The war of art
AGO takes a chance on author’s bold vision
Art has long been the realm of the academic elite. In his latest book, Alain de Botton, an acclaimed writer, philosopher and TV presenter, argues that this need not be the case. And in a bold move, the Art Gallery of Ontario is putting de Botton’s words into practice with an inventive new program scheduled for early in the new year.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to marry up the great works of culture with the needs of everyday life and ordinary situations,” he says.
The institutionalized academic and museum systems dictate the way we are “supposed” to look at art. De Botton argues that this approach is not necessarily the right one.
“It’s a very cold, rational response,” he says. “These works of art were created by very passionate people, yet you wouldn’t know that from the very cool way in which they’re taught to us.”
De Botton explores these ideas in Art as Therapy, co-written with art historian John Armstrong. The book outlines seven functions art can play in our lives and looks at areas where art can have an impact on society, such as money, politics and love.
“The argument is that art can do stuff for us,” he says. “So let’s get away from this idea that art is just for art’s sake.”
It is similar to enjoying a book: you can like it just for the characters.
“We enjoy looking at attractive faces and thinking about them,” he says.
“I think sometimes the art establishment has missed these basic pleasures and therefore gets very convoluted when it’s trying to explain what it’s doing.”
After writing the book, de Botton approached Matthew Teitelbaum, head of the Art Gallery of Ontario, to pitch him the opportunity to put the theories of the book into practice.
Teitelbaum was intrigued to learn more and, after reading the book, agreed to the project. The exhibition will launch on May 3, 2014.
The AGO will be the first North American museum to participate in the project.
The exhibit will use the current works of art in the museum but reorganize them in a way that will give you tools to use art in your dayto-day life.
“Hopefully it’ll just get a lot of people talking in Toronto, thinking, ‘OK, do I agree with it? If I don’t agree with it, why not? If I do agree with it, why?’ ” he says. “It should kick-start a good conversation.”
Overall, de Botton is happy at the acceptance of his idea by the gallery.
“The art establishment is very fierce and protective of its rules and assumptions,” he says. “This is going to be a show that goes right to the heart of challenging all those assumptions, so for a museum to take that on board is genuinely a work of courage.”
In addition to the Art as Therapy project, de Botton has kept busy: he has helped found the School of Life in London, England, which features classes, therapy and instructions each night of the week.
“It basically says there’s ideas out there that you can read, learn and hear about, and they will make a difference to your life,” he says.
The School of Life will open in Australia, France and the Netherlands next year.
He has also written a new book about the media and our obsession with it, called The News: A User's Manual, which is due out in February of next year.
Alain de Botton has authored such bestsellers as ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ and ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’