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May we suggest

Reviews / May 27, 2014

Only Connect: What’s Wrong with “Art as Therapy”

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto May 3, 2014, to April 26, 2015

I wanted to like writer-philosopher Alain de Botton’s and art historian John Armstrong’s book and associated museum project “Art as Therapy,” which opened this month at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I wanted to like it even though there have been vehement critiques against it. (The Guardian’s Adrian Searle has called the project’s iteration at Amsterdam’s newly renovated Rijksmuseum “anodyne,” “shallow” and “obvious.”) Actually, I wanted to like it precisely for this reason. The contrarian in me suspected snobbery—nothing intrigues me more than an art-world bête noire—and so without having read the book or seen the show, I devised a defense.

De Botton and Armstrong’s theory proposes that art is, to quote the book’s introduction, a “therapeutic medium” with helpful, inspiring, even salubrious functions apart from history and form, the last two being elements we’re used to reading about in didactic panels at galleries and museums. It is a “tool,” the definition of which, de Botton and Armstrong write, is something we have had to invent to compensate for a lack—“to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with,” in the manner of a knife or bottle. The “Art as Therapy” interventions in museums, which aside from the AGO and the Rijksmuseum include Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, consist of videos and panels beside artworks (culled from the respective galleries’ collections) that compel viewers to apply the content of the artworks to aspects of their characters and/or daily lives. The lack compensated for by the tool of art is, according to de Botton and Armstrong, our many “psychological frailties.” Like enumerating sociologists, they identify seven compensations (or functions) of art in the first section of their book: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation.

I don’t find this terribly contentious. I was a high-school teacher for many years, so am comfortable with art’s pedagogical function; I study and love literature, film and music, all of which are intellectually acknowledged as useful, sometimes transformative, and certainly empathy-building. (Google “narrative empathy” or “musical empathy” for ample proof of this.) I found it bizarre and hypocritical that the art world would turn its nose up at a social, even utilitarian, view of art given the trends of the 1990s onwards: relational aesthetics, globalism and identity politics, all extolled by the major artists and curators of our time.

Was this pooh-poohing of “Art as Therapy” proof that art’s social turn was merely a superficial obsession with new, radical forms, a continuation (and last gasp) of the avant-garde’s commitment to novelty and art-for-art’s-sake? Was it an affronted expression of “been there, done that”? Was it an abhorrence of the deployment of relational aesthetics (or something like it) with art-historical works?

Perhaps. But after reading the book and seeing the show, I now know that the art world hates “Art as Therapy” because it’s just plain awful. I remain comfortable with its intention; its tone and execution, however, are all wrong.

At the AGO, de Botton appears in videos activated by the push of a button. The first is embedded in a science fair–like stand after the gallery’s entrance wickets. A quote by de Botton and Armstrong tells us that “an art gallery should not only be a place to learn about art [but also] should be a place where we can learn about ourselves.” Five themed sections, placed throughout the AGO on multiple floors, are then identified with a map. In these sections, permanent-collection works are curated by de Botton and Armstrong alongside instructive and interpretive panels.

In every video, one for each section, de Botton urges us to express our feelings via doodling or writing on iPads, the results of which are displayed on screens. In addition, throughout the building, we see aphorisms with the #artastherapy hashtag and symbol, an apothecary’s cross. One garbage can reads, “Art is advertising, for what is good.”

This encouragement to engage immediately appears suspect and ironic. In the videos, de Botton is remote and supercilious. He uses British diction such as “trolley” (instead of “shopping cart”) and jokey-cute, sugar-coated phrasing such as “the whole ticklish subject” (to speak of sex). (In the book, he even uses the term “the gentle sex.”) The tone, consonant with previous de Botton books but obnoxiously amplified in speech, is best described as dumbed-down-patrician. Despite de Botton’s sentiments of aesthetic-humanist magnanimity, he looks wan, uncomfortable, even hateful in the videos, hunching forward and speaking through a wince, his eyes squinting, his voice echoing through a generic gallery setting. One imagines him bound to a chair off-frame.

As with the book, first-person plural is rampant in the exhibition: “we,” “us,” “ourselves.” Who are these art-viewing masses? In the words of the various panels, they “tend to switch off when the news is too awful,” think being “randomly curious” about strangers is “rude or nosy,” spend “most of [their] lives suppressing [their] libido” and feeling “shame and guilt” about sex, are “frightened and bewildered in [their] financial lives,” “[worrying] that money is evil,” and are “too wrapped up in routine” to notice the qualities of nature and the “freedom” it provides. To wit, they are WASPy bundles of nerves.

In Toronto, this sits both uncomfortably and pointedly. Our old nickname “Toronto the Good” sticks. We are committed to nanny culture, our persnickety civics seeming to forbid more than they allow. In the grand Canadian tradition, we are afraid and annoyed to share public space, using “sorry” and “excuse me” constantly and interchangeably (and, often, synonymously with “fuck off”). We are equally afraid to talk about money, at work and in our social lives, where class is a strong, if implicit, dynamic. We are furiously committed to a culture of work and self-establishment, which includes, among other things, a mania for real estate.

But we are also prominently multicultural, and so it is obviously offensive to encounter a Toronto exhibition encouraging attendees to engage with a gallery’s collection as if they are WASPs. (It is secondarily offensive to encounter a Toronto exhibition that appears to encourage, albeit through corrective, the worst aspects of Torontonians.) One safely assumes many Torontonians come from cultures (or subcultures) that do not forbid the expression of libido, for instance, or that are not terrified of open political expression, or that are not divorced from nature’s restorative qualities. Long may they reign.

Wandering through “Art as Therapy,” I thought of E.M. Forster’s Howards End. Like the Schlegel sisters in the novel, de Botton is an outsider to WASP culture because he is not of British descent. (He is Jewish, born in Zurich to a Swiss mother and an Egyptian father; the Schlegels are German.) Yet, like the Schlegels, he is aristocratic, wanting to use his idle time to engage with culture, philosophy and philanthropy. De Botton is chair of the life-coaching chain the School of Life, headquartered in London but with outposts in Melbourne, Amsterdam, Paris, Rio and Sao Paulo. In the Art as Therapy book, in a section entitled “The Problem of Taste,” de Botton speaks of “the vulgar rich”—an epithet we might also hear from the Schlegels, who, in their view, are the beneficent, bohemian sort of rich, not the offensive, uncultured nouveau riche. The plot of Howards End turns on the Schlegels taking working-class Leonard Bast under their wing, objectifying him for his romantic-aesthetic tendencies. (When he relates a Rousseauian nature walk he took, Forster writes, “a thrill of approval ran through the sisters.”) The Schlegels’ intervention doesn’t go very well; in one of Forster’s less subtle moments, Bast dies under a falling bookcase.

Similarly, it’s as if de Botton has invited us to tea with him and art. The most meddlesome kind of tea.

Art can no doubt be instructive, but its instructions tend to come through the back door. Certainly this is the case with art that we appreciate mainly for its entertaining qualities. Often, when art comes in through the front door, it disrupts, upsets, even isolates. I believe it was Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, who likened finishing reading a novel to being shipwrecked. Great, serious art changes you, and this doesn’t always feel integrative. For Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #14, placed in the “Money” section of the AGO’s “Art as Therapy,” de Botton tells us Sherman’s character is “uncertain about herself” and that it’s “a very normal feeling” and “we are a bit like this too.” It’s one of his many idiotic misreadings (I could fill this review with them, but you get the idea), originating from a desire to mollify. Sherman’s work is, of course, disturbing. It fetishizes and makes perverse sexual vulnerability. It is paradoxical, ambivalent—it unbalances, one of art’s great pleasures (cf. the Stendhal syndrome). This does not take away its instructive or socially useful qualities. On the contrary, it augments them.

There is often a trauma, then, to encounters with great art, one that de Botton ignores. Trauma helps us remember and appreciate, and so it is that, through trauma, we bring art along with us as life’s best metaphor. This trauma is represented in our culture by the traditional imperatives of education, the ultimate front-door approach. And this is why contemporary students and, increasingly, teachers resist that tradition and its more onerous aspects: a Modernist poem that takes many readings to understand; a dauntingly long novel; a Conceptualist gesture requiring a considerable think-through; three hours at a museum without food, drink or distraction. These are different traumas than the ones de Botton proposes, i.e., keeping in mind your electricity bills, hesitancies to vote, or spousal bed-death while in the presence of the Old Masters. (We might compare de Botton’s approach with the woeful trend of teachers asking students to journal their responses to art and leaving it at that, instead of shepherding them through the complexities of works that may only relate to their lives abstractly.) These traumas are effort-based and, then, psychological. They are alien encounters, and many people cannot be bothered to have them, because they are frequently not initially fun. Through persistent curiosity, however, they can become beautiful and terrifying: something you thought had nothing to do with you grabs you by the throat, and enters you.

This experience of art is rare, mysterious and fundamentally un-genteel. It is completely divorced from the everyday, present in the quiet mundane of existence like a scar underneath a shirt. Being exposed to ways of life that are ostensibly inaccessible, to elevated ways of thinking we will never encounter in real life, to stylized images that appear foreign because they are—this is not pleasant, nice or even useful. But it all eventually makes a strange home. Moving backwards from one of de Botton’s favourite Greek philosophers, Aristotle, to Socrates, it represents a uniquely human desire to live the examined life.

To be fair, de Botton heralds self-examination in the Art as Therapy book. Always, though, it is a means towards ego betterment. When art provides self-knowledge “we can,” writes De Botton, “hold up art objects and say, confusedly but importantly, ‘This is me.’” When it extends experience beyond the self, it still helps us “discover that it can contain ideas and attitudes that we can make our own in ways that enrich us.” Is art The Secret? There is nothing about an encounter with art that de Botton doesn’t write about with a hopeful sense of functionality and actualization, in the first-person plural.

The mantras in “Art as Therapy” are precisely what many museum directors and programmers want to hear, even though de Botton claims, in his book, that he writes against museological orthodoxy. For more than two decades now, art institutions, underfunded and underattended, have been in crisis. They need you, and because they need you, they will resort to many undignified tactics to get you. (Remember the Kahlo-unibrow controversy at the AGO in fall 2012?) Not unlike “Elevated,” AGO curator Kitty Scott’s airing of contemporary pieces in the gallery’s collection (currently on view on the fourth and fifth floors), “Art as Therapy” activates the institution’s holdings via a notable curator who presents them to you as valuable. Not only can this outreach, or insistence on the collection’s essential public importance, come across as hypocritical—most of the week, one still has to pay the AGO’s $19.50 admission fee to access “Art as Therapy”—but it may make promises it can’t keep.

The model of the free collections gallery so prevalent in the UK is not feasible everywhere, but freedom, rather than self-actualization, must guide all museum visits: freedom to go where you want, loiter as long as you want, look as intently or as dismissively as you want. In the museum, a space with similarities to the casino or the bathhouse, one struggles to sense time passing or to distinguish day from night. It is a dream space. This is why its edifications and transformations occur. This is why I support formalist and historicist didactic panels. They are there to read if you wish, and are at their best when they provide objective details about materials and construction, and social, cultural and political contexts—rather than interpretations. But the labels of de Botton’s “Art as Therapy,” like those of many contemporary-art exhibitions, shout and fuss, either prevaricating, stroking or bludgeoning. From the arrows on the floor to the mapped-out, numbered and colour-coded sections throughout the gallery, everything in “Art as Therapy” is prescribed and confining.

Why did de Botton and Armstrong choose “Art as Therapy” for their title? It suggests “art therapy,” something very different than looking at art—something that, of course, is designed to help people alleviate trauma via the act of creative making. This is a valid and complicated practice and profession, but a society that confuses art therapy with consuming art is in deep trouble. Museums are not agents for direct social change but reflections on what culture has been and is, through the sensibilities of the present moment. A museum is a mirror, not a pill.  And yet, the pill mirrored by “Art as Therapy” is telling, suggesting the many ways in which serious culture strains for relevance in a society that turns insecurely away from it. One thing “Art as Therapy” makes certain: we get the exhibitions we deserve.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.