Alain de Botton and John Armstrong – Art as Therapy

I know it’s not fashionable but I really like Alain de Botton’s writing. He manages to use philosophical concepts to provide non-specialist readers with insights they might not otherwise glean.

In this book he again uses the pretence of self-help – how art can make you a better person – but what he’s doing is more like practical ethics or simply offering thought provoking commentary.

Art as Therapy is both a meditation on how art can help people and a manifesto for the art establishment to re-think its public offer of art. His manifesto is essentially that art ought to be presented to the public as a way for them to understand their lives better, and sometimes even improve it, rather than as a history lesson or a piece of important work that they ought to learn about from the experts.

He splits the book into four main sections: how art can help you in love, in your appreciation of nature, in your dealings with money, and, more collectively, help us all politically. He uses art works of all kinds to give insights into a host of things, from how to see your loved one in a fresh light to dealing with the contradictory desires for a life driven by thought and action. Like in his other books, he is strongest on the sustenance we can get as individuals, in our lives and with nature, in particular, but there are great ideas throughout.

At the heart is an Aristotelian approach to being, and he regularly refers to art being a way for people to become the best version of themselves. He isn’t saying there’s a higher self just waiting to be discovered but rather that through patient work, by trying to understand oneself and use the insights offered by art, among other things, it’s possible to do more of the things that are of value in life, and fewer of the things that offer no value.

Yes, you could debate endlessly what’s valuable and what’s not, who decides etc. de Botton does briefly address this (though arguably with inadequate depth), but this book is not about that, it’s about appealing to common intuitions and problems to show that reflection on and experience of art can offer solutions. And on this Art as Therapy is a good book packed full of de Botton’s philosophical insight.

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