.

Armstrong and de Botton are illuminative when it comes to simply looking at the paintings (or architecture), and being more concerned with the feelings they evoke rather than the details of their production. (Though there are more books out there about “just looking” – to borrow the title of one of John Updike’s books of art criticism – than Armstrong and de Botton would perhaps have us believe. As well as Updike, Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son comes to mind.) Art, they say, can make us better lovers. Though lovers value spontaneity, love needs to be practiced, and art can help us move past a more naïve, romantic attitude to relationships as they mature. Art can help us analyse ourselves, it can encourage us to exhibit virtue and spurn vice, to value subtlety, to engage in discussion, to work at problem solving, to be optimistic rather than pessimistic. It helps us see the value in the mundane, and in detail. It can inspire modesty, foster courage, make us think twice, and recognise that hardship is simply a part of life. It can confront our prejudices and upend the assumptions we have that lead to meanness and narrow-mindedness. Politically speaking, it can help us talk honestly and work towards healing, rather than simply denouncing. It can suggest how we should cultivate truth and beauty every day, rather than swinging between moral failure and extravagant amends. Art can alert us to the fact that making money is not a good in itself, but on the other hand, the authors argue, art for art’s sake is no good either, and, ironically, it can help us see that it is not just “artists” who can be fulfilled in their work.

Mark Rothko

They are not afraid to point out where art goes wrong. They are good also at getting surprising things out of modern art. Many Christians are wary of modern art, and rightly so, as it is often antagonistic to tradition, of which Christianity is a part, as well as being often in service to “do-what-you-feel” philosophies. There is also the reliance on shock value, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – the Old Testament prophets were out to shock – but in modern art’s case, it is often no more than a childish wish to cause offense. But for those who don’t “get” modern art (an often uninformed attitude to such a wide ranging phenomenon), de Botton and Armstrong suggest that we respond to art depending on what is missing in us emotionally. This may explain wildly differing opinions on a particular artwork, and it also encourages us not to dismiss others’ taste in art.

Good modern art may be troubling but it can point a way out. Minimalist art, in its starkness, may force us to confront our problems, or it may calm us in the midst of a hectic culture. Works that see the beauty in otherwise dismissed products of industrial society may make us consider how our ideas of beauty are often influenced by the values of our society.

In focusing on the high end of art – those artworks held up as icons of our culture – they run the risk of minimising the value of more localised arts and crafts and fostering the view that the more expensive, the better the art is. However their sceptical but warm attitude to art is largely a healthy one. It reminds us that art was made for man, not man for art, and that as a human production art is not transcendent itself, but simply points to transcendence.

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One thought on “Art for our sake

  1. I actually enjoyed my descent into the pit of MONA – for the reasons you give in your second last paragraph. Doesn’t matter what you think of MONA’s founder – his curators have brought in some interesting art that asks some good questions. It’s good to be aware of our own reflexivity when looking at all art.

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