Streams

Alain de Botton on Art for Mental Health's Sake

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

He's already shown "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and written about "The Architecture of Happiness" -- now, Alain de Botton, writer, philosopher, founder of London's The School of Life, and co-author, with art historian John Armstrong, of Art as Therapy (Phaidon, 2013), turns to fine art and specific works that can make us better people and how museums can help.

"Art as Therapy" App: Android / IPhone

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon 2013
Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), Woman in Blue Reading, c.1663; Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm (185/16 x 153/8 inches), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon 2013
Édouard Manet (1832–83), Bunch of Asparagus, 1880; oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm (18 x 215/8 inches) Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne
Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon 2013
Bernd Becher (1931–2007) and Hilla Becher (1934–), Water Towers, 1980; nine gelatin silver prints, approximately 156 x 125 cm (611/4 x 491/4 inches), Sonnabend Gallery, New York picture credit: © Bern
Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon 2013
Claude Monet (1840–1926), The Water-Lily Pond, 1899; oil on canvas, 88.3 x 93.1 cm (343/4 x 362/3 inches) National Gallery, London
Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon 2013

Guests:

Alain de Botton
News, weather, Radiolab, Brian Lehrer and more.
Get the best of WNYC in your inbox, every morning.

Comments [48]

Zaftig from Bklyn

I'm not sure what de Botton's points are -- that art can be moving and make us appreciate the banal and capture moments that might otherwise be lost...? Uhh, wow. Thanks for the profound insights. All I heard here was a jumble of extremely crude and insensitive generalities and no real thesis or expertise as to why de Botton is the chosen one to explain art to us. And his avant guard tactics for turning the curation world on its head sound like nothing more than organizing works by theme and writing new labels for works. Uhh, newsflash, that's what special exhibitions do. Oh, and as some people already said, you can't necessarily reduce a work to a single emotion or message. Many works have -- surprise! -- more than one meaning, and/or mean different things to different people. And that's kind of the whole point.

Dec. 21 2013 10:38 PM
hmmm from brooklyn

The disturbing thing about de Botton is that he has a point here and there, and you, Brian Lehrer, give him a place on your program, by which this kind of attitude is just growing and growing -- it's the way it sounds so benign and helpful, the way it picks up things most people feel in some way or another that makes it so dangerous. What in fact makes journalism so dangerous. It misses the subtle original impulse where categories fail, and instead wants to put everything in pre-digestible categories. The first woman who called in and called it narcissistic is to the point. Yes, art can do all the simple things he says, and to identify with the art is fine, but leave the art space to be itself, utterly other and strange. Even if, paradoxically, it is the opposite. And yes, religion has a better way of presenting art, but you can't just skim off the top of religion. Loving Jesus is not necessarily therapeutic, though healing is one of his big interests. But religion is careful to teach that it's not always healing to play the role of a healer. Good religion is itself a work of art that transcends therapeutic categories. Monet's pretty picture, by the way, is not as pretty as it seems when you situate it in the history of art. So whatever good de Button's theory does, it is intrinsically in many ways bad, and the worse for its seeming to be okay. It denies the authority of the senses over manipulable emotions and vapid ideals. It turns people into well behaving happier machines. And by the way, Mr. Lehrer, will you please ask your station to reconsider the ad that repeats -- NPR radio, never turn it off. Never be alone with your own thoughts. Art should be a disturbing intrusion into your life, causing the consternation we see on the face of the Virgin in paintings of the Annunciation. An otherworldly visitation. Please be alone with your own thoughts and consider deeply before you let yourself be used as a vehicle for actually quite scary ideas. Don't you see how all this fits together?

Dec. 10 2013 04:43 PM
Rona from New Jersey

I was delighted to see so many reactions to de Boton's views. I listened to the broadcast with a smile. Once again a cerebral, well meaning "specialist" is going to straighten us out. Sigh.. Yes of course music and art can affect our moods, our world views, even what we are having for lunch! But why is de Boton's organizational schema any more valid than ones based on chronology, or subject matter or dominant shades and tones?

Let's see, if I am feeling low, what will happen when I walk into the newly organized gallery devoted to paintings on "anguish." Or... as I stroll through the joyous love filled works, I may be able to appreciate individual difference between them, but what about the contrast between a single artist's works of joy versus those of anguish. My point is simply that there is no CORRECT organizational mode. It is probably reasonable to mix it up every decade or so.

Dec. 04 2013 04:55 PM
Neil Friedman from Brooklyn

Art, what's it good for? Absolutely everything! And it is therapeutic , in the clinical sense, too

Dec. 04 2013 07:53 AM
Liz Adams from Plainsboro NJ

These comments are so heartening! as an artist who can, but does not, create realistic art, and who is not at all interested in remembering and noting, but rather in showing and sharing what is in my imagination, I was dismayed at this speaker's insistence that art is about reproducing scenes, objects, etc. No, that's only one form, realism, and far from the only one. So I'm very happy that a lot of commenters get this and agree with me that this speaker really wasn't worth the air time, precious commodity.

About how Brits pronounce drawing: uneducated ones say droring!

Dec. 04 2013 07:08 AM
Leslie Tucker from East Village, NYC

Yes, aromatherapy, that's it!!!

Dec. 03 2013 04:05 PM
anna

"Art is food for the soul."
Oh really? Thinking is most certainly good for the soul, but so few people practice it.

Dec. 03 2013 04:01 PM
anna

"He's basically treating paintings like a kind of aromatherapy"
Yes, the whole thing was probably horrible. I hit the ceiling when I heard what he said about Vermeer and couldn't listen more.
Bozo.

Dec. 03 2013 03:50 PM
Andrew from Brooklyn

It seems like a grotesquely simple-minded and consumerist notion of art, and one which prescribes a set of flat reactions to any particular artwork. He's basically treating paintings like a kind of aromatherapy. I hate to think of what his book on Proust must be like, but the title is tacky enough to give me a pretty good idea. It's kind of sickening to hear all of these pronouncements about what "art is" and "art does" from a person whose own approach to artwork is so resolutely smug and uncreative.

Dec. 03 2013 12:55 PM

Thing is, Paul, as many below have thoughtfully noted, de Boton is not presenting his views as "one philosopher's opinion," nor is he otherwise framing them with a single caveat or qualification of any kind. Further, his views are presented without warrant of any sort: neither with reference to the complex, nuanced history of viewpoints on these matters regarding both contemporary and earlier art, nor with reference to art theory, criticism, or history. Finally, de Boton makes no attempt to explain on what grounds he presumes to decree what art is, what effect it ought to have on an audience/viewership, or how it ought to be displayed. And while many forms of philosophy have made and continue to make valuable and creative contributions to the realm of art production, art curation, and art criticism, Mr de Boton's views are not among them. They are simplistic, poorly articulated, and utterly undefended. To sum them up, they appear to assert merely: "Me. Moi. Me Me Me Me Me. Oh yes and underneath it all my precious relationship to the Publishing Industry and its sometime minions and associates." Where such hubris and, at "boton," such contempt for one's audience are at stake, a bit of healthy deflation is very much in order. May it continue.

Dec. 03 2013 12:27 PM
anna

"this man has a reductionist, subjective, Western European approach to aesthetics"
You don't know what you are talking about. Lee and I sense what most don't see - he isn't a trained art historian.
Dan K, I don't know about you, but I spent several years studying art history chronologically (of course, of course it wasn't in the US). What makes you thing that if your friends see some one hundred pictures in chronology, they suddenly will have this enlightenment and understanding and knowledge of art. Sorry to inform you but it takes much more than that. BTW, books, including art books are still around.

Dec. 03 2013 12:22 PM

It started with Classical music being invested with an elevating therapeutic effect. Now it's art. But as with classical music, the selected art seems to have a limited range. These seem to be still lifes: symmetrical, attractive, non-confrontational -- not likely to arouse much in the way of emotion. So maybe that's the point: art as valium for a calming effect -- much the way classical music is selected on most classical music radio. Whatever it is, I'm not for it. While creating art might be used as therapy for some (not including actual artists), looking at art should be more active and not limited to what's "pretty" and non-threatening.

Dec. 03 2013 12:07 PM

@ John from Brooklyn: i have no problem with de Botton's experiment, but he has basically said his way is the right way -- and that IS a problem. also, we don't have to see the exhibits to know certain things he has told us: e.g., he said a painting of asparagus is about love. period. so it goes beside the love paintings. well, i think many people may think that painting is about food, or about sex (more likely), or about domesticity. or about painting. yes, maybe that's really what it is about --painting. so we already know he has limited the context of the works to his own views. which is fine for an experiment, but certainly not the 'right' way.

Dec. 03 2013 12:07 PM
Paul from NYC

Not understanding some of the disrespectful posters regarding the guest's ideas and viewpoint … it's one philosopher's opinion. Art is created to be seen, interpreted and digested. Otherwise why create? The caller who complained that he was speaking of narcissism needs to understand that every form of artistic expression is inherently narcissistic. Moving on from that, it's open for interpretation. I am an artist, and I always find art interpretation interesting.

Dec. 03 2013 12:05 PM
Gabriella from new york

I recommend the writer consider reading the work of Ellen Dissanayake who explores the concept of art as an example of "making special". Reorganizing museums thematically appears to have a lot in common with her characterization of what makes something "art". Start with HomoAestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1995).

Dec. 03 2013 11:58 AM

@ Matt, i have no problem w/ this experiment being done at the Rijksmuseum (or wherever it is being done), and i agree that all ways of presentation are problematic. but let's see this for what it is: basically, a museum is letting de Botton have "his way" by allowing him to be a performance artist for a day (or month or year). i'm sure it will be interesting -- or maybe not -- but basically we are just looking at his own art project: seeing all the works through his lens. this is not a better way, it's just his way.

Dec. 03 2013 11:57 AM
Max from bkln

John from Brooklyn, speaking of "writing as though they knew," you're assuming that not just that some but that ALL of the posters here don't "know," as you put it. Needless to say, you commit the offense you try rather lamely to proscribe.

Dec. 03 2013 11:55 AM
Mr.Bad from NYC

I don't blame this guy for trying to rebrand "ART". He just didn't do a very good job... so back to the fusty, self important museum exhibitions you go and leave the selling to the sleazy pro's. I hope you ARTISTS hit it BIG one day, more than likely you'll be dead by then ...

Dec. 03 2013 11:54 AM
Leslie Tucker from East village, NYC

What de Botton might be getting at is that 'theme' is what an artist puts into art, and 'content' is what the viewer takes away from art. However, "Art as Therapy" seems like a form of occupational therapy which certainly has it's place in society, but not necessarily the way in to viewing art. Too limiting.

Dec. 03 2013 11:53 AM
John from Brooklyn

Also, why is everyone knocking this idea before experiencing it? I don't think Alain is trying to take over the art world and change the way every museum is organized... But it IS an interesting experiment. Might it not benefit some people in some way, even if the arranger is making decisions about where pieces are placed? Concepts like this are best experienced BEFORE judgement, and not talked about in ignorance. It may or may not work, but I'm seeing a lot of people here writing as though they know, while not having an ounce of EXPERIENCE with the idea. Is it wrong to expect more from WNYC listeners?

Dec. 03 2013 11:51 AM
Peter Richards from NYC

this man has a reductionist, subjective, Western European approach to aesthetics. He is entitled to his simplistic ideas of how we SHOULD view art, but giving him this time on the radio platform to express such narrow views is disconcerting to me

Dec. 03 2013 11:51 AM
Sal from suffolk

I like this idea. however, it can be a double edge sword for people. If someone is depressed they can go to a museum and go see the "Happy" section however they can also go to a "sad" section and go deeper into depression.

Dec. 03 2013 11:51 AM
Lee from soho

Tom from Astoria: yes. and he's not even a curator! not even any pretend training for this. pure narcissistic bloviation, as has been variously noted. Can't they keep people like this in the UK?

Dec. 03 2013 11:50 AM

I had the same response as Korgy (art is subjective so it makes more sense to display it in a more "objective" manner, such as chronologically). But if you discard the assumption that a visit to an art museum has to be seen as a one-time experience de Botton's argument makes more sense. Imagine an opportunity for people to visit the same museum several times but with the art organized in different ways each time -- chronologically, color scheme, artist-professed themes, etc. That certainly would encourage viewers to experience the art in different contexts, which might significantly enhance the experience of the art. The "art history" model (which I like very much) of presentation has its limits too.

Dec. 03 2013 11:50 AM
suzinne from bronx zoo

Art is food for the soul. Really enjoyed this guest's comments, and tend to agree with all of it. As an artist myself, and having an Aunt who is a patron of the Metropolitan, I've never especially been drawn to museums or galleries. There's some particularly elitist about the setting, and although I enjoy it, it's never been something I've much pursued on my own.

Dec. 03 2013 11:49 AM
Brogan from brooklyn

I agree that perhaps works are not always hung in the most interesting ways in museums. To experiment with hanging would bring a varying perspective to the works and the way they are seen -but it seems limited to categorize them buy subject. Viewing art is a very personal experience and to limit it to a particular category seems a shame. Unless many different people curated the shows in different ways.

Dec. 03 2013 11:48 AM
tom from astoria

Curators tend to Interpose their ideas between art and viewers, that's what he is doing.

Dec. 03 2013 11:47 AM
Lee from soho

I think the writing's on the wall, Brian Lehrer show. Have any one, several, or ALL of these commenters as your guest(s), explore the same topic (even if it was initiated by a dolt), and the level of thinking and discourse will be raised twenty-fold from what you have here with Monsieur Button.

See better, Lehrer. Give your audience a bit more credit. We'll justify your confidence in us. In fact, in these few comments alone, we've pretty much done so.

Solidarity.

Dec. 03 2013 11:47 AM
Maria from Queens

Art already does what he states, no need to place 'themes' and take artwork out of its' intended context and history. People can figure out what art is about very easily; by 'just looking', reading and talking. He gives little credit to the audience to think when looking at art.

Dec. 03 2013 11:47 AM
Douglas from Brooklyn

The only Narcissism in this segment was in the previous callers insistence on making her irrelevant point.

Mr.Botton makes an excellent case for the reorganization of museums, and his views of art are fantastically inclusive. Thank you Mr. Botton.

Dec. 03 2013 11:47 AM
Elaine from Baltimore

I studied Art Therapy at NYU many years ago. While it may be very beneficial for humans to be creative, most people have difficulty reading visually since we are not trained to. I hate to burst this scholar's enthusiasm, but frankly I don't see a huge change society by visiting your local museum.

Dec. 03 2013 11:46 AM
Lenore from Manhattan

Go Julie!

Everything but the art itself, eh Alain?

(He is so full of himself and full of assumptions, what "we" think is beauty, etc. All those "we's")

Dec. 03 2013 11:45 AM
John from Brooklyn

Julie is dead wrong -- at least SOME element of any piece of art will always have to do with the experience of the perceiver. It IS about "me" often times, at least for part of the experience. That doesn't take away from the fact that the art is the art, but most artists I know would agree that art DOES INDEED have to do with the viewer's experience, which is one reason we're even drawn to a piece of art in the first place.

Just because Julie makes art doesn't mean she's absolutely right on every aspect of the subject.

Dec. 03 2013 11:45 AM
Judy Ruderman

I'm put off by the notion that someone else - a curator - decides what feelings are evoked by a painting for all people. Chronological categorization has its problems, but it's neutral with regard to individual response.

Dec. 03 2013 11:44 AM
Caesar Romaine from Manhattan

Thanks Alain. Most of us just aren't smart enough, certainly not as smart as you, to be able to walk a museum, to look at a work of art and appreciate it, understand it or comprehend it. We need you to explain these things to us. Curators need you. They have been doing it wrong for centuries... how pedestrian they are.

Julie. You nailed it; narcissism.

Dec. 03 2013 11:43 AM
A.M. from nyc

"Art SHOULD have a therapeutic effect." --Alain de Boton

Not: some art has this effect, but of course any decree, especially from a non-artist, who by the way has no training as either an artist, critic, or creator of LITERARY art, would be absurd, illogical, hubristic, and inapprorpriate.

Not: art needn't have this goal but I value it; and I think some others at least in part value this goal, or at least value art that they believe includes this goal.

Not: of course, even for a given time period, contemporary or otherwise, to decree that all art SHOULD have a single monolithic purpose of ANY kind is dumb, arrogant, and oblivious. But here's something I think some art does, and I value that.

No, not any of this, but:

"Art SHOULD have a therapeutic effect."

Humility, anyone?

de Boton: Stick to picking on Proust. At least he's dead. Probably at the hands of some fascistic assertion like yours.

Carry on.

Dec. 03 2013 11:42 AM

the problem with de Botton's argument for redistributing the way art is arranged in museum's is that he presumes the subject matter -- and also limits it, i might add -- to his own opinions. he may think a certain painting is about "love", while another viewer and scholar may realize it is a metaphor for a period in history. and what is he going to do when he reaches the 20th century?

art is always subjective -- which is why we distribute it by the only fact we know, the time and context when it was made.

Dec. 03 2013 11:42 AM
anna

He thinks ahistorically and he doesn't understand art. He is babbling. I think they call it philosophy.

Dec. 03 2013 11:41 AM
Dan K from Park Slope

I have never understood why I've never seen an exhibit showing the history of art, especially modern art, arranged as an Art History lesson, concerning the sequential movements, and how one led to another. This would include a narrative explaining the different innovations, technical and philosophical, that led from one movement to the next.

Friends of mine who never had the same Art Historical education I received, walk through art museums, especially Modern ones, mystified as to why things seemingly meaningless, are important. But once I give them context, they gain a greater appreciation. This is why many believe art museums to be elitist and aloof.

Dec. 03 2013 11:41 AM
SN D from NYC

This is silly. Art's function also is to aggravate, indoctrinate, tease, challenge, destroy, confound, and so on. And it's not just representing this stuff, it also causes it. Art doesn't just do good things—it is often incredibly violent. The Futurists believed that the synchrony of man and machine on the battlefield is art's apotheosis. That Vermeer shows a map of territorial wars in Europe during the artist's lifetime: a document of enormous brutality and catastrophe.

What Botton is talking about is not art per se, but art in institutions. The institution is a coddling space, a sacred space, a safe space. John Berger notes that museums make art tame and religious, with certain expectations and requirements for how and why you look at things. That's not the only way that art is made or the only way it can be seen.

Dec. 03 2013 11:41 AM
Barbara Kebbekus from Shark River Hills, NJ

Ask about the Barnes Museum in Philly--Barnes had a very interesting way of arranging paintings too!

Dec. 03 2013 11:39 AM
Maria from Queens

He thinks ahistorically.

Dec. 03 2013 11:39 AM
anna

Yes, Maria, he is ignorant.

Dec. 03 2013 11:39 AM
A.M. from nyc

"Art SHOULD have a therapeutic effect." --Alain de Boton

Not: some art has this effect, but of course any decree, especially from a non-artist, who by the way has no training as either an artist, critic, or creator of LITERARY art, would be absurd, illogical, hubristic, and inapprorpriate.

Not: art needn't have this goal but I value it; and I think some others at least in part value this goal, or at least art they believe has as its primary means of operation this effect.

Not: of course, even for a given time period, contemporary or otherwise, to decree that all art SHOULD have a single monolithic purpose of ANY kind is dumb, arrogant, and obvlivious. But here's something I think some art does, and I value that.

No, not any of this, but:

"Art SHOULD have a therapeutic effect."

de Boton: Humility, anyone?

Stick to picking on Proust. At least he's dead. Probably at the hands of some fascistic assertion like yours.

Carry on.

Dec. 03 2013 11:39 AM
Maria from Queens

He thinks ahistorically.

Dec. 03 2013 11:38 AM

Brilliant in its simplicity. Why do Brits say "droring" instead of "drawing?"

Dec. 03 2013 11:38 AM
Maria from Queens

Historical context is key for all art. To strip it of social,religious,etc context cheats the artists worldwide. He seems to be ignorant of the history of western art. In addition, no one would take philosophy, history, politics,etc out of historical context; why does the author seem to think he has that freedom w/ visual art?

Dec. 03 2013 11:37 AM
anna

This bozo is illiterate. Vermeer is a great artist for a simple reason that he is a great PAINTER. Can someone explain to this bozo what is means?

Dec. 03 2013 11:37 AM

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.