Alain de Botton’s Healing Arts
NOVEMBER 19, 2013
Alain de Botton’s Healing Arts
BY JOSHUA ROTHMAN
On a recent Friday afternoon, Alain de Botton, the forty-three-year-old author of “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” “The Architecture of Happiness,” “Religion for Atheists,” and other books, stood in the dining room at the Frick Collection, on the Upper East Side. De Botton’s newest book, “Art as Therapy,” is a manifesto for the improvement of art museums, and we’d come to the Frick on a kind of fact-finding mission. “Just look around,” he whispered, gesturing to the room and its crowd. “No one’s got a clue what they’re supposed to be doing!”
Somnolent visitors drifted from painting to painting. Faces registered pleasure, but also weariness. People stepped through the familiar choreography of the art museum: lean in to look for explanatory wall text; when you don’t find it, elegantly shift your lean toward the painting to scrutinize some arbitrary detail. We paused in front of Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs. Peter William Baker, an aristocratic beauty in a golden dress. People walked up, looked, and then walked away. “These very nice people have taken immense trouble,” de Botton said. “They’ve come to New York, they’ve come to the Frick. It’s clear that we’re in a place of great value: this Gainsborough is worth maybe twenty million dollars. And, yet, it’s done nothing for any of these visitors, and spends ninety-eight per cent of its life ignored.” De Botton is soft-spoken, with an open, sensitive face; his lips, lifted at the corners, hinted at ironic self-awareness—wasn’t it silly to get upset about other people’s museum-going?—but his eyes suggested alarm, even outrage. “People think there is no problem with art museums,” he said. “But there is.”
In “Art as Therapy,” de Botton argues that museums have taken a wrong turn. They should never have embraced as their guiding paradigm the discipline of art history; it’s led them to lose track of what actually makes art interesting. Most people, he thinks, care only a little about who commissioned what. When a visit to a museum succeeds, it usually isn’t because the visitor has learned facts about art but because she’s found one or two works that resonate in a private way. And, yet, museums do very little to foster these kinds of personal connections; if anything, they suggest that our approach to art should be impersonal and academic. “The claims I’m making for art,” de Botton said, “are simply the claims that we naturally make around music or around poetry. We’re much more relaxed around those art forms. We’re willing to ask, ‘How could this find a place in my heart?’ ” “Art as Therapy” is large, beautifully designed, and filled with images of paintings and sculptures alongside explanations of how those artworks might be approached in a more personally helpful, therapeutic way. (De Botton co-wrote it with a longtime friend, the art historian John Armstrong. “John is very in sympathy with this approach,” he said, “even though his colleagues are not.”)
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? Where can I find more beauty in my life? We walked into the next room, where an annunciation altarpiece by Fra Fillippo Lippi shone inside an elaborate, columned frame. (Like everything at the Frick, it was captionless.) “Right now, in this city, where people are worried about jobs and money and getting on, we don’t need an art-history lesson about this painting,” de Botton said. “We need something to get the ideas flowing.” He looked intently at the face of the Virgin, which expressed a mixture of joy, surprise, and sadness. “Seeing this painting is like seeing a child in a city,” he ventured. “There’s a sudden tenderness here, which is so far removed from the harshness outside. If I were to put a caption here, it might say: ‘Our world, for all its technological sophistication, is lacking in certain qualities. But this painting is a visitor from another world, where those qualities—tenderness, reverence, and modesty—are very highly valued. Take it as an argument against Fox News and the New York Post. Use it to find the still places in yourself.’ ”
We paused, adjusting to this new, heightened level of earnestness. (It drives some critics crazy: Terry Eagleton, in the Guardian, has called de Botton’s thinking “tediously neat and civilized.”) It’s hard to imagine this kind of thing on an actual museum plaque, but, beginning this spring, select exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Art Gallery of Ontario will use captions written by Armstrong and de Botton. In May, the A.G.O. will even mount an “Art as Therapy” show, in which pieces from the museum’s collection will be organized by de Botton and Armstrong along therapeutic lines.
As we walked, looking at paintings, de Botton returned again and again to the theme of human weakness, which serves as a counterweight to his sense of what an art museum should be. Down the hall, in a scene by Turner, men in a storm clung to their ship. “This painting says, ‘We’re going to be out there, in those sorts of seas.’ It could help us come to terms with the perils of life,” de Botton said. It could be be displayed, he thought, in a room devoted to art about grief. The prettiness of John Cosntable’s Salisbury Cathedral, meanwhile, might serve as an antidote to our natural pessimism: “Its prettiness isn’t a denial of the conditions of life; it’s what keeps us going through the difficulties. It’s a reminder of the more appealing side of a world that, sometimes, we want to give up on.”
The word “therapy”—a “big, simple, vulgar word”—is meant, de Botton said, to be taken broadly. It can be therapeutic to acknowledge “the ugly, the complicated,” or to be reminded of one’s neglected, inner possibilities. Contemplating Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert,” what struck de Botton wasn’t Francis’s story, per se, but Bellini’s attention to detail—a dirty hare amongst the rocks, a perfect little town in the distance, the Saint’s toes. “This picture can make us feel guilty, and a bit sad, about how we’ve neglected close observation,” he said. “We rush through experience. We’re on our phones. But that’s also why it’s moving. My theory is that many of the things that move us are things we long for but find hard to do.” (In a video from 2010, the Frick’s former curator, Colin Bailey, offered an alternate, but still de Bottonian, reaction: “The picture gives us comfort because it seems so restful, so joyous, so joyful.”)
In Frick’s old living room, de Botton recalled reading “Remembrance of Things Past” as a teen-ager. He’d been impressed, he said, by Proust’s “courage to be tender”—by his willingness to spend page after page writing about a boy longing for his mother. “I’m very interested in emotions like sweetness, which have no place in the pantheon of educated concerns, and yet are very important to me,” he said. “Sweetness is the opposite of machismo, which is everywhere—and I really don’t get on with machismo. I’m interested in sensitivity, and weakness, and fear, and anxiety, because I think that, at the end of the day, behind our masks, that’s what we are.”
And yet de Botton is not exactly shy or modest. In many of his books, he’s drawn to the question of how power might square with sensitivity. In “Religion for Atheists,” he admires the way the Catholic Church, for all its flaws, has invested so much in the spectacle of maternal love. Could other powerful institutions, like art museums, re-orient themselves around the quiet, humble virtues—tenderness, gentleness, sympathy, reassurance? In the Frick’s South Hall, we stood between two pictures: Chardin’s “Still Life with Plums” and Bronzino’s portrait of Lodovico Capponi, a young page at the Medici court. In the Chardin still-life, plums, squash, and a glass of water rest on a table—an argument, de Botton said, for the simple life. (In his ideal museum gift shop, he told me, posters of the Chardin might be displayed next to books about “how to Chardin-ize your life.”) On the opposite wall, Bronzino’s virile young man embodied, in his fashionable uniform, power, wealth, sexuality, and entitlement. “If we’re honest with ourselves,” de Botton said, “we feel quite ambivalent about entitlement and youth. Part of us quite likes it. We’d like to be him—to be cruel, to be powerful. Right here, we’ve got an essay in what values we should live by, in what the meaning of life should be. Is it to be power, or glasses of water?”
De Botton is interesting, in part, because he can’t decide. In 2008, he created his own institution, the School of Life, which is based in London and offers workshops, classes, and even the occasional Sunday sermon on philosophico-therapeutic topics (“How to Spend Time Alone”; “How To Relate Better to Your Family”; “What Is Real?”). Like many other de Botton ventures, the School of Life obeys the divergent impulses of sensitivity and ambition. Its idea that we might live more thoughtfully is filtered, in an unsettling way, through the commercial rhetoric of self-help, and extended through the mercantile logic of a growing lifestyle brand. (The school’s gift shop, for example, sells packs of blank notebooks branded with philosophical schools of thought—“The Existentialists,” “The Stoics”—for fifteen pounds each.)
Many of the same contradictions, of course, haunt art museums like the Frick on a larger scale. It was once, de Botton pointed out, the ostentatious home of one of the most brutal businessmen in American history; among other things, it’s a monument to the bad idea that one can redeem oneself through the acquisition of material things. (“Retail therapy,” it’s sometimes called.) In many museums, a history of acquisitive, moneyed splendor has hardened into a feeling of academic exclusivity, and has a chilling effect on the art; the paintings and sculptures now seem to have been hoovered up for worldly reasons, like self-aggrandizement, investment, and prestige. De Botton said that he sees his therapeutic approach as an alternative to “the aristocratic assumptions behind the museum.” He’s obviously right to think that replacing the current atmosphere with a therapeutic one will change the mood. But it may not make the paintings any easier to see. They may end up subsumed within a new, different, but equally distracting therapeutic project.
Museumgoers in Amsterdam, Melbourne, and Toronto will soon be able to judge for themselves. For his part, as we walked out onto the sidewalk, de Botton said that he thinks art is always part of some enterprise or another. To focus on an artwork in itself, and not on the project of which it was a part, is to commit an error. “The Chardin still-life is a political manifesto on behalf of the dignity of ordinary life,” he said. “Someone who really loves Chardin tries to make life possible in a Chardin-esque way. The Lippi painting is an argument about tenderness. Don’t just focus on the painting; be kinder to your kids!”
He paused, thinking about how best to express himself. “What are you supposed to do if you love art?” he asked. “Do you become a scholar of art? Do you become an art critic? Do you write about art? Our answer is that one should try to take the values that one admires in works of art and enact them, and make them more vivid in the world. It’s too easy to ‘love art,’ and to not love the things that art actually loves. But the point is to try and love the things that the artists we love loved. Don’t just love the artist,” he said. “Don’t just love the work they produced. Love what they loved.” Inside the museum, these ideas had seemed contentious. Outside, on Seventieth Street—where trees waved in the breeze, and clouds glowed behind them—they seemed less so.
Joshua Rothman is the magazine’s Archive Editor. He is a frequent contributer to Page-Turner.