Joshua Rothman writes this very on-point interview and review of Alain De Botton’s latest book.
Some of the passages highlighted below are so money. They had us stomping our feet and raising our hands in the air. PREACH!
“Just look around,” he whispered, gesturing to the room and its crowd. “No one’s got a clue what they’re supposed to be doing!”
Somnolent visitors drifted from painting to painting. Faces registered pleasure, but also weariness. People stepped through the familiar choreography of the art museum: lean in to look for explanatory wall text; when you don’t find it, elegantly shift your lean toward the painting to scrutinize some arbitrary detail.
We paused in front of Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs. Peter William Baker, an aristocratic beauty in a golden dress. People walked up, looked, and then walked away. “These very nice people have taken immense trouble,” de Botton said. “They’ve come to New York, they’ve come to the Frick. It’s clear that we’re in a place of great value: this Gainsborough is worth maybe twenty million dollars. And, yet, it’s done nothing for any of these visitors, and spends ninety-eight per cent of its life ignored.”
De Botton is soft-spoken, with an open, sensitive face; his lips, lifted at the corners, hinted at ironic self-awareness—wasn’t it silly to get upset about other people’s museum-going?—but his eyes suggested alarm, even outrage. “People think there is no problem with art museums,” he said. “But there is.”
In “Art as Therapy,” de Botton argues that museums have taken a wrong turn. They should never have embraced as their guiding paradigm the discipline of art history; it’s led them to lose track of what actually makes art interesting. Most people, he thinks, care only a little about who commissioned what. When a visit to a museum succeeds, it usually isn’t because the visitor has learned facts about art but because she’s found one or two works that resonate in a private way.
And, yet, museums do very little to foster these kinds of personal connections; if anything, they suggest that our approach to art should be impersonal and academic. “The claims I’m making for art,” de Botton said, “are simply the claims that we naturally make around music or around poetry. We’re much more relaxed around those art forms. We’re willing to ask, ‘How could this find a place in my heart?’ ”
“Art as Therapy” is large, beautifully designed, and filled with images of paintings and sculptures alongside explanations of how those artworks might be approached in a more personally helpful, therapeutic way. (De Botton co-wrote it with a longtime friend, the art historian John Armstrong. “John is very in sympathy with this approach,” he said, “even though his colleagues are not.”)
Museums, de Botton believes, would be more energetic, unpredictable, and useful places if curators thought less like professors and more like therapists. Instead of being organized by period—“British eighteenth-century painting,” say—galleries could be organized around human-scale themes, like marriage, aging, and work. Rather than providing art-historical trivia, wall text might address personal questions: How do I stop envying my friends? How can I be more patient? Where can I find more beauty in my life? We walked into the next room, where an annunciation altarpiece by Fra Fillippo Lippi shone inside an elaborate, columned frame. (Like everything at the Frick, it was captionless.) “Right now, in this city, where people are worried about jobs and money and getting on, we don’t need an art-history lesson about this painting,” de Botton said. “We need something to get the ideas flowing.”