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Using Art as Therapy

Author and founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton has recently published Art as Therapy with philosopher and art theorist John Armstrong, showing us how to look at and understand art in a completely novel way. Perhaps art can help us see values that make us strive for more in our family, love, and work lives. Perhaps it can help us with our anxiety issues. In 2014, they will be guest curating both at the Art Gallery of Ontario and at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum according to this new framework. And below, Alain shows us how, in an ideal world, he might curate the walls of a home. Fascinating stuff that makes us re-think how we might approach hanging art in our own surroundings.

Alain de Botton on Art in the Home

Why does it matter what’s on the walls of our homes? Our sensitivity to our surroundings can be traced back to a troubling feature of human psychology: to the way we harbor within us many different selves, not all of which feel equally like ‘us’, so much so that in certain moods, we can complain of having come adrift from what we judge to be our true selves – in part, because the walls look wrong

Unfortunately, the self we miss at such moments, the elusively authentic, creative and spontaneous side of our character, is not ours to summon at will. Our access to it is, to a humbling extent, determined by the places we happen to be in, by the color of the bricks, the height of the ceilings and the art on the wall. In a house strangled by three motorways, or with drab wallpaper or in a wasteland of rundown tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away, like water from a punctured container. We may start to forget that we ever had ambitions or reasons to feel spirited and hopeful.

We depend on the art in our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our art to hold us, like a kind of psychological mold, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need—but are at constant risk of forgetting we need—within.

Art can help us in many ways; I’ve identified a number of ways and suggest some works that are particularly good in these areas, along with places one might hang them.

Hope in the Kitchen

Henri Matisse, Dance (II), 1909; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Matisse shows us an ideal image of women dancing in solidarity and joy. The French painter was not in denial of the troubles of this planet. But he wished to encourage us in an attitude of optimism, which he knew it can be hard for us to nurture and hold on to.

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life goes as we would like it to. We should be able to enjoy Matisse’s dancers without fearing that we are thereby colluding with a subterfuge played on a gullible public. The ideal it stands for is genuinely noble.

If the world were a kinder place than it is, perhaps we would be less impressed by, and in need of, pretty works of art. One of the strangest features of experiencing art is its power, occasionally, to move us to tears, not when we are presented with a harrowing or terrifying image, but when we see a work of particular grace and loveliness which can be, for a moment, heartbreaking. Matisse’s dancers might do this to us. What is happening to us at these special times of intense responsiveness to beauty? We are recognizing an ideal to which we are deeply attached, but from which we are too often alienated. The work of art helps us to see how much is missing and how deeply we would like things to be nicer than they are.

None of this is sentimental. Strategic exaggerations of what is beautiful and good can perform the critical function of distilling and concentrating the hope that we require to chart a path through the difficulties of existence.

Rebalancing in the Dining Room

Hiroshi Sugimoto, North Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher, 1989; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York picture © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery

In Sugimoto’s photograph of the North Atlantic, we are in an undefined still vastness made up of only sea and sky.

We should encourage our eyes to wander over the vast grey swell of the sea, and immerse ourselves in the attitude of serene indifference it invites. There is no definite horizon in the photograph, just a gentle zone of transition where the sea merges with the sky. The black at the bottom becomes the white at the top through a multitude of tiny stages. This has a tranquilizing effect which has a chance to enter into our own being and adjust how we respond to challenges and anxiety.

A tranquil state of mind is supremely valuable in connection with many of the lesser troubles of life. Our capacity to get infuriated (and hence, usually, make matters worse by flying off the handle) is often driven by a refusal to accept how things are. Another person simply isn’t very interested in what we think; the world is not going to re-organize itself in sensible ways; the traffic just will be maddeningly slow, the train over-crowded. At times, we should know how to close down our hopes and give ourselves over to the contemplation of all that we will never be able to alter, here symbolized by the even, pure tones of an eternal horizon.

Sugimoto hasn’t just photographed the sea. He has provided us with a work that captures an attitude of mind to be summoned up at times of trial.

Appreciation on the Landing

Sydney Strickland Tully, The Twilight of Life, 1894; Bequest of S. Strickland Tully, 1911 © Art Gallery of Ontario

In Tully’s portrait, an elderly woman sits stooped and thoughtful against a stark background. She used to be strong and decisive. She had lovers once; she put her make-up on carefully and set out with a quiet thrill in the evening. Now, she’s hard to love and maybe she knows this. She gets irritated, she withdraws. But she needs other people to care for her. Anyone can end up in her position. And there are moments when a lot of people—at whatever stage of life—are a bit hard to admire or like. Love is often linked to admiration: we love because we find another person exciting and sweet. But there’s another aspect to love in which we are moved by the need of the other, by generosity.

The artist Sydney Tully is generous to her. She looks with great care into her face and wonders who she really is.

Long-term Relationships in the Bedroom

Édouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus, 1880; Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

There are lessons for long-term relationships in the way that Manet approached asparagus.

Other than as an ingredient and a marketable crop, the asparagus held little interest for the average French citizen of the nineteenth century; that is until 1880, when Édouard Manet painted a tender portrait of a few stems and drew the eyes of the world to the quiet charms of this flowering perennial. For all of his delicacy with the brush, Manet was not flattering the vegetable; he was not using art to endow it with qualities it does not really possess. Rather, what he did was reveal its pre-existing but generally ignored merits. Where we would just see a plain stalk, Manet noted and recorded subtle individuality, the particular hue and tonal variation of each frond. By so doing, he redeemed this humble vegetable, so that today, before his picture, one might see a plate of asparagus as emblematic of an ideal of the good and decent life. To rescue a long-term relationship from complacency, we might learn to effect on our spouse much the same imaginative transformation that Manet used in his vegetables. We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. We may so often have seen our partners pushing a buggy, crossly berating the electricity company or returning home defeated from the workplace that we have forgotten the dimension in him or her that remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent and, above all else, worthy of love.

Sorrow in the Bathroom

Diego Velázquez, Christ Crucified, 1632; Museo Nacional Del Prado

In Velazquez’s Crucifixion, the son of God, the King of Kings, lies bleeding like an ordinary stricken man on the cross. He will be dead in a few moments.

Christianity is upfront about the idea that our lives can be burdened by suffering. It takes the view that loss, self-reproach, failure, regret, sickness and sadness will always find ways of entering life. Our troubles need practical help, of course. But Christianity identifies another need as well: for our suffering to have some honour or dignity.

This picture of the Crucifixion gives dignity to suffering. It shows a good – indeed perfect – man being humiliated, injured and ultimately killed. It is tenderly sympathetic to sorrow without being hysterical or vengeful.

It invites us to contemplate the centrality of suffering in the achievement of all valuable goals. Rather than concentrate on the moment of fulfillment—when one feels the joy of success—it directs our attention to the times of hardship and sacrifice and says they are the most important, the most deserving of admiration.

It strengthens us a little—and offers consolation—for the hard tasks of our lives.

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