Gazing on Art as Therapy

Alain de Botton has done it again. When he turned his creative attention to religion, his book, Religion for Atheists, scandalized his fellow atheists but gave us all a chance to think afresh about the value of religion. (See my previous blog on this book at The same careful thinking and fresh approach have been clear in his books on sex, work, travel, philosophy, and love. But it is his latest book that has really captured my attention.

Art as Therapy is the title of both a book and a major exhibition that has recently been in Amsterdam, Toronto and Melbourne and likely is coming to a gallery in a major city near you soon. The idea behind both the book and the exhibition is that while almost everyone agrees that art is important, no one has adequately explained exactly in what way it is important not just to society but to the average individual. De Botton and his co-author, John Armstrong, have a firm belief that art can teach us important things about ourselves. It’s a tool for living a better life. It can and should be able to help us with the ordinary dilemmas of living – relationship difficulties, work frustrations, political cynicism, and much more.

At the core of the book is a direct challenge to art for art’s sake. What the book offers is something much more practical. Rather than approaching art with the typical historical or stylistic concerns which art books and museum captions traditionally display, de Botton suggests that a work of art be viewed in terms of the human problem it addresses. For example, The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse presents the heroine of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson as a person living in the shadows of life. It speaks to the problems of un-fulfilment and disappointment that are masked by denial and pretence. It addresses the problem of saying we are OK when we are far from it.

My wife tells me that this is what good docents and spiritual directors do – and, since she has done both well for many years, I can’t argue with her! Art and the sort of troubling life circumstances that people bring to spiritual directors and therapists invite us to listen to the questions they ask of us. Rather than providing answers, a good companion on the inner journey should encourage contemplative engagement with these questions. And that, according to de Botton, is exactly what art offers.

Good art invites us to stop, gaze and ponder. It is this contemplative space that art offers that allows it to be such good therapy. But, don’t expect the therapy it offers to be a quick fix for distressing symptoms. Its focus is the soul. Engage art soulfully and you will encounter its healing and whole-making benefits. Treat it as a conversation with someone sufficiently like you to be safe but sufficiently unlike you to suggest alternate ways of being in the world. This is why therapy may not be quite the right word for what art offers. Perhaps we should stick with the older, pre-modern term and describe what it offers as cura animarum – soul care and cure.

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