art is not therapy


Last week I went to Amsterdam to see and review Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s exhibition “Art is Therapy” at the Rijksmuseum. The immediate result of my trip was a review written and published in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet. (A weekly, national newspaper focused on culture, politics & arts).

For 7 years I have been working as an art critic, and just as long I have been interested in how to best convey visual art through words. How are we to write on art in a way which invites the readers into the seen/scene. As an art critic I am more interested in initiating thoughts and ideas in my reader, than in delivering a judgement. My views will, if I’m successful, be a part of my text, but my goal is never to convince my reader to agree with me, rather I’m interested in getting the reader to reflect upon certain themes, feelings, questions etc., which the artwork in question brings to life.

information overload (from the exhibition)

I got interested in de Botton/Armstrong’s work on art first through their book Art as Therapy. Just as me, they are interested in empowering the public, the viewers. But in opposition to me they seem to be surer in how to go about the challenge, and we clearly differ in what we view as art’s purpose.

A central statement in the “Art is Therapy” exhibition is: do not ask what you can do for art; ask what art can do for you! …

I regard de Botton/Armstrong’s attempt to convince us that art is therapy as a failure. A double failure, in fact:

1)    Botton/Armstrong’s selection of works and presentation in the Rijksmuseum is only understandable if you read what the curators have written about the works they have chosen, or if you listen to them on audio-guide. In both cases the curators are much too talkative, leaving little or no room for the viewers own thoughts, filling the therapeutic room with babble.

(I found I had to choose between trying to understand what Alain de Botton thought about the selected artworks, and viewing the works in question. It was impossible to combine the two).

2)    The point of a psychological therapy (which I assume is the kind of therapy the two curators have in mind) is not to ask what anyone else (the therapist or art – ) can do for you, the therapy is about how you – yourself – can evolve and improve your own life. The central question should therefore not have been to ask what art can do for you, but what you can do for yourself through art.

I do not think it is a good idea to ask what art can du for you, rather one should try to see how one, through art, can broaden ones own understanding of the world in a wide sense, that is life – as a personal, collective, historic and contemporary experience.

I do not see de Botton/Armstrong’s lack of success as a reason to stop searching for better ways to write about art. But for my own part, its time for a detour – I’m going back to my previous studies of  Ekphrasis


ekphrasis (greek) literally, description, from ekphrazein to recount, describe, from ex- out + phrazein to point out, explain


17 Comments Add yours

  1. An interesting conclusion to the investigation/discussion. I am left thinking of the word ‘facilitative’ – “freeing from difficulty or impediment, helpful – providing assistance or serving a useful function.”

    1. Sigrun says:

      Yes, I do absolutely believe there are many palliative qualities in art. But these, in my opinion, are not the kind of qualities one can utilize in a simple and instrumental way. A work of art can only work for me if I go into close interaction with it. Friends, critics, historians …etc. might give me ideas about how they understand a certain artwork, but my alleviation can only come as a result of a personal quest, struggling or playing with and against the work of art.

  2. “The central question should therefore not have been to ask what art can do for you, but what you can do for yourself through art.”

    I feel strongly that you are correct in this statement regarding therapy. If art processes are useful in therapy–and I think they can be–that may be different from the production of great art; if the experience of art–immersion, reflection on great art–is useful in therapy, as I believe it can be, the task is again more inward toward what the self can accomplish…rather than critical analysis or whatever.

    Viewing art, reading literature, listening to great music and seeing dance or theatre have all at times helped me to feel whole or to find catharsis as well as admiration and wonder. But catharsis, etc., is not the main reason I enjoy art and is not always, I imagine, the artists’ main purpose. AS you put it so well, “rather one should try to see how one, through art, can broaden ones own understanding of the world in a wide sense, that is life – as a personal, collective, historic and contemporary experience.”

    Thank you!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Ann!

  3. Harold Rhenisch says:

    There’s a novel by Wilhelm Jensen, called Gradiva. Know it? Freud analyzed it (and invented therapeutic analysis of literature). The novel and Freud’s analysis are here: The thing is, the novel is the foundation of some dominant and some minor strands of 20th century literature … but forgotten in any talk of that literature because after Freud the novel disappeared as a literary work. That’s odd, because now talk about literature actually can easily ignore its roots and speak about fantasies instead. I’m sure Freud would laugh. But Gradiva did influence Robert Graves, Ezra Pound, Gunnar Gunnarsson, Axel Munthe, Vilhelm Jensen, and maybe most notably John Fowles (The Magus, the French Lieutenant’s Woman and so on) and Dan Brown (who shared the idea with Pound of a painting tradition that kept the Eleusinian Mysteries alive into the present through a code of women’s eyes in paintings) plus the French tradition Fowles was drawing on (name escapes me at the moment… quite romantic stuff). And what was the Gradiva? Well, many things, but in part the work of a German-Dane (there was a war) in Holstein, looking across the water towards Fyn and longing for it, while at the same time fantasizing about the Mediterranean. In other words, there is a large thread of artistic or at least literary life that draws on a strand expunged from consciousness by therapy, curiously at the same time as which Germany was being blockaded and Russia was undergoing some pretty serious therapy indeed. Perhaps there’s something useful for you in there? As a side note, I think it’s amazing that Botton/Armstrong didn’t use the imagery of the paintings as the conversation, but had to resort to words. It seems only partially-imagined. What a mis-use of gallery space.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you! I do not know it – yet …

      Apropos Amsterdam: I also believe the two curators chose an easy way out, I mean; who do not see the greatness in Rembrandt and Vermeer?! I don’t think we have to worry about the public “not getting it”, every morning there are long queues outside the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. People come here all by themselves.

  4. beaumontjones says:

    Even though I have never agreed with de Botton and Armstrong’s ideas about art as therapy, I was nevertheless surprised that they expounded their premise in such a literal-minded and didactic fashion. I had thought they were talking in much subtler terms; that the magnanimous loan of such a great museum and all those masterpieces would have inspired them to a far more persuasive demonstration of their argument. But those huge post-it notes – shouty, don’t forget to do lists!!! Some gentle questions about the paintings might have been more bearable.

    I agree with you that through art one can broaden one’s understanding of the world; or rather ‘the world through self ‘. And that one can, through a conscious effort at self-awareness observe how this broadening process occurs. But often the process is so nuanced, momentary, emotional and transcendent as to be almost untranslatable into words. That is why de Botton’s and Armstrong’s literalism is so shocking to me.

    My experiences with art have not been in the main, coups de foudre. Rather the shaping and learning are incremental. How to understand or explain what a Matisse cut-out or a Calder mobile does for one / to one / with one? Does something happen the first time or the 10th time of seeing?

    Also, the varieties of experiences created by differing contexts is an interesting idea; art seen in public spaces with others around, be it a stark white cube or a grand gilded museum, has something of the opera about it and one is an actor in this drama. At home on the wall, one takes on a very different relationship with artwork.

    It’s the nexus of art, place, mood, weather, everything which creates the experience. I imagine being bombarded as you were in the museum with ‘interpretations’ was not the best way to create a relationship with the art, certainly not a therapeutic one.

    Having said all this, I still think the two pop-philosophers deserve some credit for being brave enough to try something new. And maybe something can be salvaged from their experiment. You saw how vitriolic the British critic Adrian Searle was : it would be a shame if people were put off expressing new ideas because of the reception they might get.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Absolutely agree, I have sympathy for their attempt to find better ways to talk about art, and it really is not a problem for the Rijks that they have curated their exhibition in the exhibition – there is room enough for them to play around.
      But visiting the exhibition made it also clear to me that their ideas doesn’t work, at least not yet – they are still underdeveloped.

      You say about art:”But often the process is so nuanced, momentary, emotional and transcendent as to be almost untranslatable into words”. My challenge as a commentary, as a critic, is to use words – even if it sometimes seems violating or at least impossible.
      Thats why I am turning to ekphrasis, to see if I can find a different language, another way of speaking about art –

      1. beaumontjones says:

        I think de Botton and Armstrong were employing ekphrasis in their show to talk about art in a different way, weren’t they? It is a wonderful device, when it works, which can open up and enhance experiences. What often strikes me with ekphrasis is that the commentator becomes the artist rather than merely a critic or feedback loop. Robert Hughes writing about art for example became (almost) the primary attraction for me. Which I loved as it was a ‘buy one get one free’ situation. With the internet ekphrasis has really come into its own, there are so many people out there playing with new ways of communicating.

        With people often being drowned in and alienated by the verbiage of art criticism, reviews etc, I wish you the best in this noble cause.

  5. Jeff says:

    Did the curators provide any evidence of therapeutic success? I ask this because psychotherapeutic interventions have been subjected to scrutiny by Eysenck and others:

    To claim something heals is usually a claim made on the basis of formal observation and measurement of a transformation in a person or persons. And did they cite their methodology, I ask with an additionally mischievous flourish?!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Hi Jeff, Eysenck said: “I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts.”

      According to a German-metric-quantitative understanding of facts, there are no scientific results to show for. According to de Botton; the personal, subjective experience – aka feelings – is all that matter – .

      1. Jeff says:

        Oh, I’m not saying that therapy and what it purports to alleviate should strictly come under the rubric of Eysenck’s or anybody’s idea of science, only that in a narrower sense therapy purports to alleviate suffering. If de Botton pins therapy to subjective experience then it would seem to follow that what counts as therapy is personal. What then if daubing abusive slogans on neighbours’ walls is our idea of therapy? Presumably one could have quantitative measures of the suffering that is caused (complaints to police forces, withdrawal in neighbourhoods from public engagements etc.) that could confirm that this idea of therapy is nonsense, ergo, there would also – conversely – be ways to support arguments for it?
        What de Botton proposes sounds suspiciously like a regurgitation of something in Weber’s Economy and Society about art being one of the realms in which the individual can escape the iron cage of capitalism. The thing is, I can’t remember what Weber gave as a clear and sustained evidence to support the notion. Unless my memory fails me. Perhaps I need therapy?

      2. Sigrun says:

        I can’t say if you need therapy, but I do believe we all need art –

    2. Sigrun says:

      ps: his project would not been understood as good science even among the positive psychologists due to complete lack of scientific method.

  6. Aafke7 says:

    Hope you still did enjoy your stay in Amsterdam? And the Rijks?:-)
    Words are wind for me in the context of those works of art that made me wonder, gave inner peace, activated or acknowledged insights, opened visions, aroused recognition of the self in clear evidence and showed a form of sublime truth. Perhaps that is the essence of ‘therapeutic’ value?

    Critics and makers of expositions, whoever that may be, are more or less educated guides. For the illiterate, the wannabe intellectual, the cultural barbarians, for students and for all those eager for a helping hand in their own excistentional queeste, a formula to get grip is a necessity.

    If one doesn’t know what to think? What to see? What to hear? It is really nice if somebody explains it. I agree with you that, especially for younger people, it is of the utmost importance to show a way HOW to think. Not WHAT to think. At least … not always.:-)

    Some Spectators, or better open receivers in an unspoiled, childlike, open minded way, don’t need words of explanation. Their antennae work without vocabulary. Even if they read poetry or literature.
    Or see a flower, a tree, or drink an ocean.
    It even might they try to fly. Like a bird in complete unselfish ignorance of the cat. And they succeed.

    But many people need guidance in the cultural phenomena of their time. They need education. They need simple notions to get hold of life’s complexity. Even if it is the Obvious or Nonsense Knowledge.

    Enfin. That’s where you come in, the critic.
    So, talking about reception of art is perhaps a more or less well documented kind of ‘Spielerei’, and I recon you know it.
    Because the sublime in nature ánd art comes from the same transcendental source, the Evidence beyond words.

    1. Sigrun says:

      You must not think that Amsterdam disappointed me, absolutely not. The Rijks looks absolutely stunning, such a good job done with the restoration. And the art … 🙂 I also went to se Jeff Wall in the Stedelijk, and got to se his Invisible Man, which is a fantastic piece of work! And i saw Richard Mosse at Foam, which was also an excellent exhibition. I even got to buy some yarn at Penelope Craft shop = mission completed!

      1. Aafke7 says:

        Well spend days! 🙂

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