Art as Therapy, by John Armstrong and Alain de Botton
by Heather White
We were, I thought, a compassionate society. I don’t think that way anymore. Now we’re good at masking things. We’re good at not taking responsibility now. This is deeply sad to me.
—Dancer Margie Gillis in a performance clip excerpted by Sun News, 2011
To further an “exploration of…funding to the arts,” Krista Erickson hosted interpretive dancer Margie Gillis on the Sun News Network program Canada Live in 2011. Towards the end of the interview, Erickson admitted to her acclaimed guest: “I’m just a cultural philistine…I don’t understand high-falutin’ concepts.” The contrition was feigned; understanding hadn’t been Erickson’s endgame as she guilted Gillis for costing the taxpayers. More a deposition than an interview, the segment provoked widespread outrage.
The new book Art as Therapy opens with a strikingly Ericksonian premise. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong present the arts as a sector that doesn’t adequately account for the capital — both cultural and fiscal — awarded to it. The authors then take up the accounting on art’s behalf, by making explicit what has long been implicit: that art can improve people.
If the claim is intuitively obvious, itsexpounding here pleases the zeitgeist. If humans have always sought to better themselves, overt instructions are ubiquitous these days. Even our fiction and our scholarship riff on the conventions of self-help manuals and how-to guides. And this new book’s authors are immersed in the genre. Each recently penned a How To… title (How to Think More about Sex, and How to Worry Less About Money) for a series produced by The School of Life (the pop philosophy empire, founded by de Botton, that also spawned Art as Therapy). But Art as Therapy isn’t self-help.
It’s closer to institutional critique. Arguing that “the art establishment” is emotionally negligent, the authors bracket the self and propose an institutional overhaul. The call comes in large type tucked between sturdy Phaidon covers. Art as Therapy boasts the heft and colour plates of a coffee-table book. It is squeakily jargon- free. Its authors advocate accessibility. They lambaste the establishment for catering only to those who already care. They dissemble.
The book is “for” the little guy, but its takeaway is for the tyrants. It champions the layperson and the uninitiated, but champions like an anaesthetist. The authors proceed by numbing, seducing with dreamy abstractions that render the audience unresponsive. They make the selves who stand to be helped lie passively in wait. Art as Therapy views enlightenment as something that’s not achieved, but administered. The book palliates unto paralysis.
Readers can’t respond and are not responsible; that we are too often unmoved by art is not our flaw, but the system’s. So out goes the baby of agency with the bath-water of blame. “The problem is not primarily in the individual,” but neither is the solution. In fact, the individual is all but absent here. Though Armstrong and de Botton decry the “impersonal” tack of the art world, their approach to the personal doesn’t inspire much confidence.
They abstract the individual into a crowd, and don’t account for dissent. There’s no “I” in Art as Therapy.
Instead, “we” prevails, shepherding motley readers into a single, univocal group. When the authors identify human frailties and interpret corresponding artworks, they speak for all of us. “We look up at the clouds and feel moved;” “we derive a more joined-up sense of human nature.” Before the book is through, “we have already found, and benefitted from, all there is to be gained in the direction of complete freedom.” The authors build this last point into an argument for censorship: we have too much freedom, and would thrive with more restrictions.
The book’s other core arguments are shaped congruently, through reductive assessments that assume a shocking degree of privilege. For Armstrong and de Botton, complexity and relativity are overrated; it’s possible, and productive, to assess the emotional needs of a mass (to diagnose “the psyche of a nation,” even); there are essential truths to be learnt from artworks, and over-attending to context distracts; essence is best conveyed from the top down; the oppressive conditions that incited the post- modern paranoia of authority are over.
The authors’ methods are typified in an illustration of “rebalancing.” The caption “a home to rebalance a nervous soul” runs under an image of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House. The accompanying description imagines the building as balm, as respite from our inboxes, “clogged with 200 messages every hour.” Presenting the work as an antidote for contemporary anxieties, the book doesn’t offer historical background. Art’s lessons are timeless; works can be reshuffled into non-chronological categories.
Armstrong and de Botton are not the first to reconceptualize the order of aesthetic things, but their emphasis on emotion is bold. Their ideal museum includes a gallery of suffering, and one of love. This push for psychological sensitivity would be exciting, were it not so unplastic and so exclusive. Art may be therapeutic, but not like this. Therapy works on individuals in their specificity, in their contexts.
Consider that Farnsworth House was a glass home (it’s now a museum). Its architect is known as a universalist who often eschewed pragmatic needs in his pursuit of transcendent principles. The house was commissioned as a retreat, but provoked anxiety. Edith Farnsworth was irate with the liberties Mies van der Rohe had taken, and unsettled by the home that resulted.1 Yet Armstrong and de Botton expunge her perspective wildly. Like Mies van der Rohe, they are pro-authority and pro-universalism. They are against truths that interrupt what’s simple.
The authors claim that complexity is an unnecessary pet project of art scholars pursuing “ever more exacting research.” Unlike those scholars, Armstrong and de Botton already know what an artwork is trying to say. They transcribe a selection of art’s messages, and dictate how audiences should respond.
Farnsworth hated how her house was transparent, “like an X-ray.”2 A common fear about therapy is that its gaze is, also like an X-ray, intrusive and unnaturally omniscient. This worry gives the practice a bad name and pause to some who might seek help. Unfortunately, Armstrong and de Botton exploit this myth of an elite’s direct access to flawed souls. They play uncritically into the hang-ups of the “cultural philistines” who don’t exist. They claim to know what we all feel, and what we all should feel, to feel better. By making such sweeping, presumptive claims, they expose the flaws of their own compassion.
Art as Therapy will be interpreted as an exhibition at the AGO in Spring 2014.