– to muddy pure and sacred waters

Last week I wrote 4 art reviews. Which meant little or no time for reading. Hopefully this week will give me some time to catch up.

As stated before, I am as a critic (by the definition Alain de Botton and many others operates with) a part of the art establishment. I agree with this way of defining my role. Which again makes me a target for de Botton & Armstrong’a critique.

… the art establishment proceeds under the assumption that art can have no purpose in any instrumental or utilitarian sense. It exists “for art’s sake,” and to ask anything more of it is to muddy pure and sacred waters.

This refusal to name a purpose seems profoundly mistaken. If art is to deserve its privileges (and it does), we have to learn how to state more clearly what it is for and why it matters in a busy world. I would argue that art matters for therapeutic reasons. It is a medium uniquely well suited to helping us with some of the troubles of inner life: our desire for material things, our fear of the unknown, our longing for love, our need for hope.

– Alain de Botton

Kat.063

JAN GROTH: SIGN I (1973-74), Gobelin, 220 x 350 cm

In short – the problem posited by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong is as follows: Despite the importance placed on art by most of those concerned with it much of the population remains at a loss as to what its actual use is.

I find the critique timely and appropriate. I see my task as critic to make art accessible and important for my readers. But how can I best do this without limiting the case in question? Looking at art as therapy might be very useful, but it might also lead us to neglect arts distinctive character as something out of the ordinary. As something transgressing common sense. Isn’t art more often than not inexplicable?

Art (…) is an apothecary for the soul. Yet in order for it to act as one, we have to learn to consider works through more personal, emotionally rich lenses than museums and galleries employ. We have to put aside the customary historical reading of works of art in order to invite art to respond to certain quite specific pains and dilemmas of our psyches.

– Alain de Botton

What I do like in a statement like this, is that it gives our personal experience a more central position, it brings art out of the field of introvert theory and into our personal lives. It underlines every persons individual experience as important. 

8 comments on “– to muddy pure and sacred waters

  1. I would like to offer a word of warning. Alain de Botton is throwing the word ‘we’ around like confetti. That is a current intellectual fashion, and is just that: fashion. I would not accept as complete the arguments of a man who cannot control that word. Who is ‘we’, for instance? All homo sapiens? All humans who he feels can be included? People in the Western World? People of a certain educated class in a certain society in a certain time? Something else? It’s a grammatical nicety, as part of Western liberal society, so to speak, and one of the tools used to set aside intellectual traditions in favour of individual humans, in a time of mass migrations and multiple colliding diasporas. I don’t think it works, though. I think it is creating just as many problems as it solves, and that it sets up silences, which it then promises to solve. That’s a bit like a dog chasing its tail (or tale). I would like to suggest that de Botton cannot have the intimacy of the psyche if he’s going to distance it with a muddy universality. It’s rather self-negating, as far as arguments go. It may be that he’s onto something, but I think it won’t be much use until someone, you, perhaps, with your considerable critical abilities, takes apart his statement, sifts it, and bakes it into an edible cake, so to speak. As it stands, his method leads to statements like the one you quote above (the apothecary for the soul). Does he break his gestalt down into thoughts? I think he should. After all, it is constructed from them. Pardon me the boldness of this critique. It is something which I feel is important and I offer it out of respect, not contrariness. Please accept or reject some or even all of my arguments. I hope only that the respect in which it is given remains at the end. The respect which I have for you and your work is great. Blessings, Harold

    • Dear Harold, thank you so very much for this critical remark!

      As you know I have taken a great interest in de Botton’s project on “Art as Therapy”. I am myself looking for a way to write about art (as a critic) which can be more accommodating for lay people, and I find de Botton to have a similar goal.

      To define “we” is difficult, and as you say, it can be very misleading, even a kind of assault.

      But up until now there is a kind of injustice that makes me even more worried, and that is the tendency to make art into an area for specialists. Which is where I find de Botton’s ideas really liberating. I believe his “we” in this setting to be a very heterogenous group, consisting of all kinds of people with only one thing in common: they are not professional art workers.

      I’m developing my own ideas here, I do not feel I have any kind of obligation towards Mr de Botton, all kinds of intelligent comments are very much appreciated!

      • Absolutely. I’m right with you on finding a way to counteract a language of specialists. That is very important. The new Vancouver art gallery is going to cost $350,000,000 dollars. Imagine what money like that could do for art for the people. In my experience, many people respond very positively to aesthetic discussions of a mild spiritual kind. Alain de Botton’s approach, therapy, is a kind of secular spiritual work … the heartening thing is that there are hundreds of other approaches. The 1914 war blew most of these out of Western consciousness … but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t available, or that they don’t still exist in private life, ready to be brought to a rather delayed Enlightenment. Art history tends to tell the tale that the 1910s were a time of aesthetic experimentation, which settled down into stable forms. Well, yes, but that’s looking at it backwards. Everything will settle down into stable forms … the question may be … what useful forms were lost in the social struggle of the time? Now that the struggle has changed, it might be the time for extending lost approaches. Alain de Botton has found one … but there are 100s of other ones. Blessings, Harold

  2. Hi. I know very little about art theory, but to me art is a form of communication, and therefore has utility. It is a way, as an artist or writer, I can transfer information about how I see the world around me to others. Since I know I don’t see (or hear, etc.) the world in quite the same way as others, it is a way of adding diversity to the perception of other humans. Perhaps the next time the viewer of my watercolours sees a leaf or a pile of wood, my art will have informed his/her own perception. Jane

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