Phaidon's 15 Minute Art Lesson - Why Art Gives Us Hope - by Alain de Botton
Self-isolation is an opportunity for self-improvement. So elevate your fine art appreciation without leaving your sofa with this new series of long reads from our best selling books
Museums and galleries might well be closed, and many education facilities have shut their doors, though that doesn’t mean you have to turn your back on high culture just yet. During the Coronavirus shut-down we’ll be bringing engaging, informative and thought-provoking extracts from our enviable back catalogue.
We thought it might be wise to start on an uplifting note; so here’s the British philosopher, author and public intellectual on the role of hope in art, as excerpted from his book, Art as Therapy. Over to you Alain!
“The most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, smiling children,” writes de Botton and his co-author John Armstrong. “This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence. The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a ‘bad’ response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. At the most basic level, we enjoy pretty pictures because we like the real thing they represent. The water garden that Monet painted is itself delightful, and this kind of art is especially appealing to people who don’t have what it depicts. It would be no surprise to find a reproduction of a painting evoking watery, open-air serenity in a noisy, urban, high-rise flat.
“The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying, ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ – a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity (primarily economic, but also moral, political and sexual). The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.
“For example, a worker in a car factory in Oxford might buy a pretty postcard of nearby Blenheim Palace, the historic seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, and overlook the injustice of the undeserving aristocrat who owns it. The worry is that we may feel pleased and cheerful too readily – that we will take an overly optimistic view of life and the world. In short, that we will be unjustifiably hopeful. However, these worries are generally misplaced. Far from taking too rosy and sentimental a view, most of the time we suffer from excessive gloom. We are only too aware of the problems and injustices of the world – it’s just that we feel debilitatingly small and weak in the face of them. Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate.
“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.
“The dancers in Matisse’s painting [top] are not in denial of the troubles of this planet, but from the standpoint of our imperfect and conflicted – but ordinary – relationship with reality, we can look to their attitude for encouragement. They put us in touch with a blithe, carefree part of ourselves that can help us cope with inevitable rejections and humiliations. The picture does not suggest that all is well, any more than it suggests that women always take delight in each others’ existence and bond together in mutually supportive networks.
“If the world was a kinder place, perhaps we would be less impressed by, and in need of, pretty works of art. One of the strangest features of experiencing art is its power, occasionally, to move us to tears; not when presented with a harrowing or terrifying image, but with a work of particular grace and loveliness that can be, for a moment, heartbreaking. What is happening to us at these special times of intense responsiveness to beauty?
“The more difficult our lives, the more a graceful depiction of a flower might move us. The tears – if they come – are in response not to how sad the image is, but how pretty. The man who painted a picture of humble, beautiful chrysanthemums in a vase was, as his self-portrait suggests, intensely aware of the tragedy of existence. The self-portrait should put to rest any worry that the artist has presented us with a cheerful image out of misplaced innocence. Henri Fantin-Latour knew all about tragedy, but his acquaintance with it made him all the more alive to its opposites.
"Consider the difference between a child playing with an adult and an adult playing with a child. The child’s joy is naive, and such joy is a lovely thing. But the adult’s joy is placed within a recollection of the tribulations of existence, which makes it poignant. That’s what ‘moves’ us, and sometimes makes us cry. It’s a loss if we condemn all art that is gracious and sweet as sentimental and in denial. In fact, such work can only affect us because we know what reality is usually like.
“The pleasure of pretty art draws on dissatisfaction: if we did not find life difficult, beauty would not have the appeal it does. Were we to consider the project of creating a robot that could love beauty, we would have to do something apparently rather cruel, by ensuring that it was able to hate itself, to feel confused and frustrated, to suffer and hope that it didn’t have to suffer, for it is against this kind of background that beautiful art becomes important to us, rather than merely nice. Not that we should worry. For the next few centuries at least, we have problems enough to ensure that pretty pictures are in no danger of losing their hold over us. A lot of the world’s art isn’t just pretty; it seems to go further, presenting us with a thoroughgoing idealization of life.
"This can be even more troubling to contemporary sensibilities. The Royal College of Physicians stands in the middle of Edinburgh’s New Town. Imagine the proceedings that are supposed to go on in this building – all dignity, erudition and calm authority, exactly the sort of professional face the doctors of Edinburgh would no doubt like to present. The building turns an august front to the world, demanding respect, even reverence. It embodies an idealization.
“Idealization in art has a bad name because it seems to involve endowing something or someone (a profession, a person) with virtues more glowing than they actually possess, while disguising any imperfections with polish and subterfuge. In modern use, the notion of idealization carries a pejorative charge, as the idealizing artist strips away whatever is awkward or disturbing, leaving only the positive. The worry is that if we are attracted to such simplified objects, if we praise them and take pleasure in them, we will do an injustice to reality.
“For example, a painting by Antoine Watteau that presents the countryside as a serene and elegant location for pleasure might be criticized for excluding the economic realities upon which the vision depends. Where are the servants who must bring the wine and fruit? Where are the peasants the leisured class rely on for their income? The fear is that in loving the picture, we ignore crucial aspects of existence, and even, in a sense, condone the exploitation of servants and peasants.
“A more personal issue can also be at stake. We may worry that a person who has an idealized conception of some parts of life will be less able to cope with the messiness of actual existence. Someone who imagines that little children are always sweet will approach a family weekend with alarmingly brittle and unhelpful expectations, and may turn away in disgust from perfectly normal behaviour and make unreasonable demands on the conduct of their own and other people’s offspring. It is hardly surprising, then, if being ‘realistic’ – the antidote to idealization – is judged a cornerstone of maturity, which in turn accounts for certain accepted artistic reputations.
“It is now normal to rate George Grosz, with his relentless exposure of the darkness below civilized institutions, more highly than Angelica Kauffmann and her pretty visions of Arcadian life. Grosz seems to give us reality; Kauffmann a dream. However, it is worth examining why idealization was for long periods of history understood to be a central aspiration of art. When painters present things as better than they are, they do not generally do so because their eyes are closed to imperfections. When we look at The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, we should not assume that Angelica Kauffmann was unaware of the realities of women’s lives in the eighteenth century. She was attempting to give expression to her longings for harmony and fruitful endeavour, longings that were particularly intense because Kauffmann as so exposed to her own and others’ failings (in 1767, when she was 26, she was tricked into marriage by a sociopathic adventurer who posed as a Swedish count).
"We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires. Returning to the neoclassical facade of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, we should allow ourselves to enjoy it as an image of professional decorum and expertise without fearing that we are colluding with a subterfuge being played on a gullible public. The ideal it stands for is genuinely noble. We can love the ideal while being perfectly aware of the fallibility and imperfect motives of the group of men who commissioned its representation.
The apparent opposite of idealization – caricature – has a lot to teach us about how ideal images can be important to us. We are very much at ease with the idea, exemplified by caricature, that simplification and exaggeration can reveal valuable insights that are lost or watered down in ordinary experience. We can take this approach and apply it to idealized images, too. Strategic exaggerations of what is good can perform the critical function of distilling and concentrating the hope we need to chart a path through the difficulties of life.”
For a longer version of this extract, as well as much more from Alain and John, consider getting hold of a copy of Art as Therapy. Phaidon.com is delivering as usual during the crisis. Check out all our great books in the store today.