Alain de Botton on Therapy as Art
Our Art as Therapy author praises two therapeutic shows, proving that art isn’t simply an impractical pursuit
We hope our book, Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, will prompt readers to rethink the uses of art. The authors argue that, rather than regarding art as essentially impractical, we should embrace its therapeutic potential.
Others within the art world appear to share John and Alain’s sympathies. The Mexican artist Pedro Reyes is offering citizens of Toronto a clinical take on the gallery experience in his Sanatorium installation. This roving, temporary clinic, which came to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last year, DOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel in 2012, and Brooklyn in 2011 courtesy of the Guggenheim, is running until the first of September at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery. There, Reyes and his team of untrained staff offer “short, unexpected therapies,” the artist explains, adding that “the only way to experience this project is to sign up as a patient.”
An equally intriguing take on therapy in a gallery setting comes the US performance artist Marni Kotak. Mad Meds, Kotak’s six-week performance exhibition and installation, running until 25 August at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery, focusses on the artist’s attempts to withdraw from her psychiatric medicines, including the antidepressants Kotak was prescribed following the birth of her son in 2011, which the artist also presented as a performance in this same Brooklyn gallery.
We wondered how Art as Therapy author Alain might regard these two examples of Therapy as Art? So we dropped him a line. This is what he said:
“Artists are finally shaking themselves free of the absurd 19th century dictum that art should be for art's sake,” the author explained to Phaidon.com. “The greatest artists and the greatest ages of art have always known otherwise. Vermeer, Titian, Rembrandt, Picasso... they all wanted art to help you live and die. This is what Pedro Reyes has woken up to. In a number of recent exhibitions, he plays with the idea that art could be a cure for the troubles of the soul.
“Unfortunately,” de Botton goes on, “Reyes has to be canny in his approach - because critics (and Reyes fears them) hate the idea that he might be serious. He therefore goes in for the playful approach, when in his heart, he is deadly earnest. Of course art should be a therapeutic tool - and let's hope Reyes gradually learns to reduce his grip on defensive irony.
“Marni Kotak is braver,” de Botton argues, “and in her most recent work, boldly lays her project bare. Overall, there's much hope in both these developments. Taken together, they suggest that art is finally remembering to be relevant, direct and didactic. The critics who want art to be always obscure, always paradoxical, never engaged, never quite saying anything one can spell out, they are - finally - on the retreat. It's been a long and muted 100 year wait. Now the possibilities for art have become great again.”