May 3, 2014

On Art as Therapy

During my recent visit to Toronto, I was able to spend an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario. After absorbing parallel bodies of work by Francis Bacon and Henry Moore in a new high profile exhibit, I noticed a large display awkwardly thrown into the corner of the gallery’s entrance. Beside the title “Art as Therapy” sat a screen with Alain de Botton’s head prominently displayed, ready and waiting to explain how select works of art can help us better understand one of five select categories he's deemed relevant to the human experience. Of course, the flags go up immediately, not simply because the simple equivocation of art as therapy brings to mind the worst kinds of bourgeois myths — and indeed it’s hard to think of a better face for this than de Botton’s — but because the whole scheme is such an unabashedly self-aggrandizing gesture by de Botton himself. Here, alongside a group of select paintings from the canon of Western art (placed in groups throughout the gallery according to the categories of “sex,” “money,” “politics,” “love,” “nature”), was de Botton’s talking head. Not that it was necessarily out of place. The seamless relationship between ideology and arrogance is nothing new to the art gallery.

In this mini-exhibit, each work of art is accompanied by a reflection and a “problem” for the viewer to digest. Passing through the gift shop, I realized that the project was tied in with a new book (after which the exhibit is titled) and the author had been scheduled for a book signing at the gallery within the next couple of hours. Sure enough, de Botton had also been featured on Q earlier that morning in a debate over his controversial project. I listened to the radio clip today and none of what he said was terribly surprising. De Botton’s approach to art as an opportunity for therapy is not at all out of step with his recent book Religion for Atheists or his so-called School of Life project. In nearly all cases, the cultural products that make up the Western canon are uncritically received and repurposed for the lifestyle politics of the modern consumer. Stripped of their historical and cultural contexts, religion, philosophy and art have a similar function: to make us better people, to help us believe in the supposedly ennobling values of European culture. For de Botton our present enjoyment and use of the arts has been held hostage by art historians. What I find interesting about this strategy for engaging visitors is how it’s all based on an emotional or affective register. There is no illusion here, no attempt to sell this as anything other than straightforward ideology. Visitors are invited to “feel better” about one of the five categories and the selected piece of art will, upon its reflection, help with that process.

I’ve always been uneasy with this brand of easy-going pop philosophy, partly because of how it always seeks to write off intellectual or academic approaches as inaccessible and elitist. In his Q debate, De Botton started by giving a fairly trite summary of art criticism as a field that disregards all questions of functionality or purpose, a field that instead insists upon art’s ambiguity and silence as is best for private enjoyment. Art, he says, should by contrast provide us with an opportunity to experience the whole range of human emotion, but in order for it to do that it needs to be framed in a psychological method that allows us to align our “deeper selves” with works of art.

My main problem with this union between de Botton and the AGO has mostly to do with his patronizing, dull readings of artworks and the interpretive keys that he provides as opportunities for self-reflection and improvement. His approach has been called “reductive” and it is. But it's also worse than that. It assumes that gallery visitors can only find common ground in their individual sense of fulfillment and contentment. Sex, politics, love, money, nature: each category is simply a self-evident way to experience and digest our individual feelings about the world. Against his caricature of art criticism (which eschews all sense of function or purpose) de Botton sets up a program he believes to be controversial and provocative, that is in fact anything but. Rather, it’s the most sentimental form of appreciation possible and does little more than deflate its objects while reproducing the most vacuous of readings. Along with treating art as a good in itself, each category appears fully formed and uncontested. A telling moment in the Q debate occurs when the issue of accessibility arises from de Botton’s opponent (Canadian artist/critic RM Vaughan), who rightly suggests that most art is still synonymous with wealth, class and privilege. De Botton immediately agrees and says, “that’s why I’m a great believer in postcards, online images, and anything that you can do to bring art, freely, cheaply and easily into peoples’ lives.” He then decries our cultural obsession with the original as the problem standing in the way of this. But this is where it stops for de Botton because, as should be clear by now, he only cares about values in the abstract and consistently overlooks any resonance that such cultural obsessions might have something to do with class, history, gender and so on.

It’s perhaps unfair to levy such criticisms at de Botton, who has after all been doing essentially the same thing since publishing his book on Proust back in 1997. His message remains the same, even if his books have gotten bigger and his subjects have switched from high-minded French literature to high-minded European art. What his art criticism project does best is point out how much our cultural categories of aesthetic appreciation increasingly favour of an ahistorical, affective response that finds its footing in the self-help industry. But, then, why should any of us be surprised by this?

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