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Pointless exercise: Alain de Botton’s ‘Art is Therapy’

1 May 2014

In the course of its development from misconceived book to misbegotten exhibition, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s project has grown a little overconfident. Art as Therapy has become, in its current incarnation at the Rijksmuseum, ‘Art is Therapy’. Perhaps the two organisers, loosed from the tempering influence of their editors at Phaidon, have decided to throw caution to the wind. But it does prompt the question: if art is therapy, what kind of therapy is it, and who is it for?

In de Botton’s view – and he, rather than Armstrong, has so far been the public face of the operation – art ought to be regarded as a kind of anti-depressant, a remedy for the moody and morose citizens of a disenchanted modern world. Crammed into cubicles, saddled with debts, we should think of museums and galleries as places to go for a bit of self-improvement, gymnasia where we can work on our mental posture and stretch our contemplative legs. To help us do so, the Rijksmuseum – barely out from under its rejuvenating scaffold – has been covered with a new encrustation of giant disfiguring Post-It notes telling visitors how to go about their exercises. Start off with some light Vermeer. Ten reps. Feel you can manage more? Consider moving on to the Dürer.

But art isn’t therapy. Or, if it is, it’s more like shock therapy than self-help. Art unsettles and disorientates; it multiplies mystery and uncertainty. It isn’t a cure or a diagnosis, and its value doesn’t inhere in its capacity to edify or console us. It isn’t a massage bed or a helpful set of directions to our true selves. It is the wilderness of the mind: the unfamiliar terrain in which our selves can most fulfillingly be lost.

Post-It notes instruct visitors in 'Art is Therapy' at the Rijksmuseum

Post-It notes instruct visitors in ‘Art is Therapy’ at the Rijksmuseum Photo: Olivier Middendorp

In fact there’s a good idea somewhere in all this, though characteristically de Botton has got hold of the wrong end of it. If it’s true – as Ben Street recently argued on this blog – that museums and critics have become more interested in provenance and personality than in looking and meditating, then we do well to remind ourselves that an encounter with a work of art can be more than an occasion for antiquarian interest: it can change us. Last year’s Tate Britain rehang showed this with great boldness not by hectoring visitors about their love lives and financial woes, but by downplaying the labelling altogether and allowing the works to account for themselves. Here, rather than a helpful guide, we have a set of de haut en bas platitudes, a treasure-hunt of banality that leads everywhere except to the art itself.

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