The Mindful Bard – Art as Therapy

If This Book Doesn’t Make Art Dealers Mad, It Should

Book: Art as Therapy

Authors:Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

“Growth occurs when we discover how to be authentically ourselves in the presence of potentially threatening things.”
– Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy

Angelica Kauffmann was the darling of European aristocracy not only because of her gifts as a portraitist, but also because of her charming allegorical depictions of abstract ideas like art and poetry. Today, when so many of us believe that art should be intellectually rigorous, or even unnerving, It’s tempting to dismiss her work for its “prettiness.” But when we learn that Angelica had been tricked into marriage by a conman claiming to be a count, leading to a very difficult life for her, it becomes a little harder to look down our noses at someone we assume has lead a pampered life.

Art as Shared Response
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong start out by attempting to determine the function and purpose of art and then try to determine how we should decide what makes good art. From there they move to dealing with more pedestrian but related issues like how art should be made, bought, sold, studied, and displayed.

The book attempts to humanise art not only by sharing anecdotes about artists but also by showing us how art can be a response to human need. The gorgeous prints they’ve included to illustrate each point don’t hurt a bit. Even better, it brings the whole subject of art down to earth by addressing it in straightforward, simple, well-written language, refreshingly free of academic jargon and art-speak.

This may be why they get flak from critics claiming that they talk down to people, treat their readers like simpleminded children, and insult the intelligence of true art lovers. But, contrary to these accusations, Botton and Armstrong are not suggesting that art should make our lives easier or more palatable; they simply acknowledge that our pain is real and that art is uniquely qualified to address it.

Even art lovers, if they are sincere and if they have any social concern at all, can’t help but feel a spark of hope at this thesis, seeing its potential to not only democratise art but also to raise the level of personal enjoyment of it. It should also encourage artists, so often accused of being either too shallow or too unfathomable, to be true to their instinct to make art as a generous outpouring of creativity that responds to human needs and desires, rather than as a an intellectual exercise or a second-guessing of market trends.

What Art Can Do For You
So how, precisely, can art satisfy your needs and desires? To start, according to Botton and Armstrong, art can remind you of what’s important in life. Art can give you hope, can give you a safe context in which to come to terms with your sorrow, can balance you out, and can help you to understand yourself better. Art can help you step out of your comfort zone and stop being afraid of the unfamiliar. It can help you love the mundane and see that the homely routines and settings of your everyday life are just as glamourous as the lives of the celebrities you envy. It can help you to accept and transcend your own sadness.

All this is explained and illustrated in a structure built around the answering of questions essentially impossible to answer, but the authors deserve kudos for what they’ve added to these debates.

Art as Prescription?
The authors insist that art has a purpose quite distinct from its power to generate money and to create a sense of superiority for an elite few. Art addresses and answers specific needs of the psyche? you just have to find out what your peculiar needs are and then seek the art that can satisfy it.

What seems a little preposterous is their proposal that art curators should sell art by getting to know a client’s personal inner needs and then trying to provide the art that meets those needs, suggesting that the art dealer or curator become a kind of psychotherapist offering art as prescription. But when you consider how art is sold now?as just another commodity whose value is determined by the whims of critics, moneyed collectors, university art departments, and the world of fashion?their model doesn’t seem quite so bizarre.

Mindfulness in the New Romantic Movement
This book is recommended here mainly because of the way it celebrates and encourages mindfulness?the quality that can save our relationships, enhance our joys, and give meaning to our lives. I never would have accepted such a thesis in my cynical youth, but I now see the need for a deeper, more personal, and, yes, more healing role for the arts in general, and what the authors say about the visual arts can easily be extended to all the fine arts.

Quite happily, it looks like the new Romantic Movement isn’t all about art for art’s sake, but, rather, is focussed more on art that instructs the heart and heals its wounds.

Art As Therapy manifests nine of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It gives me artistic tools.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

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