Book club: Art as Therapy



Art as a therapeutic remedy

The modern world thinks of art as very important – something close to the meaning of life, yet we are never told why. In Art As Therapy, Alain De Botton cleverly dissects the role of art and suggests a new way of accepting it into our lives: as a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s problems.

 What purpose does art serve?  

De Botton tackles these big questions, demonstrating the role art plays in relation to love, nature, money and politics. For most of human history, artists were expected to make works of art that had an agenda. For example in the West, this agenda was to glorify the Christian message. Now, however, we value originality – an increasingly dangerous presumption in that novelty may be mistaken for artistic talent. In his book, De Botton argues that we should reclaim the idea of defining an artistic agenda; “Rather than any supernatural purpose, this would focus strictly on human ends…to assist mankind in its search for self-understanding, empathy, consolation, hope, self-acceptance and fulfillment.” The book proposes that art is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, and like any tool, it allows us to extend our capacities beyond those that nature originally endowed us with. In that sense it allows us to become better versions of ourselves. De Botton outlines seven distinct functions that art has in our lives: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation, to which I have summarized his most eloquent points –


Art is a way of preserving experiences of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing.


Strategic exaggerations of what is good, in idealized images, can perform the critical function of distilling and concentrating the hope we need to chart a path through the difficulties of life.


One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is teach us how to suffer more successfully.

Many sad things become worse because we feel we are alone in suffering them. We experience our trouble as a curse, or as revealing our wicked, depraved character. So our suffering has no dignity; it seems due only to our freakish nature. We need help in finding honour in some of our worst experiences, and art is there to lend them a social expression.

Art can offer a grand and serious vantage point from which to survey the travails of our condition.


Few of us are entirely well balanced. Our psychological histories, relationships and working routines mean that our emotions can incline grievously in one direction or another. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our inner selves. This answers the vexed question of why people differ so much in their aesthetic tastes; why some people are drawn to minimalist architecture and others to the Baroque.


We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. We have moods, but we don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before.

In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.

There are moods or states of the mind (or soul) that are perplexingly elusive. One has them often, but can’t isolate or examine them. Art helps us to do this.


Art that starts by seeming alien to us is valuable because it presents us with ideas and attitudes that are not readily available in our familiar environments, and that we will need in order to accede to a full engagement with our humanity. In an emphatically secular or egalitarian culture, important thoughts get lost. Our usual routines may never awaken the important parts of ourselves; they will remain dormant until prodded, teased and usefully provoked by the world of art. Not everything we need is at the forefront in every place or era. It is when we find points of connection to the foreign that we are able to grow.


Art peels away our shell and saves us from our spoilt, habitual disregard for what is all around us. We recover our sensitivity; we look at the old in new ways. We are prevented from assuming that novelty and glamour are the only solutions.

To conclude

A central feature of human experience is that while we know ourselves from the inside, and have an immediate, intuitive grasp of what it is like to be ourselves, we meet others only externally. We may feel close, we may get to know them well, but a gap remains. Hence, the sense of one’s individuality has a slight quality of separateness and difference from all others. What we see happening to others need not happen to oneself; this is a natural outcome of the way our minds are structured. Of course, it is not true, and we will not escape the common fate of all of our kind. We are always in need of cultural objects and practices that will press upon us the shared, inevitable features of existence. Our own life may feel special, but it cannot essentially be different. Art can act as a common ground for realizing the human condition.

And to leave you with a passage

The long, slow passage of time will, one day, wear us down as well. The first portion of the sky is formless and empty, a pure silvery nothingness, but above are clouds that catch the light on their undersides and pass on in their random, transient way, indifferent to all our concerns. The picture does not directly refer to our relationships or to the stresses and tribulations of our everyday lives. Its function is to give us access to a state of mind in which we are acutely conscious of the largeness of time and space. In that condition of mind – that state of soul, to put it more romantically – we are left, as so often with works of art, better equipped to deal with the intense, intractable and particular griefs that lie before us. Our tastes will depend on what spectrum of our emotional make-up lies in shadow and is hence in need of stimulation and emphasis.


I’m thinking

Art needs to be accessible to all, and it needs to stay with us long after we tour a museum or gallery. Not only should art play a vital role in the establishment of new buildings and cities, but we should see it in the most seemingly mundane items – cutlery, road signs, pens and books – beautiful art all around us, made to last, I say.

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