What is art for?
It’s a difficult question, a question we tend to ignore in the sphere of contemporary art and theory. We, the establishment, find it rather naïve to ask such a blunt question. We are sometimes very unsure of ourselves as artist (why am I doing this? Am I good enough?? etc.), but to question art in itself, thats really over-the-top.
Being an art critic I am definitively a part of the art establishment, the elite. It’s not a choice – it’s a fact. I have, just as my colleagues, been studying the dry theory of aesthetics for years and years. Reading Alain de Botton & John Armstrong’s common sense view on art, as presented in their new book Art as Therapy, is therefore an extremely liberating, thought provoking and refreshing change from more traditional thesis & dissertations on the subject. Here are two thinkers arguing for the meaning of art, as something that can be found outside of art. Two men daring to say that art has a purpose, and a meaning, when we all know art is primarily made for art’s sake
… or isn’t it?
This book proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewer, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.
How about that: better versions of ourselves?!!! Marvellous idea, isn’t it? But isn’t it a bit too naïve? The authors don’t seem to think so. But they are well aware that some of us, especially the elite, will. And I’m sure they enjoy the opposition! Because when titling a book; Art as Therapy, you are sure to get a lot of predisposed readers; the expertise, the establishment, all those of us believing we work with art for art’s sake … no meaning involved whatsoever …
The most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on a hot summer day, pastoral landscapes, smiling children. This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence.
Vincent Van Gogh: Almond Blossoms, 1890
History tells us Van Gogh painted the Almond Blossoms paintings to celebrate the birth of his nephew and namesake, son of his brother Theo. Todays art establishment worries about prettiness, pretty pictures feed sentimentality. And we do not want to be sentimental, do we?!
A legitimate question is therefore: Is Almond Blossoms a sentimental picture? Does it make us unaware of all the problems in the world? The complexities of life? The suffering? In short: Does the Almond Blossoms make us stupid? Or can it be that a painting like this rather enhances our ability to understand the complexity of the world, be aware of beauty, and of art’s possibility to capture an ever changing world in a single image – ? Art’s ability to enhance our senses?
Art as tool
The authors see art as a tool, which has the power to extend our capacities beyond those the nature has originally endowed us with. While traditional tools often are extensions of the body, art is an extension of the mind. Art, says the authors, help us with psychological frailties.
The book presents 7 areas, seven functions of art. (There are, of course, others, but these seem to be among the most common and convincing. AaT p5)
The seven functions of art are: