Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

Phaidon Press

London/New York, 2013

239 pages

Google the phrase “What is art for?” and there are close to three million essays, quotes, and attempts to address this question. The authors of this book propose that art has a clear function as a therapeutic tool to help us lead more fulfilled lives. De Botton is known for his previous nonfiction book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” While the themes of that one are centered around the discovery of wisdom through personal journey, “Art as Therapy” aims to shorten the long tedious process of self-understanding into a magic bullet cure. Part coffee table art appreciation book and part self-help manual, it exemplifies a post new age culture that delivers quick-fix bromides of positive thinking and pureed dollops of wisdom.


Anyone who has read pop psychology books or other personal development guides is familiar with the format of breaking down ideas into small bites by  naming three of this or five of that—seven of anything is especially common. De Botton and Armstrong favor the number seven. They define “Seven Functions of Art” and the “Seven Psychological Frailties” that harness the particular issues of the mind and emotion that people have the most trouble with. Seven Functions of art are identified as remembering, hope, sorrow, re-balancing, self-understanding, appreciation, and growth.

When I was training to become an art therapist, we read Shaun McNiff’s 1992 book, “Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination.” The message of this approach encourages individual self-expression as a tool for healing—using the art making activity as a process for self-awareness. During 2011, well-known painter, Alexander Melamid, opened a Soho storefront called Art Healing Ministry. While this venture appeared to be a spoof, it was both conceptual art and healing practice. He placed the fine arts alongside alternative healing approaches, such as religion, yoga, or astrology. Melamid presented his methods to the public with all seriousness. He offered Art Evaluation & Immersion, as well as Art Rejuvenation & Maintenance. This was not a method of becoming a creative artist—rather, it utilized existing artworks as elixirs.  Feeling down? The cure might be a projection of Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” onto the palm of your hand. Allow art into the bloodstream—invite art into the psyche.

De Botton and Armstrong are not so clinical. They are simply concerned that too many people leave museums and galleries feeling bewildered and inadequate. They are not offering art as medicine so much as providing an educational view that is designed to instill greater self-understanding and maybe even improve one’s love life. In fact, Botton suggests a modern gallery floor plan that addresses human emotion by asking the curator to wear the Shaman’s hat–arrange works in groupings to address suffering, compassion, fear, love, and self-knowledge.

The notion of “art for art’s sake” rejects the idea that there might be anything to take from visual art beyond mysteriousness. I have always subscribed to this view, knowing that there is also meaning available for the taking, but the viewer may find something quite different than the artist. The authors regard art as a tool to extend human capacities and compensate for inborn weaknesses–a therapeutic medium to guide and enable us to become better versions of ourselves. The book features sections on how to identify good art, how to study art, and how to display art. The authors review how to read art for technical value, political value, historical value, shock value, or therapeutic value.

The book contains 141 images of artwork spanning the centuries to illustrate how to think about art as therapy and defend their premises. They emphasize the importance of looking at art as a way to bolster our feelings of cheerfulness and hope to counteract the onslaught of troubles and bad news that we are subjected to daily. Hopefulness might be generated by looking at Matisse’s “Dance II,” a familiar 1909 painting of nude figures dancing hand-in-hand in a circle against a blue and green background.  Sorrow might be pondered as an emotion built into the construct of life by viewing Richard Serra’s “Fernando Pessoa,” a massive dark steel sculpture from 2008.  Art has the potential to change us us by arousing enthusiasm. The antidote for a tightly wound schedule may be a bit of gazing at the colorful, emotion-packed, self-reflective paintings by Frieda Kahlo. Qualities of universal mind and character may be found in looking at collaged and assembled boxes of Joseph Cornell. Practice appreciating the mundane through a 1960 sculpture called “Painted Bronze,” by Jasper Johns, featuring two Ballantine beer cans.

An exploration of “Love” is given fifteen pages of attention. Leonardo deVinci’a “Studies of a Fetus” from 1512 point to the curiosity required in order to love. Look at Manet’s lush 1880 painting, “Bunch of Asparagus” to be reminded that there is good and beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. Other explored topics are nature, money, and patience. Why is the Mona Lisa so compelling? She has the face of vast experience and serenity and gives off the sense of a human being who is aware of all sorts of eventualities and dynamics in other people and still be fond of them. Isn’t this the kind of affection most of us long for? Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait has haunted people since 1506, a reminder of human emotion.

Why do we need this approach to art? The authors are articulate in their explanations, but will their point-of-view really lead to greater self-understanding? Will this wisdom lead to greater happiness or greater confusion? The authors assure the reader that cultivating appreciation for objects of art will lead to appreciation of oneself (self-knowledge) and likely even a better world. Culture keeps us human. “Art as Therapy” is a high-quality publication that might hit just the right note for anyone yearning to find a better connection to their art-viewing experience.

While instructive and interesting, the tone may feel patronizing to experienced art lovers. Still, anyone who frequents art exhibitions will likely take away some insights. Consider the wide field of art in 2014. We seem to have more artists than ever due to the popularity of college Fine Arts programs during the last thirty years. Assigning greater value (art as therapy) to the vast collections housed in museums and galleries is timely. Works by individual artists can lose appeal over time, especially now that so much of our daily experience is mediated on a screen of visual overload–public art, murals, and community-based participatory projects are immediate and user-friendly. Redefining what art is good for is a worthy task. De Botton and Armstrong show us that added value and purpose may be found at the therapeutic crossroads between art object and personal psychology.  

January 2014

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