Kimberly Lieu – A New Dogma: Alain de Botton on Art as Therapy

“Art is, nowadays, our new religion and museums are our cathedrals.” – Theodore Zeldin

Where can people find consolation and meaning in the 21st century? Alain de Botton, co-author of Art as Therapy and a philosopher from the School of Life, argues that culture – especially art – can support us in our messy, modern lives. Unlike Art Therapy, where the creative process of making art is therapeutic in and of itself, he suggests that art can be viewed—and should be presented—in a way that serves the needs of the human psyche. In his lecture on “Art as Therapy,” held at The Institute of Education in London this past October, de Botton spoke about viewing art as a way for people to deal with the troubles of the soul by using it as a form of self-help.

Louise Thomas, "Gertrude Vernon"
Louise Thomas, “Gertrude Vernon”

What can art do and what is it for? According to de Botton:

– Art restores hope in us- “Pretty art is a recognition of the darkness, but is an exception in an otherwise dark world,” meaning that attractive art can and does exist in spite of the ugliness that surrounds it and is what gives us hope.

– It can be used as propaganda- Art can move us towards what is “good” and motivate us to act. He postulates that a philosophy can be found in a piece of art, which can, then, be translated into life.

– It helps us “Re-see the neglected value of the everyday” to remind us that our lives aren’t so terrible and that we really are so transient.

– It shows us that we are not alone in suffering- Art is a “communion” where people can acknowledge unspoken feelings and sympathize with each other and ourselves.

– It can balance us out- “The kind of art that moves us or draws us in is what our unconscious recognizes is missing, hoping to correct us.”

As we interact with art, we can ask ourselves:

– What bit of me is missing that I am finding in the work of art that I find beautiful?

– What am I afraid of?

– What is the art compensating for or pulling me away from?

– What have I lost touch with?

– What am I attracted to?

De Botton shows how we can create relationships with art—of connection and compassion—exemplified by something Rothko said years ago, “What I’m trying to do with my works of art is: you’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet and, therefore, both of us need to feel less sad.” De Botton elaborates, “It shows art’s ability to expose, with sympathy, moments we know exist but we have a hard time airing publicly”—helping us feel less lonely, less alone in our seemingly insurmountable struggles.

Throughout the lecture, De Botton challenges art institutions to re-frame how art is staged to better serve its viewers in a way that would actually incite ideas by grouping artworks by theme to reflect the feelings and issues we all possess and are challenged with: economically-driven anxieties; the anticipation of an eminent death; big and small love; the radiance of gratitude; sweet curiosity; and the pervasiveness of sexuality in society.

Stunning works from David to da Vinci, Korean ceramics to architecture and design, de Botton shows how art can function as a means “to acknowledge how difficult it is to harmonize and hold on to the different parts of us,” but that we are not alone in the undertaking.

Kimberly Lieu

Kimberly Lieu is a traveling poet and writer. In pursuit of wholeness, she always finds time for books and conversation. 

See Alain de Botton’s lecture in full:

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