Art for therapy’s sake: can books and paintings cure what ails us?
Need to find a painting that can calm you in moments of stress? Or a book that can cure cynicism or a tendency to prevaricate? The use of art and literature as therapy is an old idea, but it’s making a comeback
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
Alain de Botton: in his new book, Art as Therapy, co-written with the art historian John Armstrong, he argues that as we need an extra criterion for reading and evaluating art – judging it by how well it can address our inner needs
Thomas Jones’s A Wall in Naples
The First Cloud by William Orchardson.
I’m looking at a wall. Or at least, a painting of a wall. I’ve got about five different articles to write and many more emails to answer, but I’m looking at this warm, simple painting of a crumbling wall basking in the sun against a bright blue sky because the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton told me to. I’m hoping Thomas Jones’s 1782 painting A Wall in Naples will help me calm down. And after a minute, it does.
“[This painting] is a quiet but powerful reminder of modesty and endurance,” de Botton tells me. “No work of art can directly solve our problems. But probably we have more ability to cope than we realise. Being calmed for a moment, being reminded of moderate hope, is a way of getting ourselves into a better frame of mind in order to deal with the things that face us.”
In his new book, Art as Therapy, co-written with the art historian John Armstrong, de Botton argues that as we need an extra criterion for reading and evaluating art – judging it by how well it can address our inner needs. And while this goes against much traditional art scholarship (it certainly wasn’t on the agenda when I was studying History of Art at university), de Botton points out that it’s not a new concept.
“The idea that art can be therapeutic – can help us cope better with our troubles and give guidance – feels unfamiliar today because it was neglected during much of the 20th century, when the idea of art for art’s sake came to the fore,” says de Botton. “But the therapeutic angle is an ancient one, in fact, and picks up on longstanding traditions. Aristotle thought the role of tragic drama was to educate the audience around fear and pity; in the Middle Ages art was routinely thought of as addressing spiritual needs, and as a powerful source of consolation. The book is picking up on this big tradition and reinventing it for today.”
De Botton isn’t the only one advocating the use of culture as therapy. Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin are the authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, in which they prescribe literary treatments for everything from dissatisfaction with life (Steinbeck’s Cannery Row) to shyness (Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado). They offer a bibliotherapy service through the School of Life, the London-based institution founded by de Botton, and consult with clients via Skype or in person.
The pair met while studying English at Cambridge, where each regularly recommended the perfect book for the other. “Early on, Suze prescribed a book to cure my cynicism,” says Berthoud. “The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. It’s the opposite of cynicism; there’s not a cynical word to be found within. And after I’d read that and all the rest of [Bates’s] Larkin novels, I have never been remotely cynical.”