What is art for?

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

TheAestheticsOfJoy Monet Waterlilies Chichu

“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

May 26th, 2016


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    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Sherry on May 29, 2016

    In this world with so much beauty and grace, you would think it would be easy to maintain cheerfulness and hope and joy, but it isn’t always. Being bombarded constantly by the worst news possible can make turning a cheerful face to the world a real achievement. Still, the news we hear is the exception, the things that go terribly wrong, what you don’t often hear are the daily things that are going along right, or more than right. Occasionally, you hear a news story about some positive achievement not related to sports, and that can make my day. I’m sorry, but I think the world pays too much attention to the competition of sports. When was the last time you heard a story about a kid winning a national prize for science? Or when has the offering of poetry from kids for a literary competition been in the news? There are thousands and thousands of people volunteering their time and energy to help those in need, yet often their cheerful achievements are overlooked in the desperate need of the media to be the first with the worst news. That’s why I find your work so refreshing, reminding us that there is a place in our lives to celebrate the things that make us happy. I believe if we had more of this cheerfulness and hope and joy would not be such an achievement. And art . . . I always supposed that art was supposed to be uplifting in some way, to make the human being looking at it think outside themselves, to feel more deeply, to connect more fully with humanity. Even art that portrays grief or madness can be uplifting if there is that element of connection that makes us feel less alone in our own world. And there is always joy and hope in that.

    1. Ingrid on June 6, 2016

      “Occasionally, you hear a news story about some positive achievement not related to sports, and that can make my day.” Right on, Sherry! I am intrigued by certain athletes who seem to be stretching the bounds of human capability, but when it comes to the competitive aspect I have no time for it!

      Thanks for your thoughtful reflections and kind words. They always make my day!

  2. Nushien on June 8, 2016

    My first introduction to de Botton was in person AND in discussion about his book Art as Therapy – I left it feeling liberated meaning how revolutionary to think love the art that you love. period. It’s about what gives YOU the most joy..the most sense of calm…the most peace. At the moment, I’m having a huge love affair with the Hudson River School

    Recently, I was having breakfast by the Mediterranean. The hotel had set up each table so that everyone had a view of the port framed naturally by the corniche and the hotel’s garden. I couldn’t help but think to myself how it looked like a painting and how someone in the early 1900’s would have had breakfast here. Sans iphone. Sans nytimes app. Sans deluge of emails. The only way to engage with the outside world would have been with a physical paper ( I miss the sound of rustling paper) and by friendly conversation.

    Back to de Botton – he’ll be in NYC next week thought I’d share with one fan to another 🙂



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