cover image Art as Therapy

Art as Therapy

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. Phaidon, $39.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7148-6591-1

What is art for? The School of Life founder de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life) and University of Melbourne art historian Armstrong (The Intimate Philosophy of Art) propose a profoundly refreshing and heterodox approach to art as a “therapeutic medium” that can help people access “better versions of themselves.” Upending the art world’s self-referential culture, the book assigns seven functions to art: “Remembering,” “Hope,” “Sorrow,” “Rebalancing,” “Self-Understanding,” “Growth,” and “Appreciation.” The most novel moments come from lessons the authors glean from an eclectic range of works. Manet’s reflections on the mundane in the painting, Bunch of Asparagus, can instruct us to “re-evaluate and re-desire our partners.” A brooding sculpture by Richard Serra teaches us about dignity and the honor of sorrow. The authors formulate an intellectual framework for artists—one that includes the conflicts and virtues of love, for example—to give art an educational goal. However, such an agenda clearly favors one-dimensionality over the complex or ambiguous. Related themes tackled here include money and politics, with the authors arguing for “enlightened investment.” Scarcely convincing, though, is the case for progovernment censorship. Nevertheless, the proposal that art dealers function as therapists, that museums be organized into galleries of suffering and compassion, and that scholars “analyze how art could help with a broken heart” boldly positions art at the center of our daily lives. 150 color illus. (Oct.)