Alain de Botton – art as hope

It’s desperately frustrating when you’ve been trying to express something for a long time but have never quite managed to find the words that will pin down the thought or feeling.  Then one day, with a surge of relief, you read something that someone else has written and they’ve said exactly what you would have said could you have brought those words into consciousness.  I subscribe to Brain Pickings – something I can whole-heartedly recommend if you want in-depth reviews of extremely interesting books – and one of their latest posts covers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book:  ‘Art as Therapy’.

I haven’t read the book yet, only the review (although I aim to rectify that as soon as I can), so I’ve drawn heavily on Brain Pickings’ account of it.  In the book De Botton and Armstrong propose seven core psychological functions of art, one of which they term ‘hope’.  I’ve long had a problem, which I keep coming back to, concerning the conflict between beauty or prettiness in art, and depth.  The two seem at odds with each other and art critics are frequently derogatory and dismissive of anything that might be regarded as primarily beautiful or pretty, seeing such things as ‘a failure of taste and intelligence’.  I’ve wanted to argue against this view many times, for it seems to me that art that gives pleasure must have something of worth about it and for the first time I’m seeing an account of this dilemma that makes sense.  This is the basic problem:

The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to point out that neuroscientific research indicates that optimism makes both us and the world better:

If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909

The authors then refer to Matisse’s Dance (iii), 1909, saying that the dancers in the Matisse painting are able to put us in touch with a part of ourselves – a carefree, happy part of ourselves – that better equips us to cope with life’s problems.  Nevertheless, while looking at the painting helps us to access the happier, more optimistic parts of our psyche this should not be seen as a denial of the cares and troubles that beset ourselves and our world.

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.

This resonates very strongly with me. I’ve often had people say to me things such as ‘get real’ or ‘welcome to the real world’, as if the only reality we have is the bad stuff.  Reality  is a mixture of good and bad, of hope and despair, of joy and grief, of kindness and cruelty and I’ve had my share of all of them.  All these things are equally real, and dancers engaged in a carefree dance are no less real than people being starved, killed or tortured.  While art plays an important function in drawing attention to inequalities, catastrophes and inhumanities, surely we shouldn’t be restricting the function of ‘serious’ art to this one thing?

As things stand we’re bombarded from every side with depressing, troubling images. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world, but there’s plenty of research to show that an excess of these words and images are actually harmful to us both physiologically and psychologically.  The more time we spend looking at such images, the more our immune system is prone to damage and our psyche to depression and pessimism.

This isn’t a selfish exhortation to ignore the fate of others in order to keep ourselves OK – happy, healthy people are  in a much better position to help others than depressed, sick people, and are actually more likely to do so.  Like the safety instructions in the plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else, we can only help others effectively when we’re not struggling ourselves.  Art that can help us access the positive, optimistic and untroubled parts of our selves, can also set us up to be strong enough to tackle both our own and the world’s problems more effectively.

When it comes to the depiction of the positive in art, the trap lies – as De Botton and Armstrong say – in the tendency to lapse into a shallow sentimentality that lacks complexity and therefore depth.  This often does happen, but I don’t think it always has to.  Good, uplifting art has the potential to act as a counter-balance to an overdose of all that’s bad in the world, and to help us to transcend it.  This needn’t be its only function, but rather one of many equally valuable ones, and art that falls into this category deserves a lot more respect and validation than it gets these days.

I find it significant that De Botton and Armstrong have chosen as an example a painting that’s more than a century old – in this Post-Modernist age, uplifting art is hard to find.  It’s never been my view that art shouldn’t deal with misery and trouble – I think art should deal with everything that’s part of life – but it seems to me that we’ve concentrated on the angst at the expense of the joy and that that is harmful to us both personally and culturally.  The zeitgeist encourages us to act ‘cool’ – cynicism, irony and pessimism are applauded, while sincerity, authenticity and optimism are sneered at and derided, and that’s reflected in the art we have today.  De Botton and Armstrong, of course, are not writing for the rarefied world of the art critics, but for the layperson who’d like a better understanding of what meaning art might have for them.