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

Wed, Jan 8, 2014, 01:00

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.”

Literary treatment
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.”

A meeting with de Botton, whom they also knew from Cambridge, led to the duo offering their services to a wider audience, and they firmly believe that good writing can seriously benefit our mental health.

“Fiction has an important part to play when it comes to serious things that are hard to talk about with other people,” says Elderkin. “Through literature you can find characters going through something similar to what you’ve been through, and you have access to their emotional interior states and their different ways of dealing with it.”

A book also offers an intimate connection with a kindred spirit. “When you read a book, it puts you into a state of real intimacy with the mind of the author,” says Elderkin. “If that author seems to have a subtle understanding of a serious emotional condition, that’s a really special and privileged relationship to be in with another human being, who may have been dead for hundreds of years.”

But they stress it’s not just about emotionally identifying with a character or literary voice. “I’d argue that the novels that had the greatest effect on me are ones that very consciously use rhythm and poetry and poetic techniques in order to achieve their effects,” says Elderkin. “Some of the books we prescribe are chosen for their rhythm, for example The Old Man and the Sea, which we prescribe for anger. Mrs Dalloway is our cure for that Monday morning feeling because it’s chipper all the way through and has these fantastic rousing rhythms in it.”

In Art as Therapy, de Botton writes that art can give us “a picture of a destination – it indicates where we should go”. The right painting can help us to discover what’s important to us, or highlight aspects of life we need to address.

“There’s a painting by Manet of a bunch of asparagus in which he pays attention to these vegetables,” says de Botton. “The work is encouraging us in the idea that what is valuable or lovely in another person might be easily be overlooked; habit and familiarity encourage neglect. Manet’s example invites us to apply this move in other areas of life.”

De Botton himself finds solace in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascape photograph North Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher (1989). “We should encourage our eyes to wander over the vast grey swell of the sea, and immerse ourselves in the attitude of serene indifference it invites,” he tells me.

“A tranquil state of mind is supremely valuable in connection with many of the lesser troubles of life. Our capacity to get infuriated (and hence, usually, to make matters worse by flying off the handle) is often driven by a refusal to accept how things are. Sugimoto hasn’t just photographed the sea. He has provided us with a work that captures an attitude of mind to be summoned up at times of trial.”

If we read a book or encounter a work of art at the wrong time, it won’t mean much to us. But if it hits us at the right time, it can be very effective.

“There’s a painting [in the Tate] by William Orchardson called The First Cloud that shows, very sympathetically, a moment where a couple is recognising the depth and intractability of conflict between them,” says de Botton. In the painting, a woman in evening dress looks out the window, her back to the viewer, while her husband looks at her mournfully from the other side of the room.

“The message is really that this is no one’s fault,” says de Botton. “Contemplating the image can be very helpful in moments of relationship stress. Encountering it in a gallery, on holiday, when things are quite rosy with your partner, may mean that the artwork, just then, has little to say to you. It’s a bit like someone offering you an umbrella on a cloudless day.”

This is why it’s important to keep copies of therapeutic artwork at home. “Postcards, posters and reproductions are so important because they allow us access to the work closer to the time of need,” says de Botton. “A postcard of the Orchardson stuck on the fridge door could be a much needed aid to relationship sanity.”

Timing is important for books too. Reading Kerouac’s On The Road as a teenager inspired Elderkin’s lifelong love of liberated travel. “But if you don’t read it until you’re 30, it’s too late,” says Elderkin. “And we wanted to organise that, in a way. There’s a sense that there are perfect novels to read at certain times in your life and we didn’t want people to miss out on those things.”

I ask the bibliotherapists to recommend a book to help combat my habit of wilfully ignoring non-urgent problems and tasks. They recommend Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, in which a butler called Stevens wilfully ignores his feelings for his colleague until it’s too late, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, in which Aoife, a young dyslexic woman, avoids confronting the consequences of her disability.

I’ve read both already, but re-reading them is a different experience now I’ve got a specific issue in mind. Alas, the thought of ending up like the regretful Stevens has a paralysing effect on me. But since returning to O’Farrell’s novel, when I’ve been tempted to put off an unpleasant task, I’ve thought of how liberated Aoife was when she finally dealt with her problems. And if I need to clear my head while I decide how to tackle my various tasks, well, there’s a picture of an 18th century wall that might help.

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong is published by Phaidon Press (£24.95). Available from and good bookshops The free Art as Therapy app is available at

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