What is art for?


By now you all know about my grant (whether you are interested or not…). I was awarded this grant to make an outline for a book very much inspired by Alain de Botton & John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy. Actually my intention is to try to test some of their hypothesis in praxis – not as they do, on historical pictures, but on contemporary art.

This is what got me started last autumn:

… 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

According to Art as Therapy:

  • Art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewer, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.
  • If culture is to matter to us deeply, then it has to engage with our emotions and bring something to what one might call our souls. Art galleries should be apothecaries for our deeper selves.
  • Art is a tool, which has the power to extend our capacities beyond those the nature has originally endowed us with. While traditional tools often are extensions of the body, art is an extension of the mind. Art, says the authors, help us with psychological frailties.

Art as Therapy presents 7 areas, seven functions of art:

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self-understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

Alain de Botton & John Armstrong are criticized for being naive, for using art in an instrumental way, for positivistic thinking. Alain de Botton agrees on the instrumental objection, that is he advocates for an instrumental stance, he says:

It is a totally instrumentalist point of view. It’s very unfashionable but I’m totally into instrumentalism, 100%. And some people go, “Well, you’re using it this way but what if someone else wants to use it this way and another way?” And I think that’s great — there’s not just one instrumentalism. There are many paths, but the point is you want to go somewhere with it, and you should be able to say where.

There are lots of attacks on the art world, from all sorts of directions. People say the art world is pretentious, people say it’s a close-knit coterie driving up prices; you could criticize it from many different angles. Ultimately, the art world doesn’t make it easy for people to use art in the way it should be used, which is to negotiate the great challenges of life. I think that art has a great therapeutic dimension, and the art world doesn’t help you find your way to that.

Caravaggio: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-02), Oil on canvas

I’m not sure about the great therapeutic dimension, it looks very much like some kind of positive thinking, and I’m much too melancholic & misanthropic for believing in such ideas. But at the same time I’m sure that art is alfa-omega in my own life, and I know I’m not alone in valuing art as an extremely important aspect of life. So I go to Alain de Botton & John Armstrong as a skeptic, a doubting Thomas – refusing to believe anything without trying out the ideas, testing the 7 functions, for myself.


22 Comments Add yours

  1. Harold Rhenisch says:

    I look forward to hearing how you will be testing these functions.

  2. I am so looking forward to following your quest…

  3. Harold Rhenisch says:

    “C” Magazine has reviewed de Botton’s book. This is the link to their page, but not the review. http://www.cmagazine.com/2014_121.htm I could scan the review if you like, or send you a summary. Among other things, the review claims that the book is very elitist and prescriptive, denies individual identity and uses the plural pronoun “we” in place of “I” far too much. I haven’t read the book, so can’t attest to the veracity of all that. I’m happy to share, though. Best, Harold

    1. Sigrun says:

      Dear Harold
      Thank you so much for making me aware of this! I’ll contact White to see if she will be willing to share her thoughts with me.
      The charge against de Botton about being too prescriptive is a typical objection, and one I also share myself. But in this case (my book to be – ) I’m interested in also testing my own biases. In the wake of art for art’s sake, we have become used to thinking about art as something belonging to an altogether different sphere – far away from the ordinary. As I understand him, de Botton try to make us aware of art as an important part of our daily life, postulating that art helps us make sense of our ordinary life and way of living in the world.
      I guess going back to we can also be read as a kind of confrontation with the twenty-first century’s post-post-post way of thinking, where all have become relative and one should exchange I with i or maybe just.
      One can the choose either to see de Botton’s project as conservative (as it seems to me that White does), or liberatingly new …
      My plan is to see what happens when I test his ideas on new, contemporary art.

  4. Consolation. Yes, that is the purpose art of all kinds has served for me (both as audience as as maker).

  5. My problem with the 7 functions of art in a therapeutic sense is that they could almost all equally apply to nature or to the home or talking therapies. or travel And I am never sure whether de Botton is talking about art as therapy for makers, for viewers, for buyers, or all of the above.

    Art therapy for children and adults – wherein they make art with no emphasis on any artistic merit but rather the act itself of making marks – certainly seems to be beneficial psychologically. Artworks in hospitals can brighten life for patients if carefully chosen. I don’t know if I would want to be looking at Guernica or Judith and Holofernes if I were suffering from a serious illness and confined to a hospital ward.

    When he says that ART should earn its stripes, who / what is he referring to? The ‘industry’? Artists? Galleries? Who is this straw man ‘ART” who needs to be useful to society? Or else, what?

    I see it more of a case of the public – should they so wish – educating themselves in how art might in some way enhance their lives. It is a choice the consumer can make; art itself in my view does not have any responsibility per se. How could it? Except in a state-enforced propagandist sort of way.

    1. Sigrun says:

      art as goal, not as means to something else?

      1. Yes, perhaps the making of art is the goal in itself; but not to be mistaken for ‘the process is the goal’ approach used in Art Therapy. When a contemporary work of art enters the world, it is a new being with its own presence and integrity. It will not generally speaking have built-in functions such as recounting a biblical story, or a cautionary tale about hubris. What becomes of it from that point is anybody’s guess.

        On the other hand we do still have here in UK art with designed-in functions:

        Music in particular is frequently commissioned, – on the death of a monarch, say, which is meant to elicit and reflect public grief as well as mark the occasion. Or as now, the music being written to commemorate those who died in Hillsborough Football stadium. And we have the Poet Laureate who is required to mark important national events say the birth of Prince George with a poem which is supposed to be something for the whole nation to celebrate. This patronage is a relic of a monarchical past and is a rather enjoyable if anachronistic way to bring people together. And the more feisty Poets Laureate can manipulate it without fear of decapitation.

        I agree with de Botton that where public money is spent then there is a duty to ensure greatest accessibility in all senses to the people who actually own the estate. Most museums are free and there are talks and guides and so on. but I think he wants something deeper than that from his art.

        My sense is that we have to seek out for ourselves the ways in which art can function for us in our lives rather than expect art to supply it because ‘it ought to earn its keep’.

        But on the other hand,….

        Could we envisage a public therapy session at Tate Modern in front of Matisse’s joyous cut-outs currently on show here? Yes, why not. Chairs could be arranged around the works of art, a sepulchral mood set with some St Saens, mobiles switched off, small children pacified. Then a sweet-toned guide could talk you through the qualities of the cut-outs which make them so outstanding and therapeutic. Or a jazz bar could be set up, drinks served and Miles Davis playing.

        I am getting very excited by all these possibilities now!

      2. Sigrun says:

        Ha – there you go; establishing your own group-therapy-settings at the Tate … art as tranquilizer – .

  6. Yes, London might be a calmer place to live!

      1. beaumontjones says:

        I will be interested to see what you think about the article…
        There is quite a bit of animosity towards de Botton here so it can be hard to separate that from proper critique of his projects.
        My brush with fame: I met him once years ago and we had a chat; He was extremely personable. Add to this his very privileged background and hey presto, you have a (fairly common) ready-made scenario for English Envy.
        Having said that, I can’t say I appreciate the art as therapy aspect of his work.

      2. Sigrun says:

        I will go to Amsterdam on saturday, and assess how his ideas work in praxis in the Rijksmuseum

      3. Sigrun says:

        ps: it’s rather strange to see how hostile the comments are in the commentary-field …what about some decency???

      4. beaumontjones says:

        Yes, it gets too personal; it is something to do with the English psyche I think. Scythe down tall poppies…if they don’t come from the establishment, that is.

      5. Sigrun says:

        From the review I get an idea that de Botton doesn’t get the audience to reflect, but that he is himself handing out his own interpretations as universal statements – I really hope this is not the case!

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