“Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate.”
I was struck by this sentence as I was reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy. For those of us who believe the world needs more joy, this idea is itself something to celebrate. The sentence arises as de Botton is pointing out that artworks deemed “pretty” are often devalued by the art establishment in favor of more challenging or ideologically provocative pieces. Yet these are often the pieces that people without deep training in art gravitate towards and hang on their walls. (How else to explain the proliferation of Thomas Kinkade through malls around the country?) Most people engage far more with art on an emotional level than an intellectual one.
De Botton’s argument for “pretty,” which has roots all the way back in his book Architecture of Happiness, is that art can help us live better by inciting emotions that we don’t get to feel enough in the course of day-to-day life. He points out that good cheer is not effortless, and that art can be uplifting in a way that counterbalances our struggles. (Literally, in de Botton’s view, art can be therapy, opening a space for dreaming and hope.) He writes:
If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope. Today’s problems are rarely created by people taking too sunny a view of things, it is because the troubles of the world are so continually brought to our attention that we need tools that can preserve our hopeful dispositions.
What I love is that de Botton makes a case for joyful art as being at least as useful as “high art,” if not even more so. Emotions and beauty together have a history of being either maligned as seducing us away from what’s important or derided as trivial. And here we have a succinct argument for visceral beauty as both powerful and beneficial.
In de Botton’s fantasy, art galleries might be constructed with therapeutic objectives in mind, with sections designed to soothe anxiety, pains of love, angst about work, the self, and other stressors. Until then, enjoy your waterlilies! I know I did at the Chichu museum on Naoshima Island, shown above. Like the Orangerie in Paris, this gallery was purpose-built for Monet’s most decadent and dreamy of creations, keeping the light at just the right glowy translucency to let you get lost in the colors.
For more of de Botton’s take on the healing power of art, see the Art as Therapy website
For a great read exploring the evolutionary origins of our attraction to art: The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton