Is art therapeutic?

Alain de Botton tries to personalise the museum experience — but instead trivialises great historical ideas

Jacob Willer

Part of Alain de Botton must enjoy the critics’ vitriol; and he has found the perfect way to inspire it, by calling the show he has co-curated with John Armstrong at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Art is Therapy (the show is to exemplify the approach to art they advocate in their book, Art as Therapy, Phaidon, £24.95). The concept is simple, and rather good. The museum’s hang is left alone, but de Botton has added his own thoughts and captions beside a select few pictures of widely varying format, subject and quality. 

He tries to wipe away the academic dust that coats all art in museums. That is worthwhile — Constable had realised back when the National Gallery was first opening that the very idea of a compendious public museum was essentially problematic, as it would encourage the treatment of art as something austere, isolated, remote, dead and even fossilised, a mere object of study. De Botton aims to personalise the museum experience, and thus to show people that art may enter into their modern lives.

His examples are curious and often interesting. He draws particular attention to some Baroque allegorical prints, on Fate and Fortune, or the Virtues and Vices. Such moralising works are well suited to his purpose as their subject matter is explicitly about the guiding truths of life. And it is especially easy to reduce their meanings back to general statements, as the images were made in the first place to illustrate folk wisdom and sayings. Nevertheless, it is good that the modern public is enthusiastically introduced to this tricky, didactic sort of art, not just because it is so unfashionable but because it can be full of wit and fun.

It is a shame, though, that de Botton, just like the academics whose approach he means to counter, can so casually call artworks “propagandistic”. It is not a helpful term when trying to encourage the viewer’s sympathy. And, even more importantly, it is not an accurate term: E.H. Gombrich often complained about a lazy fondness for dismissing rhetoric and its qualities — in which we have lost interest — as simple propaganda.

I do not share the snobbish prejudice that all writers who would be explainers, who aim at the public instead of the academy, are necessarily middlebrow — I have learnt and thought far more about art from the popular books of Kenneth Clark and Gombrich than from any more overtly academic writings. But de Botton’s ambition really seems to be middlebrow, and the tone of the project becomes condescending. He does not attempt to elucidate great historical ideas, but makes trivialising excuses for them. He confirms that you need only come as you are, get what you can get, and congratulate yourself for it. His approach turns out to be no more concerned with the real value of art than the driest of the established critical theories ever were: “The main point of museums should not be to teach us how to love art, but to inspire us to love what artists have loved.”

To me it seems obvious that we only begin to feel for — and even to understand — what artists may have loved once we develop a subtler appreciation of art’s ways and uses, once we have come, patiently, to love art itself. And that neat little sentence serves as an introduction to de Botton’s own denial of art’s value — a denial that turns out to be as brutal as any deconstruction: “There is no such thing as great art per se, only art that works for you.”

If that were so, Michelangelo would hardly need to have laboured as he did, and we would owe him no special attention or respect. Such talk is irresponsible, and troubling, as it seems impossible that a man of any sensitivity and capability — which de Botton surely is — could ever truly believe it. And if he is in fact aware of how false his statement is, then his project must be judged more unattractive than that of any boring academic who is simply wrong, yet sincere. The job for the genuine “explainer” is to help people to see the truth — not to flatter them that the truth is only what they already see.

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