Art has many obvious ways to engage us. It can give us aesthetic pleasure, it can provide meaning to our lives, it can provoke us, and it can provide basis for discussions around important questions and issues.
Another fundamental, albeit seldom talked-about function that art can assume is that of a therapeutic medium. At first this might sound strange. Therapy? Art? Together? How? This combination is however, according to renowned philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong, nothing particularly peculiar. On the contrary, they suggest that it is a surprisingly natural, but equally overlooked way to use art in our lives. In their book Art as Therapy, de Botton and Armstrong outline seven different ways in which art can help us in a therapeutic sense.
These functions focus on psychological, mental, and emotional development and stimulation, functions that our more “conventional” ways of experiencing art can involve, but that might not take the central stage when we visit art museums and galleries.
The seven psycho-therapeutic functions are often as inspiring and pithy as they are charming. Ultimately, what de Botton and Armstrong want to do is, through the medium of art, help us live better, more balanced lives, and in turn become the best possible versions of ourselves. Let’s take a closer look at the functions.
Art can help us remember the most important parts of our life
Humans are a flawed race. One way in which our human limitations are manifested is related to memory. We are constantly afraid of forgetting the important parts of our lives, of losing our most valuable and cherished moments. In fact, we often do forget.
Think of that summer day on the Riviera, when the sun caressed your bare stomach and life seemed, albeit momentarily, problem-free, your best friend’s wedding, when you had far too much too drink and ended up innocently flirting with the bride’s sister, or the birth of you oldest son, which evoked such a plentitude of happy tears. However vivid such memories are, we have a tendency to forget our impressions and sensations.
Experiencing art is a way to connect with the essence of our memories, many of which we share with other members of the human race, who similar to ourselves, are in desperate need to engage with the deepest, most universal experiences of our lives. In this way, art can let us relive and appreciate the memories we hold most dear.
Art can help us become more hopeful and optimistic
Ah, how pretty! Oh, that’s just so beautiful! How adoring! There seems to be a collective admiration for all things pretty and beautiful. Although such inclinations might sometimes be rejected as sentimental or shallow, amidst a cruel and serious world, beautiful art can function as an essential infusion of hope in our lives. Because however dark, however oppressive, and however macabre the world becomes, one might always hope for improvement.
Over two millennia ago, Plato suggested that humans should find hope and encouragement in the ideal form of things around us. He thought that humans should strive to attain the best possible version of not only themselves, but in the things that they care about the most. To this end, art can focus our attention to aspects of our individual and collective existence that we might, sometime in the future, hope to achieve.
Art can put our sorrows and suffering into perspective
Humans have a seemingly limitless capacity for sorrow and suffering. Often when we suffer, feel sad, anxious or frustrated, we experience such moods in subjective isolation. We believe that we are the only ones suffering, and that, judging from the cheerfulness of everyone around us, we are unique in feeling what we feel, suffering the way we suffer, and in having the problems we have. Naturally, this is not the case. Suffering is endemic to the human condition and always has, and probably always will, make up a considerable part of any human life.
Art can serve as a way to bring us closer to the collective aspects of suffering, by exposing us to motives where the normality of suffering is lent dignity, and met with sympathy and understanding. In this way, we can gain a well-needed sense of perspective of our own agonies.
Art can rebalance parts of our excessive behaviors or personalities
All of us have excesses, idiosyncrasies, and quirks, some more salient than others. Many of us are very stressed, others are excessively pedantic, while yet others are far too lazy. In relation to such personal traits, art can provide a rebalancing effect.
By experiencing a calm and serene landscape painting, the stressed person can regain the balance in his or her life, by viewing an artwork that depicts a seemingly chaotic motive, the pedantic person might recognize that there are other ways of approaching life, and by contemplating a canvas infused with a sense of action, movement, and progress, the lazy person can gain a sense of urgency and a new-found motivation to engage with the world.
Art can help us better understand ourselves
Most people believe that they have a full understanding of who they are, and that they grasp the full spectrum of psychological and emotional nuances of their being. Oftentimes, such believes simply do not correspond with reality. When we experience art, we can sometimes perceive something inside ourselves, something stirring, seeking to surface, to emerge. At first, we are moved, but cannot quite point out what we feel and why feel the way we feel.
In such cases, we can, if we are lucky, access deeper levels of ourselves that we might not previously been aware of or might only have had slight notions about. In this way, art can teach us more about ourselves, and our emotional and psychological mechanisms, an accomplishment that can ultimately help us become better human beings.
Art can boost our personal development
Apart from helping us better understand ourselves, art can also provide the basis for personal development. By viewing idealized art or by experiencing motives depicting acts of kindness, grace or gratitude, we can become more aware of what we need to do to become the person we want to be, to attain the personality we want to convey, and to reach the full potential in our life.
Art is a tool that can guide our attention and devotion to what we perceive as good, desirable, and beautiful. It can serve as well-needed motivation and focus for our often distracted and messy lives, directing our consideration to what we feel is ultimately most important for us.
Art helps us better appreciate what really matters in our lives
Many of us go through life seeking new experiences, sensations, passions, and material objects, without taking the time out to reflect on how these aspects affect our lives. Usually, we seek them not because we are bad, capricious people, but because this is simply the way everyone works, how the human condition operates.
In all our strive for newer, bigger, better, taller, longer, fancier, cleaner, and cooler things, art can direct our attention to what really matters in our lives, by lending dignity and grace to parts of existence that we take for granted. The beauty of early mornings, the smell of freshly picked apples, the warmth of your mother’s embrace, and the sweetness of your neighbor’s smile, are all things that we easily grow accustomed to.
Experiencing art is a way to connect with and extend appreciation to such wonderful, but often terribly unsung parts of our lives.
De Botton and Armstrongs’ exploration of the seven psycho-therapeutic functions of art is as beautiful as it is thought provoking. What stands out is their willingness to put art at the center of our existence, to let it assume a consoling, supportive, and cheering function in our lives.
Next time you visit a museum or gallery, you should, as they repeatedly stress, keep these functions in the back of your mind. Maybe you will re-emerge an entirely new person? Maybe you will feel less sad, more hopeful, or more grateful?
Only by keeping these wise and timeless functions close to heart will you know the answer. Let's try some ther-art-py!
Don’t forget to check out Art as Therapy (ISBN 9780714865911).