The art of self-help

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Forget self-help books – what if the solutions to all our problems are hanging in a gallery? Philosopher Alain de Botton speaks to Louise Chunn on art as therapy

Admit it, you’ve probably read at least one. Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway? How To Win Friends And Influence People? Why Men Love Bitches? Oh, not the last one? Well, anyway, we digress. The fact remains that the self-help book market is booming, as we search for a way to make sense of the world and work through our various issues, from coping with dysfunctional families to an ingrained fear of public speaking.

However, what if the answers for which we’re searching have been in front of us all along, and we just didn’t know where to look? Well, according to philosopher, writer and intellect of our time, Alain de Botton, that might just be the case. In his new book, Art As Therapy, co-written with art historian John Armstrong, he argues that just by thinking about the emotions conveyed in a painting, or by studying how a piece of art makes us feel, we can, over time, find the solutions to life’s problems.

It may sound far-fetched, but de Botton’s new approach is a marked departure from walking around a freezing art gallery trying your best to look educated. “The really important thing about art is how you respond to it,” he explains. “You shouldn’t worry about being a dope or maybe looking ignorant compared to other people. You don’t have to know a lot about where it comes from. You should simply ask: ‘What is this doing to me? How does it make me feel?’”

Touchy-feely words from a philosopher, but Alain is a warmer personality than you might expect. He smiles a lot, and although he speaks in a formal manner, he really wants to get across his theories about life and art. His chosen attire of cashmere sweater, smart trousers and soft leather loafers gives him a European air, so, perhaps not surprisingly, he is determined to show that we can overcome our British stereotypes – stiff upper lips, cold hearts, stunted emotion – to blossom into more rounded, happier creatures.

Bridge Over A Pond Of Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Inspiring Stuff

So art can help us figure emotions out. But how? De Botton’s book is, like everything the 43-year-old with a double-starred first from Oxford touches, emotionally literate and intellectually challenging. But when you boil it down, what he wants to convey is pretty simple: art should inspire us, and help us in everyday life. Just like a favourite song can immediately take you back to that moment five years ago when you felt so alive and excited by what life had in store, art can also act as a trigger to our senses, reminding us of better times; that all is not lost.

And even if things aren’t looking too great – perhaps you’ve gone through a self-flagellating bout of comparing your career to that of your most successful friends, de Botton believes that looking at our favourite works of art can “help guide and console us so that we can be better versions of ourselves”. It can make you remember what’s important and can ground you when life is getting out of hand.

Imagine the scenario: you’re in the middle of a work project that is proving to be far more challenging than you predicted, and you’re starting to doubt you’re experienced enough to manage it. Your flat is up for sale and estate agents are calling every two hours to arrange viewings. To compound it all, your best friend has just broken up with her partner and needs your support. Everybody wants a bit of you and you’re struggling to cope. Many would anaesthetise the stress with a bottle of Pinot, but instead, why not take a moment to look at, say, a Matisse lithograph where life looks light and colourful, which makes you recall a treasured Mediterranean break, when you were carefree and kept life’s issues firmly in perspective. “Art captures moments,” explains de Botton, “so you can access it like a storehouse of valuable feelings that we can use as sources of energy.”

De Botton himself uses the works of the American artist Agnes Martin to help him when he’s feeling stressed. “She is an abstract painter who does hand-drawn straight lines, almost like a carpet. To me, looking at one of her paintings is an invitation to relax, take more time, realise that I’ll get there eventually.”

In his book, de Botton is also keen to ensure the intrinsic value of art is spelled out, and does this through straightforward, layman’s captions. He’s included a David Hockney from his Californian period, Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) – all azure swimming pools and warm LA sun. The caption reads: “It’s in rainy England that we need this most.” It makes perfect sense; when the weather here is awful and it’s affecting your mood, seek out golden sunshine and access those feelings associated with summer.

Alain de Botton believes art can make us happier

“Smart alecs will say that we are dumbing down, that art is so complicated and we are trying to reduce it to self-help,” says de Botton. “To such people, the very concept of self-help is banal, presumably because they believe that no-one needs help and anyone who offers it is suspicious. I find that so lonely – it’s a terrible thought that there is nothing that anyone can say that will help you.”

He knows (and, brilliantly, doesn’t care) that he’ll annoy people by saying the most important part of the gallery is the bookshop and that you can get 90% of the value of an artwork in a postcard. He expects to be pilloried by the art establishment. And for someone whose father was a renowned collector of Picasso and trustee of the Tate, and who himself is the founder of the influential cultural academy, The School Of Life, that’s quite a bold move.

Making art work

For most of us, our relationship with art dates back to the time we were pulled around a gallery during a school trip. And, despite his background, de Botton’s past interactions with art don’t seem that different. “My own experience is very much the opposite of what I am proposing in this book,” he reveals. “I am left cold when art has been presented in a boring, stultifying way, when art had not lived up to its promise. And my impression is that everyone else feels much the same. If you say I don’t get this then you are made to feel like a fool.”

And he’s right. How many times have you been pushed in front of a piece of abstract art, with no introduction or explanation, and been at a loss to know what to say or feel? “I like the colours” is usually the best thing we can come up with. It’s this fear of saying the wrong thing or coming across as ignorant that de Botton is trying to counter.

“Art should service psychology as art used to serve religion,” he explains. “We should look to it for reassurance, comfort, reconciliation with death; it should awaken our senses, draw our imaginations, help us understand others. But we’re confused, even embarrassed, not sure what we should be doing or thinking. So we miss out on things.”

In de Botton’s brave new world, a gallery visit is not just to say we’ve been and bought a fridge magnet. It’s a way of dealing with our moods and emotions. We can all find a work of art that nurtures a part of us, such as Monet’s Water Lilies, or puts problems in perspective – the room of nearblack Rothkos at the Tate Modern, for example. Every one of us can use works of art that make us work through issues. Finding the ones that speak to you is the fun part.

'''[[[ Art As Therapy]]] by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong (£24.95, Phaidon). Louise Chunn is founder of [[[]]]'''

Photos: Rex Features

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