Writer, Philosopher, and Cultural Revolutionary

Alain de Botton is a British writer, philosopher, and cultural revolutionary who is the founder of The School of Life, an enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life. Based in Central London, it offers a variety of programs and services concerned with how to live wisely and well. The School of Life addresses such questions as why work is often unfulfilling, why relationships can be so challenging, why it's hard to stay calm, and what one could do to try to change the world for the better.

As a controversial author of pop psychology books, de Botton has stirred things up with How to Think More About Sex, The Architecture of Happiness, and How Proust Can Change Your Life. He does the same with art.

Art as a Tool

In this rousing and innovative book, de Botton, along with co-author John Armstrong, an art historian, proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture, and craft) is "a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves." This is intended to be a replacement for the much used philosophy of "art for art's sake" which often is too nebulous and leaves the impression that only an elite group of artists and art dealers can appreciate its bounties.

With gusto and illustrative examples, de Botton and Armstrong outline what they see as the Seven Functions of art:

1. A Corrective of Bad Memory
2. A Purveyor of Hope
3. A Source of Dignified Sorrow
4. A Balancing Agent
5. A Guide to Self-Knowledge
6. A Guide to the Extension of Experience
7. A Re-Sensitization Tool

In a thought-provoking two-page section, the authors reveal how art can "correct or compensate" for psychological frailties, such as when we are unbalanced and lose sight of our best selves; if we often succumb to superficial, prejudiced judgments; and when we are distracted by all the so-called goodies of consumerism.

Art and the Sorrows We Face

One of the seven ways art can be a means of assistance is to remind us of "the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life, so that we panic less about our difficulties and recognize them as parts of a noble existence." De Botton and Armstrong make note of the paintings from the Middle Ages that centered on the cycle of "sorrowful mysteries" Jesus suffered and endured. They boldly suggest that modern artists take on the challenge of creating paintings and sculptures on our inner sorrows. De Botton and Armstrong elucidate:

"Consider just some of the essential sorrows we face: the inability to find love, panic around money, unhappy family relations, frustrating work, adolescent uncertainties, mid-life regrets, anguish in the face of one's own mortality, and unfulfilled ambitions."

Surging with Fresh Ideas

De Botten and Armstrong stretch our minds with some of their views. For example, they think the gift shop is the most important place in the art museum. They suggest that art be studied with the following question in mind: "What lessons are you trying to teach us that will help us with our lives?" They assert that the values captured in art should not remain in the museum but be transported to the playroom, the kitchen, the bathroom, the park, and the office so these spaces can become "temples to our values as much as the quiet, marble halls of galleries once were."

Missions for Art

Art can open our hearts and minds and senses to the thousands of different shades of love. The authors imagine a "Love Gallery" which uses the resources of this virtue to enhance attention to detail, patience, curiosity, resilience, sensuality, reason, and perspective. In a painting by Sandro Botticelli, they discover the message: "Physical attraction lending support to, rather than undermining, our interest in kindness and virtue." And in a painting by Edouard Manet they unearth: "There are lessons for long-term relationships in the way that Manet approached asparagus."

In a section on "Nature," de Botton and Armstrong write about artists who challenge us to see the landscape with fresh eyes, to appreciate its beauty, and to reframe our images of the world. This is followed by a section on "Money" where the authors explore art as a guide to the reform of capitalism, the problem of taste, the role of the critic, and career advice to artists. A final section deals with "Politics" and its thematic concerns.

An Agenda for Art in the Future

What of the future? In a "Hypothetical Commissioning Strategy" at the end of the book, De Botton and Armstrong imagine a time when: "Artists would be invited to follow an unapologetically didactic mission: to assist humankind in its search for self-understanding, empathy, consolation, hope, self-acceptance and fulfillment. No longer would the questions 'What is art about?' or "What is art for?' be opaque. There would still, of course, be greater and lesser artists, but what they were up to would be obvious — and their benefit to society would be eaier to grasp and to defend."

They look forward to a time when works of art would be commissioned in the follow areas:

  • The Virtues of Love
  • The Conflicts of Love
  • Sexuality
  • Sadness, Anxiety
  • Restlessness, Envy
  • Hope
  • The Ages of Man
  • Memento Mori
  • The Pleasures of Work
  • The Sorrows of Work
  • The Other
  • Pride

We agree! What a meaningful and thrilling adventure lies ahead if artists are once again seen as storytellers and mystics who speak to the day-by-day concerns and confusions of our lives. Art as Therapy spells out a spiritual vision that has convinced us to create a special place for this medium on the new and expanded design of SpiritualityandPractice.com we are working on as we write. We intend to put into action some of the suggestions by de Botton and Armstrong and to enhance our spiritual practice homepages with art from all ages.