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.

Better Out Than In

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For the month of October, the pseudonymous graffiti-artist, political activist, film director and painter, Banksy, has assumed an artists residency on the streets of NYC. Each night he sets out to create or install a new piece of street art, while the city that never sleeps waits with uncertainty for him to post a picture of it on his blog, Better Out Than In. And so it begins, a hurried race of the masses to locate and critique Banksy’s latest piece.

And the irony of it all? Well take October 12, for example, when Banksy set up a stall in Central Park selling 100% authentic original signed canvases for $60USD each, and a total of three sold. When an opportunist set up an outwardly “Fake Banksy” stall shortly after the public learnt of Banksy’s stall, the canvases sold out in just three hours. Among other things, it is the commercialisation of his street art that Banksy despises the most. His art is deeply imbued with satirical messages about politics, religion, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism and society in general.

When Banksy’s art is removed from the street and sold for millions of dollars, it is deprived of the context in which it was created and it is therefore deprived of its meaning. Banksy despises the way in which street art is privatised; allowing one person to benefit from it, both visually and financially, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Commercialisation of his art is the very thing Banksy deplores, and the very thing that has made him famous. And therein lies the conflict in his work, but according to Banksy, it’s still Better Out Than In.



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“Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.”
– Banksy

The Great Men Series – 6

Meet Terry Walker.

For years now, I have  often seen Terry strolling into Hawthorne, chatting to the staff, smiling at the patrons, ordering his coffee and sitting down to read. Terry is one of those rare people with eyes that smile. With that in mind, I have always been intrigued as to where he came from and what he has done with his life. This morning as he walked out of Hawthorne, everyones’ favourite local cafe in my home town, Havelock North, I decided to quell my curiosity and ask him everything I wanted to know. Just as I had imagined, Terry was the calm, lovely man with a story of his own that I had been yearning to listen to for all of these years.

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“I grew up in Wellington and lived overseas in London for a number of years, working for a pharmaceutical company and the a medical equipment company. Then I came back to New Zealand. I lived in Auckland for a few years when I came back, but now I live in Hawkes Bay. Hawkes Bay is very, very quiet compared with Auckland – if you don’t have to live in Auckland, then Hawkes Bay is a better place to be. I have two daughters, Nikki and Kylie. I came back from London with medical equipment but have since retired of course. I go to Hawthorne for the coffee and the nice people that run it; they always have the nicest people serving. 

London is a fascinating place, I did a whole mixture of things there. I did love the pubs of course, but sadly they are changing quite radically in style these days, they’re not “pubby” anymore. I’ve returned to London to visit my daughters and grandchildren who live there. 

Good luck with your day and good luck with your life. Just get on with it. Take it as it comes and just get on with it.” 

– Terry Walker

Suspicious Minds

WHO SHOT ROCK & ROLL – A photographic history, 1955 – present

Yesterday’s visit to the Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery has irrevocably unleashed the swingin’ rock n roll goddess within me. The premise of the exhibition rests on the importance of photography in capturing the rock n roll movement. After all, an image is concrete evidence of the events that shaped the rock n roll movement, and is thus crucial in determining how we remember and reflect on this era – the image lives on, long after the music ends.

“Rock’n’roll isn’t just a sound. It’s a look…A great Rock’n’roll photograph freezes that for all time.”

Daily News, New York

When a song is complete and the sound is turned down, the musicians are intent on having rock n roll continue –  they breathe it through their every actions – through their attitude, through their clothes, through their thoughts, and through their fans – this exhibition solidifies the crux of rock n roll in a  lasting pictorial form. The photos reveal timid musicians before reaching stardom, the vulnerability of those musicians upon reaching stardom, and the fans who play an undeniable role in dictating the stars’ rise to fame and fortune.

My favourite photo was of Kurt Cobain, taken after he smashed his guitar on stage, walked off and started crying. It reveals the great interface between a confronting yet apprehensive musician – no matter how famous they become, at the end of the day they are not a star, but a human being, as susceptible to life’s dealings as you and I.


“We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?

We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

So, if an old friend I know
Drops by to say hello
Would I still see suspicion in your eyes?

Here we go again
Asking where I’ve been
You can see these tears are real
I’m crying

We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

Oh let our love survive
Or dry the tears from your eyes
Lets don’t let a good thing die

When honey, you know
I’ve never lied to you
Mmm yeah, yeah.”

Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley

Wolfgang Tillmans


Renowned German photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans, is currently exhibiting at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. I went to check it out the other day and was struck by his work. Tillmans’s photos tackle an incredibly diverse spectrum of subjects, from ordinary everyday portraits, to Berlin club scenes, to modern city-scrapes, to political manifestations, right through to astronomy and the night sky. He has managed to transform banal images into thought provoking art pieces that raise questions and challenge conventions. The coolest part was the book Tillman prepared especially for the exhibition, which acts as part of his installation. Everyone is welcome to take a book from the massive pile and keep it for themselves.

In 2000, Tillman was the first non-British artist and the first photographer to receive the prestigious Turner Prize.








Easy, peasy, Japaneasy – A brief span of Art in Japan

Japanese art has had a profound effect on European artists, stemming from Degas and Van Gogh, right through to Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet. As such, every art lover should be armed with a brief span of its rich history.

Young Woman with Ibis, Edgar Degas

Blossoming Almond Tree, Vincent van Gogh

May Belfort, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Monet’s Japanese Bridge at Giverny, Claude Monet


The Japanese term, Ukiyo-e, commonly translated as “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a style of genre painting and woodblock printing that arose in Japan during the 17th century and fell into decline in the 19th century. Similarly, Ukiyo, or “floating world” refers to the pleasure seeking and decadent features of the urban lifestyle, ubiquitous in Japanese society throughout the Edo period from approximately 1600 to 1867. Within its interrelated engagements in poetry, literature, theatre, story telling (rakugo), visual arts and the highly refined engagements of the licensed brothel quarters, the “floating world” sub-culture cultivated its own carefully refined behaviours, manners and sensibilities implicit in the word Ukiyo itself.

Ukiyo originated from Buddhist beliefs that were founded on the ephemeral nature of man’s existence; “floating world” thus came to represent a preoccupation with the present moment – the latest fashions, pursuits and life styles of urban culture – a certain chicness. Ukiyo prints were developed as a product of the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo), essentially by and for the townsman class of that city. In an aesthetic sense, Ukiyo-e focussed on decadence, linear form, and the refinement of design and technique. In a general sense, Ukiyo focussed on the way in which institutions developed to service the needs of an urbane lifestyle and in particular, an urbane entertainment industry.

During this period, the Edo people developed a newfound desire for capturing aesthetic experience, and a willingness to adopt the trappings of taste within the realm of beauty. The Edo people saw this as much through street entertainment and Kabuki theatre as they did through the arts – there was an engagement with these art forms through drinking and laughing, and through employing a sense of real refinement and an abundance of knowledge. These art forms reflected a world of pleasure, aspiration and expensive glamour. The “floating world” was a way of life; it created its own code of behaviour and set of values. These values were not consistent with prevalent morals prior to this period, but rather, were founded on the notion of style as pre-eminent. Although the “floating world” was constantly shifting locations, its quintessential locale was the pleasure quarters, or, the enclosed districts of prostitution that had been set up under official license, first in Kyoto in 1589.

Many artists experimented with technique and as a consequence there were rapid advances in woodblock printing. The woodblocks prints of the “golden age” of Ukiyo display a confidence and maturity that achieved a level of refinement and consistency of taste that was rarely equalled after 1800.

The Tale of Genji, Suzuki Harunobu

Lion Dance, Suzuki Harunobu

Three Known Beauties, Kitigawa Utamaro

All Night Under Mosquito Net, Kitigawa Utamaro


Hello Kitty is a fictional character in the form of a female Japanese bobtail cat. Hello Kitty epitomises Japanese popular culture that has escalated into a world wide phenomenon, with the company, Sanrio, now worth five billion dollars each year. Hello Kitty merchandise is now available in almost any form, including the banal such as shoes, clothing, books, stationary, and the more extreme such as machines guns, aeroplanes, cars and tattoos. What I find most interesting about Hello Kitty is that she does not have a mouth and has thus managed to achieve such popularity as a character with no dialogue.

Original Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty collaboration with Mac

Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty collaboration with Vans


Yayoi Kusama transforms entire galleries into a work of art. When I went to her exhibition three years ago, she had covered the outside of the Turnball Gallery in giant coloured polka dots. Kusama does not hold back on sharing the difficulties of her life – she has always suffered from extreme OCD and has manifested herself in a behavioural and graphic phenomenon. At first a desire to obliterate any sense of identity, some of her earliest works were portraits of her mother, obsessively covered in dots. Kusama’s disorder, which was exacerbated by her repressive mother, drove her to NYC in 1957 where she began “infinity net paintings” of the network in-between the dots. These works would stretch across whole walls, floors and ceilings. Here Kusama became closely associated with Andy Warhol and The Factory. Repetitions of commodities and the notion of mass production demonstrate this link with Warhol.

Fireflies at Night is one of Kusama’s installation pieces. Here the viewer walks into a small door and steps onto a wooden platform surrounded by water. The walls and ceiling are made of mirrors and millions of tiny coloured lights reflect into infinite space. At eye level they seem to zero off into the horizon, above they seem to vary in size and intensity, and when you turn around they seem to shake into a vibration, because the water shatters the movement of the lights. Miraculously, you cannot see yourself in the reflections.

What is it in works like these that are Japanese in flavour? The light is symbolic of the Heian period, were Court parties would go out at night and wach fireflies dance over the riverbanks. The Japanese preoccupation with pattern is evident in Kusama’s lights and dots which can be traced back to 1,000 years ago, where patterned surfaces were used to decorate Genji scrolls and kimonos during the Edo period. Kusama is a valued artist for embracing a variety of dimensions, including modern art, pop art, performance art and post-modernism, and most recently, her collaboration with Louis Vuitton.

Yayoi Kusama

Fireflies at Night, Yayoi Kusama

Floral Suitcase, Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama for Louis Vuitton

Aggregation: One thousand Boats Show, Yayoi Kusama


Yoko Ono continues to amaze the contemporary art world with her installations, construction pieces, performances, films, music and archive material. She is not only an avid artist but a film-maker, writer, poet and peace activist too who has embraced a range of media and invented and created new forms of art. I love Yoko!

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To The Light Exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono

Easy, peasy, Japaneasy.