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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Alain de Botton – How Proust Can Change Your Life

Insightful, original and amusing, this is one of the finest bits of literary analysis I’ve read.

De Botton uses the work of Marcel Proust to explore some of the big aspects of life – how to be a good friend, how to maintain a relationship, how to express yourself, how to see things clearly, that kind of thing.

In it, he treats Proust with great respect, using his novels, letters and life as guides. We get Q&As, Proust’s characters are used as examples of what to do and what not to do, we get to learn a lot about Proust’s life. We also get a lot of comedy, a tongue in cheek tone that make what could be a hard read into a light one, a fun one – a page turner no less.

But most of all it’s filled with good advice for living a better life, advice which is probably partly from Proust, partly from de Botton’s reading of him, like: it’s important to find original words to express yourself, friendship takes work and the asking of questions, books are important insofar as they make you explore the depths of your own soul, and so much much more.

This is my second reading of this excellent book, and it’s highly recommended.

“The problem with cliches is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones… Cliches are detrimental in so far as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”

Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life

“The lesson? To hang on to the performance, to read the newspaper as though it were only the tip of a tragic or comic novel and to use thirty pages to describe a fall into sleep when need be. And if there is no time, at least to resist the approach… which Proust defined as, ‘the self-satisfaction felt by “busy” men – however idiotic their business – at “not having time” to do what you are doing.'”

Alain de Botton on the need to take time, in How Proust Can Change Your Life