Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Necessity of Art: A Review of 'Art as Therapy'

This weekend I read ‘Art as Therapy’ by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong and it raises some relevant ideas on how we make, buy, study, appreciate and display art, overall seeking to answer the question, ‘what art is for’ rather than the over exhausted and written about ‘what art is’. It does so largely through accessible well written visual analysis of a wide range of artworks making it historically quite interesting. That is where the good points end as it becomes quite infuriating at times in some of the statements and opinions it presents to which I will go into in this review, but conversely it is for those reasons it should and I think will become a must read for anyone studying art or those generally perplexed or curious about the art world as it raises some challenging debates and though this radically conflicts with my own views, if taken lightly covers a breadth of uses of art or how it can help come to terms with ideas to do with nature, politics, censorship, taste, mortality, memory and many more.

The title ‘Art as Therapy’ which implies a more holistic stance associated with the idea of the ‘therapeutic practice of making art’ is a bit misinforming when in fact the tone of the book is far more critical and ideas based so reads more as ‘Art as Philosophy’ in my view than ‘therapy’. Central to its argument is that when engaging with art we should learn to adopt a ‘therapeutic reading’ in addition to technical, political, historical and what the writers describe as ‘shock-value’ readings. I am not against this idea per say but I think there is a danger that if we are viewing art with the gain that it is going to help us or, if we take De Botton’s ‘therapeutic reading’ as a means of art addressing our ‘internal flaws’ then it can become a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude and art is therefore something that exists to gratify our ego and becomes intrinsically inward looking. I think it would have been more helpful if de Botton had presented an outward looking purpose for art by using examples of collective artist groups such as Assemble or environmental art projects that exist by working outside the gallery, with real people, to improve the therapeutic well-being of place and the people who live there.

‘Therapy’ might be the overriding example the authors use to describe the ‘for’ in their question ‘what is art for?’ but throughout the book it becomes clear that they are describing art as being ‘a tool’ by being both a therapy, political stance, money-maker, educational, social, research and environmental tool in which, “...has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” The faults in De Botton’s writing lie therein as at times he comes across as very condescending as he points out our flaws and need for justifying art by telling what's wrong with us, and how artworks can cure our psychological, mental and spiritual ills when in-fact I feel the expectation should not be so grandiose or met with a pre-conceived self-awareness of its benefits. It would do better for offering ways to engage with art and how to begin to understand it than its implication that art should be created, read or exist to plug some kind of ‘mental or psychological gap’. It raises expectations on art works to deliver something profound or meaningful when more should be done to promote the ‘reading’ of art to be subjective and in the same universal language that people can appreciate or understand music.
The introduction is equally problematic for me, particularly the opening lines, “The modern world thinks of art as very important –something close to the meaning of life. Evidence of this elevated regard can be found in the opening of new museums, the channelling of significant government resources towards the production and display of art...” The latter in particular not something I can think many in the art world in this country would necessarily agree with at the moment, I also think it a huge generalisation to say that ‘the modern world thinks of art as very important’ because surely part of the reason for writing this book is that art isn’t valued enough and by the fact artists and writers are having to constantly convince us otherwise? I feel it is one of the artist’s main concerns (that is a product of our consumerist society whether liked or not) in the modern world to constantly having to justify or quantify the value of their work both in a monetary and moral sense. Even highly ‘successful’ (in a money sense) artists like Koons or Hirst have had to work or have had to rely on the critiques and reviews of writers and art dealers in order to convince others of a perceived sense of ‘value’ to their work. If the idea of 'value' towards art was removed altogether then people could be more open to what the work is rather than what it is worth.   
The book’s final offering that the ‘overall aim of art is to reduce the need for it altogether’ is depressing an end as it is nonsensical because whilst there is humanity, diversity and debate in the world there will always be a need for art. It is a redundant argument, as even if the world was a utopia there would still be a need for art, for the truth-seeking or self-expressive qualities that it offers. Art like science should have no bounds or higher agenda as it is infinitesimal in what can be discovered or explored through them. Many times reading this book I couldn’t help but think that if you want to be inspired by an example of writing about ‘what is art for’ then you should put 'Art as Therapy' to one side and read Ernst Fisher’s ‘The Necessity of Art’ which remains one of the best books ever about the relationship between creative imagination and the individual’s need to engage with society. "Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it."
 One final and redeeming idea from ‘Art as Therapy’ that I think is a good one, is the idea of ‘art as a tool’, a concept I have previously never looked into in any depth. So obsessed with depicting tools as art, tools in art and what tools are that I had never paid much heed to the thought that art itself could be a tool! In my own art this raises a whole paradoxical situation of art about tools being a tool about a tool about a tool....(I feel an epiphany coming!) If you read 'Art as Therapy' in this context of seeing art as a tool and can put aside its faults in some of its statements then it offers some useful ways into understanding art but for best results should be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet in relation to other books that offer a slightly less inward looking perspective.

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