On failing the moral promise of art

Alain de Botton & John Armstrong
Art as Therapy,
Phaidon, £24.95 (hardcover)

The only thing prettier than the pictures in Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy is the writing. I’m not as familiar with Armstrong, but de Botton is a master of thoughtful yet unmannered English with just enough crass and sometimes vulgar colloquialism thrown in to keep one from walking out of the auditorium. For example, in a section on ‘Rebalancing’, which is really an extended passage on the moral lessons that can be learned from art, the authors – but de Botton I suspect – have this to say about the photographer Eve Arnold’s Divorce in Moscow (1966):

The task for artists… is to find new ways of prizing open our eyes to tiresomely familiar, but critically important, ideas about how to lead a balanced and good life.  It is no easy task to keep making what is hellish vivid: the attempt can easily yield just formulaic horror, which ends up touching no one, until a skillful artist like Arnold stops us in our tracks with an image that brings home what is truly at stake when we let ourselves and others down. We might long to hang her work in the bedroom or the kitchen, in just the right place so that it can be seen when one is tempted to say in anger, ‘Well, that suits me fine, let’s just fucking get divorced. See you in court’ (38-42).

This passage is at once typical and unique: typical of the book’s intention of convincing us that art has a therapeutic role to play in ameliorating our diminished modern lives (Armstrong and de Botton take us to be at turns bored, haggard, impatient, fretful, scattered, etc.); unique in that it’s one of the few places where the authors exhort artists themselves to rise to the moral promise of their practices.

Far more common, though, enough so that it should be taken as the book’s very purpose, are passages that explain how ‘we’ – meaning us, the readership, or more grandly, the public – have been getting art all wrong all this time when we have sought to learn about and to understand its methods and histories, to know it by knowing the cultures and contexts that gave rise to it, to think about it through the eyes and the minds of the artists that produced it. For what, the authors ask, can those methods and histories, those contexts and cultures, those eyes and minds possibly tell us about our lives, about our selves. Art, if it is to have any virtue, must be about us.

What else should one expect from a self-help treatise dressed up as a coffee-table art book? Alain de Botton has created a cottage industry out of high-brow life coaching, and Art as Therapy is only the most recent offering – the industry would call this a ‘vehicle’ – of de Botton’s School of Life, a purveyor of pamphlets and classes and trinkets that promise low-amplitude emotional uplift with light erudition, good design, and other narcissistically small differences thrown in. Call it the ethics of ‘taste’ (but didn’t Nietzsche have something to say about this?).

The question of art’s moral value, it’s moral purpose, is indeed an important one. The recent resurgence of intellectual attention to questions of ethics and morality more generally, all stimulated, one suspects, by a decade of economic and military adventurism and its hangovers, would seem to put de Botton and Armstrong in company with such serious moral philosophers as Ronald Dworkin and Michael Sandel—that is, until one reads in Art and Therapy that, for example, one of the ‘great number of shortcomings’ of capitalism is that ‘there is an astonishing array of chocolate bars for sale’ rather than services that would ‘help us to deal with the causes of domestic rows’ (162). Can they be serious? If the size of the self-help section at any local chain bookstore or the numbers of couples counselors depicted in popular television and movies are any indication, capitalism is very much interested in helping us out on the domestic front. That there is room in the world for Art and Therapy, as well as the School of LIfe that it serves, should be a testament to that.

If a single epigraph could sum up just what Art as Therapy is after, it would be Matisse’s little quip that art should be like a comfortable armchair for the tired businessman. Armstrong and de Botton’s aspirations are no doubt larger than this, but the sensibility is exactly the same. When in 1964 Calvin Tompkins asked Marcel Duchamp about the Matisses that adorned his home,  Duchamp responded: ‘Well, they belong to my wife, and I accept them. And also, you know, the surroundings in which you live in my case don’t interest or bother me at all. I could live with the worst calendar picture, and with any sort of furniture, because I never put taste in my life. Taste is an experience that I try not to let come into my life.’ Perhaps Duchamp needed therapy – Armstrong and de Botton must think so – but I suspect not.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of ArtReview.

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