Alain de Botton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Questions in Art as Therapy

Alain de Bot­ton, pop philoso­pher, has come out with a new book. Like his oth­ers, it’s full of sweep­ing ideas about an entire mode of human exis­tence. He’s writ­ten on reli­gion, sex, suc­cess, and hap­pi­ness, and now he takes on art in Art as Ther­a­py, co-writ­ten with art his­to­ri­an and author John Arm­strong. Like all of de Botton’s ven­tures, the new book is sure to polar­ize. Many peo­ple find his work pow­er­ful and imme­di­ate, many see it as blithe intel­lec­tu­al tourism. To the lat­ter crit­ics, one might reply that de Botton’s approach is some­what like that of oth­er non-pro­fes­sion­al philoso­phers ancient and mod­ern, from Pla­to to Schopen­hauer, who addressed any and every area of life. And yet de Bot­ton is a pro­fes­sion­al of anoth­er kind—he is a pro­fes­sion­al author, speak­er, and self-help guru, and unlike his pre­de­ces­sors, he express­ly sells a prod­uct. There’s no inher­ent rea­son why this should ren­der his phi­los­o­phy sus­pect. Yet, to use a favorite descrip­tor of his, some may find his media savvi­ness vul­gar, as Socrates found the so-called “sophists” of his day (a term of abuse that may be gen­er­al­ly unde­served then and now).

In the video above—one of de Botton’s “Sun­day Ser­mons” for his School of Life, an orga­ni­za­tion that more and more resem­bles his vision of a “reli­gion for athe­ists”—de Bot­ton lays out the book’s argu­ment in a pret­ty uncon­ven­tion­al way. The intro looks exact­ly like an evan­gel­i­cal church ser­vice, scored by a Rob­bie Williams song, which de Bot­ton uses as his first exam­ple of “art.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek demon­stra­tion of de Botton’s claim that “art is our new reli­gion… cul­ture is some­thing that is immi­nent­ly suit­ed to fill­ing [religion’s] shoes.” Whether all of this large talk, pseu­do-reli­gios­i­ty, and Rob­bie Williams music inspires, bores, or dis­turbs you is a per­son­al mat­ter, I sup­pose, but it does pre­pare one for some­thing very dif­fer­ent from a philo­soph­i­cal lec­ture in any case. This is, in fact, a ser­mon, replete with lit­er­ary and the­o­ret­i­cal ref­er­ences, tai­lored to offer answers to Life’s Big Ques­tions.

art as therapyDe Bot­ton first iden­ti­fies the prob­lem. While the sec­u­lar gate­keep­ers of cul­ture pre­tend to believe in the mol­li­fy­ing spir­i­tu­al effects of art, “in fact,” he says, “the idea is dead.” Muse­ums are mori­bund because, for exam­ple, they don’t direct­ly address individual’s fear of death. Pre­sum­ably, his “art as ther­a­py” approach does. The book’s web­site con­tains snip­pets divid­ed into broad cat­e­gories like “Pol­i­tics,” “Work,” “Love,” “Anx­i­ety,” “Self,” and “Free Time.” In his ser­mon, de Bot­ton doesn’t seem to evince any recog­ni­tion of the field of art ther­a­py, which has been chug­ging along since the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, but as he tells Joshua Roth­man in an inter­view for The New York­er he means the word therapy—“a big, sim­ple, vul­gar word”—broadly. Sound­ing for all like an Angli­can the­olo­gian, de Bot­ton says of an annun­ci­a­tion altar­piece by Fra Fil­lip­po Lip­pi:

There’s a sud­den ten­der­ness here, which is so far removed from the harsh­ness out­side. If I were to put a cap­tion here, it might say: ‘Our world, for all its tech­no­log­i­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion, is lack­ing in cer­tain qual­i­ties. But this paint­ing is a vis­i­tor from anoth­er world, where those qualities—tenderness, rev­er­ence, and modesty—are very high­ly val­ued. Take it as an argu­ment against Fox News and the New York Post. Use it to find the still places in your­self.’ 

The notion of this piece of art as “an argu­ment” on the same con­cep­tu­al plane as cor­po­rate mass media seems to con­tra­dict de Botton’s premise that it’s “from anoth­er world.” This cheek-by-jowl ref­er­enc­ing of the sacred and pro­fane, high and low, offends the sen­si­bil­i­ties of sev­er­al philo­soph­i­cal thinkers, and may have offend­ed Fra Fil­lip­po Lip­pi. But per­haps it’s too easy to be cyn­i­cal about de Botton’s pop­ulist approach. If all of his evan­ge­lism seems like noth­ing more than elab­o­rate pub­lic­i­ty for his books, he’s cer­tain­ly made things dif­fi­cult for him­self by found­ing a school. Whether you find his ideas com­pelling or not, he proves him­self a pas­sion­ate, if not par­tic­u­lar­ly mod­est, thinker attempt­ing to grap­ple with the prob­lems of mid­dle-class West­ern malaise and exis­ten­tial angst.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alain De Bot­ton Turns His Philo­soph­i­cal Mind To Devel­op­ing “Bet­ter Porn”

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Alain de Bot­ton Pro­pos­es a Kinder, Gen­tler Phi­los­o­phy of Suc­cess

Down­load 100 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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