By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 2013
Who’s afraid of Alain de Botton? At 43, he’s already an elder in the church of self-help, the master of spinning sugary “secular sermons” out of literature (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), philosophy (“The Consolations of Philosophy”), architecture (“The Architecture of Happiness”). He has a remarkably guileless face and a friendly, populist vision of art. Why then do I keep checking my pockets? And why the grumbles that he condescends to his subjects and regards his readers, as the British writer Lynn Barber put it, as “ants”?
De Botton’s new book, “Art as Therapy,” written with the historian John Armstrong, begins with grim news. Every day, honest, upright citizens “leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed.” It’s a scandal, especially since the authors firmly believe art exists to make people “better versions of themselves.” They dream of a day when art can be prescribed for specific “psychological frailties” (including poor memory and pessimism), when museums can be redesigned as gyms for the psyche, grouping works not by style but by the feelings they depict and the muscles they work. Captions will whisper prompts like: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy,” for Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “The Iceberg.”
“Art as Therapy” is handsome and depressing. It lays bare the flaws in de Botton’s method, chiefly that, well, he does regard his readers like ants. How dispiriting it is to be told that we cannot appreciate mystery, to see complexity cleared away like an errant cobweb. True, perverse, playful reductiveness has always been de Botton’s shtick — he’s just never done it so badly. The grant proposal prose saps all the fun from the proceedings. What should come across as cheeky sounds unhinged: “The true aspiration of art should be to reduce the need for it”; “We should revisit the idea of censorship, and potentially consider it . . . as a sincere attempt to organize the world for our benefit.”
Irritatingly, the authors do have a point: there is a hunger to believe art has a pragmatic purpose in our lives (witness the excitement over studies showing that going to museums makes us smarter and reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic). And of course art consoles and nourishes and does everything Armstrong and de Botton say it does. The problem is that we don’t need them as middlemen, and we certainly don’t need paintings puréed down to pablum and spoon-fed to us. But Armstrong and de Botton think so little of us, they design museums like Temple Grandin designed humane slaughterhouses, to minimize our fear and confusion. And in sparing us the horror of feeling “inadequate,” they deprive us of a chance at rapture, to work to possess the work ourselves. (Recall the caption on that painting of the iceberg: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy.”)
I’m reminded of the historian Leo Steinberg’s reaction to Jasper Johns’s early work, specifically “Drawer,” in which a drawer is embedded in a canvas. Steinberg’s essay is an elegant, instructive tantrum, the kind of thing one imagines actually entices people to look at pictures. It is modest, frank and very funny on the variety of feelings an interesting image can elicit. Steinberg passes from confusion to contempt to terror (“I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it”) to a puzzled sort of pleasure. “It is a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful,” he writes. “I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right.” It is, in fact, wonderful. What would Armstrong and de Botton make of “Drawer”? “Open yourself to new experiences,” maybe. Worse: “Search within.”
Pity; the idea of knowledge as a process not a pellet is something that used to matter to de Botton. It’s something he has forgotten (and can be forgiven for forgetting; unreliable memory being, after all, the first “frailty” mentioned in “Art as Therapy”). If de Botton were to consult his Proust again, he’d encounter the painter Elstir, whom he treated tenderly in his breakout book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” Elstir’s message is this: “We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” No one, not even Alain de Botton.