Philosopher Alain de Botton believes that there are helpful answers to the issues that plague us – from wondering whether a relationship will last to being unable to put down one's smartphone – to be found in art. In his new book, Art as Therapy, he argues with the help of philosophical art historian John Armstrong that art has a purpose, and that is to help us understand ourselves. He goes so far as to venture that in their dry delivery of dates and materials, museums miss the point of what art is all about; it is the emotional reaction that a painting evokes and what it can tell us about our own state, rather than its place in history, that make it important. Museums, he argues, should be places in which we not only learn about art, but also gain deeper insight into ourselves.
And so, Diego Velazquez's Christ Crucified might offer a remedy for anyone convinced that they are the only ones not having fun. An ancient Chinese dish can relieve us of the worry that we can't afford nice things. Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride gives pause to anyone who lacks patience with loved ones. The Art as Therapy website offers many more examples geared toward lending validity to the process of appreciating art on a personal level, without needing to know much about the historical context or technical details of a work.
The Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) have all endorsed this method for bringing daily life into high culture. Starting in April, the museums will offer visitors captions that venture more into the realm of self-help than art history, working under Mr. de Botton's theory that gaining pleasure or meaning from art is not the preserve of art historians. Rather, a little knowledge and a lot of feeling can go a long way.