Getting to the art of the matter
ART AS THERAPY
By Alain de Botton and John Armstrong Published by Phaidon Hardcover, $ 45
NOT since the days of Socrates and Plato has there been one who has made philosophy so popular and accessible as Alain de Botton.
Unlike the sages from classical times, however, whose influence only extended to their hem- kissing disciples and the enlightened minority, de Botton has become a household name to untold millions due to his many publications and television programs.
An avowed atheist but not necessarily a Christmas or Easter killjoy, de Botton nevertheless deplores all the mythology, vulgarity and excess that seems integral to being part of the tribal spirit of Christian calendar occasions.
He has joined forces with John Armstrong, who is an author and a regular commentator on ABC radio as well as being senior adviser in Melbourne University’s Office of the Vice Chancellor.
Art is said to be very important without anyone being able to explain convincingly why this is so. In Art as Therapy, the authors apply their combined talents to analyse and promote its benefits.
They assert that art galleries could be institutions of self- help that would replace churches for spiritual and philosophical guidance.
In the light of the burgeoning art market internationally, this will be a heartening gospel to gallery owners and entrepreneurs as well as the painters and sculptors towards the end of the food chain.
Instead of the priest and the church service, it is suggested that contemplating art could alleviate psychological imperfections and personal doubts and anxieties.
Worthy of mention is the way the authors excoriate the morally dubious practice of making money with commodities that are harmful and then spending the fortune on the endowment of art galleries.
Linked to this is their belief that people with money should have taste ( but that is a concept notoriously difficult to define).
Art as Therapy is a beautifully presented book with many colour plates of mostly western art works.
Sequentially sections are broached with names such as “Remembering”, “Hope”, “Sorrow” and “Relationships” with supporting paintings or photographs, sculptures or buildings.
Although encompassing a wide range of styles and centuries, the choice of featured artworks is of course entirely idiosyncratic and inevitably subjective according to the penchants of the authors.
Correspondingly the reader and viewer could be inspired or repelled by the controversial mixed media Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili with its use of elephant dung.
Similarly Manet’s depiction of asparagus may provide a way of dealing with personal partnerships and it’s possible that a Korean pot with a pale glaze could restore psychological balance and appropriate feelings of modesty
Needless to say there can never be empirical evidence about definite advantages to be gained from visiting art galleries.
It could be a soothing distraction from life’s woes; a pleasant escapism for a time, an intellectual exercise, and a way of understanding the history of a country or a contemplation of beauty however broadly that is interpreted but whether it would alleviate a troubled soul or improve the human condition is impossible to answer.
One can only speculate if going to a library and seeing the array of works on every conceivable subject that have been written by centuries of exceptional minds would better achieve this end.
Could a visit to a botanical or zoological garden to admire the various exotic species from around the world or alternatively the ecological balance in an old- growth forest obtain the equivalent and possible therapeutic relief?
Modern architectural science is looking to polymer plastics and bacteria for self- healing buildings.
Whether art can ever be pragmatically directed to heal the cracks and damage sustained by emotional shocks to a human brain is something for the future, perhaps.