Writers explore fundamental questions about art in ‘Art as Therapy’

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It can be just plain exhausting to try to understand art when some of the greatest pieces of all time include a signed urinal and a clownish-looking man’s soup-can labels, not to mention the frustrating realization that perhaps the most famous painting in the world, the “Mona Lisa,” doesn’t even have eyebrows.

Such could be, and are, complaints by art skeptics about some of the greatest artists to exist, whether Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol or even Leonardo da Vinci. Who was it again that decided these artists and artworks are so great? Writers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong attempt to tackle this and other fundamental questions about the art world that have been puzzling museum visitors for decades in their collaborative book, “Art as Therapy.” The result is a tender analysis of human nature and art, an analysis that can soften the gruffest of art world skeptics.

The philosophical gaze of our relationship to art both individually and as a society isn’t the bold proposition that the back cover advertises. But the points are well-articulated and its prescription for the intimidating and problematic art world, though at some times flawed, delights with its inclusivity and care for human emotion.

Many of the book’s sections can stand apart as individual essays. Love and nature, as well as money and politics, divide the book into meditations about mankind while still populating the pages with works that relate these ideas back to the methodology of art in our society.

The first of the five main sections discusses seven functions of art: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. The writers are careful to say there are more than those listed but picked the “most convincing and most common.”

The most convincing function is art as a “balancing agent,” about which they write: “A work of art helps us return to us the missing portions of our characters.” So if you are lonely, perhaps you would buy a painting of a romantic scene to “rebalance.” A simple enough sentiment — but not one that the reader has necessarily or consciously thought of.

These types of simple yet unveiling thoughts are the book’s strengths. For example, early in the book, Armstrong and de Botton say that works of art can “make us nervous because we feel we are supposed to know a lot about them before we can enjoy them.”

This may be why, as the authors argue, “we are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed.” This has a lot to do with how we are educated about art. The authors argue that knowing what time period a painting belongs to doesn’t matter as much knowing how it satisfies our “inner needs.”

Their proposition, then, is to instead organize museums into galleries with emotion-based themes such as compassion, grief or love (rather than artistic movements or world regions).

It’s a romantic idealization of what museums can be, but just as we now feel pressured to have preconceived knowledge about art before we go to a museum, we would instead have emotional expectations. What if you entered the Gallery of Compassion and saw a piece and felt no such emotion? Isn’t emotional shame from not “getting” it almost worse than intellectually not understanding a work? And who would even judge whether a piece of art falls into the category of compassion over love? The writers are right that museums should inspire — not just teach or tell — but the prescription for the problem doesn’t appear practical.

This is one of the faults of the book — though it’s not Tom Wolfe’s aggressively satirical “The Painted Word,” the authors clearly do have problems with the art world and the self-proclaimed authorities that seem to command it. At the same time, however, they profess authority over the objects that they have chosen to illustrate and their meanings. The writers often quickly describe a work of art assuming the reader will automatically agree or submit to the thought (a Korean moon jar, for example, could embody the “ideal of modesty”).

Perhaps this plays into what the authors state: “We are not transparent to ourselves.” Their observations and contemplations of human nature are elegant and poignant ones, whether addressing nature or protesting capitalism. Though it’s not clear whose coffee table this book necessarily is going to reside on, it will encourage whoever flips through it to consider different ways to build upon visual and emotional sensitivity.

A.J. Kiyoizumi is the assistant arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].