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art as therapy: alain de botton’s secular sermon

August Friedrich Albrecht SCHENCK Anguish (c. 1878)  (Angoisse) oil on canvas 151.0 x 251.2 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

August Friedrich Albrecht SCHENCK
Anguish (c. 1878)
oil on canvas
151.0 x 251.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

After porn, cats, Kevin Bacon and real bacon, facts may be one of the most traded currencies of the Internet. Is this constant consumption of knowledge an attempt to fill some kind of void, and if it is, is it enough? In this increasingly secular world are we all just hankering for some kind of meaning?

This is the premise of Alain de Botton’s work, a Swiss ex-pat intellectual who has found both commercial success and academic derision with his accessible, cheerful interpretation of human philosophy. He’s had a long career that started when a trajectory toward academia suddenly diverted towards authoring meditations to satisfy the supposedly disenchanted masses. It seems that’s exactly what the masses wanted, his first book, penned at the age of 23, sold a million copies and he’s been rolling them out ever since. Turning his attention to everything from love, sex and religion to Proust to architecture and airports. Botton positions himself somewhere between a diagnostician and some kind of shaman for middle class bibliophiles. His latest work ‘Art as Therapy’ is a collaboration with Scottish/Australian aesthetic philosopher John Armstrong.

The National Gallery of Victoria have risen to de Botton and Armstrong’s quest to reorganise the museum in ‘categories of the heart’ and allowed them to frolic through the collection, picking artworks that can cure what ails us. The core contention of the Art as Therapy program is that traditional chronological and curatorial taxonomies in museums don’t let us feel enough. They shut down our ability to engage emotionally, and humanly, with artworks. The pair fix this by designing a ‘therapeutic’ tour through the collection, positing that looking at art the right way can teach us to challenge notions about ourselves and live and die better. If I’m ‘too busy to look at the sky’, I can take a long, longing look at Constable’s Clouds, 1822. If my ‘sickness’ is ‘I can’t be sexy’ I can lust after Issey Miyake’s Bustier 1980. Botton counsels that feeling sexy can be ‘elusive, especially for thoughtful, serious people’. I’m just not sure if I’ve not got time to look at the sky when I’m meant to fit in a quick restorative jaunt around a gallery.

Alain de Botton was in Melbourne as the keynote speaker to launch the Art as Therapy tours. A collaboration between the two authors, the gallery and The School of Life. The School of Life was a project initiated in London by de Botton to help ordinary people ‘connect with their passion and purpose’ inviting ‘maverick cultural figures’ to adopt the trappings of religious institutions and re-appropriate them to secular services. It’s a ‘playful and theatrical presentation of ideas’. Now Melbourne has its very own branch.

The NGV event begins with the requisite introductions and then disembodied voices fill the hall in what sounds like Gregorian chants. The first few chuckles come from those with better memory of their school day Latin. The chorus devolves into phrases we can all wrap our heads around, lots of carpe diems and an et tu Brutus. It’s all coming from Mark Jones and Adam Murphy, two-thirds of The Beautiful Losers, they walk down the aisle, singing from hymnals. Next, a slew of bon mots from the perpetually over-quoted, from Oscar Wilde to Tiger Woods, they wrap up with a few Beatles lyrics and fades out with monalisamonalisamonalisa. By now the audience is giggling and before they exit they lead the 400 strong crowd in a rousing rendition of tonight’s hymn: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. At this stage everyone has relaxed in to a mood of communal light-heartedness.

Then de Botton delivers the sermon. He tells us that museums are the new cathedrals and that culture has replaced scripture. He wants us to get over our coolness towards using culture as a tool for self-help. Botton points out that Christian art was about teaching people how to live and die and laments the loss of this structure in our current climate of agnosticism. He believes we’ve lost the ability to publicly articulate our sadness, fears and our joy. Or even just to admit out loud that it’s ok to like pictures of flowers, puppies and children because they’re sweet and cute and we’re having a crappy day. He urges us to not panic about sentimentality, he tells us it’s ‘terribly helpful’. I can’t quite find it in myself to disagree with him, but nor do I find anything terribly original in his proclamations. By the end his twee patter is starting to grate.

On the whole I think the idea of the School of Life is charming. Belief in god aside, other aspects of religion are socially beneficial, meeting up with people, singing together and talking about ideas. But there’s something about the franchised enlightenment that irks me. Socrates and the Buddha gave away their teachings. This conflict is millennia old, a fight between the Sophists who would sell their rhetoric for money and the philosophers who would engage with ideas in a quest for truth and wisdom and share their findings freely. Even in religion, from which so much of the format for this has come, the tithes are optional. Do I really need to hand over my cash to an institution headed by someone whose wealth is estimated somewhere in stratospheric millions to tell me the bleeding obvious: life is hard; sometimes it sucks; acceptance is the key to happiness; stop comparing yourself to others; look at art and find meaning in it.

Although the slight personality-cultish aspect leaves me a little cold I can’t take too much issue with his goals. Getting more people to see more art and to be reflective is a good thing. Cultivating curiosity and community are good things. His collection tour looks interesting and thoughtful. It might all just be a bit easier to swallow if wasn’t so laden with de Botton’s particular brand of saccharine smarmalade.

The Art as Therapy lecture took place on the 26th of March at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the Art as Therapy program, a collaboration with the NGV and the School of Life Melbourne.

The School of Life Melbourne branch is now open at 669 Bourke St Melbourne. You can find out more about their programs here.

One thought on “art as therapy: alain de botton’s secular sermon

  1. Would like to see a piece here about Alain de Botton’s comments during his 26/3/14 appearance on ABC Radio National’s Books & Arts Daily program. I’d write one, but don’t feel “qualified” enough to address his stance about the “purpose” of art (he seems to think art “should”, “needs to”, “must” have one; ALL art).

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