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Art As Therapy: The seven healing functions of art

At New York’s The Cooper Union, renowned Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton introduced a large audience to the therapeutic potential of art

Sara Elkamel from New York, Wednesday 6 Nov 2013
Vincent Van Gogh's Almond Tree in Bloom, 1890. This painting brings about cheerfulness and evokes a sense of hope, one of art's potentially therapeutic functions, according to Art as Therapy authors de Botton and Armstrong. (Photo:
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Friday nights in Cairo, at least in recent months, have been spent behind closed doors, with a government-imposed curfew starting from 7pm keeping Egyptians away from otherwise manic streets.

On Friday 18 October at 7pm in New York, this Cairo-based journalist was enjoying a curfew-less night by listening to British-Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton speak about his latest book, Art As Therapy, to a packed hall at the Cooper Union.

In Art As Therapy, written in collaboration with art historian John Armstrong, art is shown to have a power that can serve in times of despair.

The witty writer kicked off his talk by pointing out the prominence of art in contemporary society.

But de Botton was speaking of the importance of art in a very different context to that which most Egyptian art fans are used to.

In de Botton’s world, Friday nights may be spent listening to talks on art’s redemptive qualities, not contemplating the fate of a country plagued with polarisation and turbulence, or raiding the fridge in an attempt to add flavour to long seemingly endless curfew hours.

Here was de Botton, tackling issues of curatorial practices in American and European museums, arguing that the problem is not in the art being produced but in the way it is framed and presented to the public.

Yet as he started outlining the seven psychological functions of art that the book explores, the universal relevance of his ideas became clear.

“Art is not just entertainment or things that look pretty; it is there to redeem us,” de Botton told the crowd.

For a moment it did not matter much where in the world this talk was held, for the writer was speaking of a collective human crisis: the danger of slipping into despair.

The philosopher was putting art forward as an antidote for misery. Sometimes, artwork can serve as mementos of prettiness, he suggests, momentarily distracting us from precarious or otherwise downright disgusting states of mind.

“Art is a repository where sadness can be met with dignity,” de Botton said, arguing that art can act as a sponge to soak up our misery when the world seems against us.

It occured to this Egyptian that the answer to the paralysing anxiety suffered by many of her countrymen may just be in art. Maybe, if all the food in your fridge, all the fervent Facebook posts and frenzied conversations with family members come to no avail, you might want to try an alternate source of therapy: art.

In Art As Therapy, the authors have suggested that art, or in particular, reading into certain works of art, can repair our psychological frailties, in a number of key ways.

One of the reasons art is so important, de Botton writes, is because we have bad memories. The first psychological function of art, therefore, is as a memory aid, helping to preserve transient experiences.

Another function of art, the authors suggest, is acting as a refuge from ugliness, swaying us momentarily in the direction of optimism. Hope, they write, is an important ingredient of success, because the manner by which we approach challenging tasks (like surviving a day in Cairo traffic, perhaps) plays a role in its outcome.

Allowing yourself to be moved by something beautiful is not a betrayal of the harsh reality of daily life, and is not a denial of the pain and loss -- it is simply a momentary, deserved respite.

But if you must indulge in sorrow (and frankly, at times it feels we must) then art can be at your service too. Works of art can at times echo our grief and travails, if nothing else, acting as companions in which we are able to see ourselves reflected.

Perhaps the smartest idea put forward by the authors is that art has the capacity to contribute to “rebalancing” us. In light of our unsteady states of being, and tendencies to lean towards one extreme or the other, art plays the role of psychological multivitamin pill, supplementing us with emotional nutrients that we lack.

The idea here is that every work of art is laden with a particular psychological “atmosphere.” It does not take an art critic to identify a work of art as violent or tranquil, emotionally charged or reserved. The authors suggest that our tastes reflect the qualities we long for: “We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing,” they write.

Yet another largely psychologically useful function of art is reflecting our un-articulated thoughts and emotions, ultimately facilitating clearer understanding of ourselves, and increasing our self-knowledge.  We all have personal collections made up of paintings, poems, films we have come across along the years, and we use these to reveal things about ourselves that we otherwise find hard to articulate.

Art can also help us grow, the authors show us, by inviting us to look beyond the boundaries of the familiar, and give strangeness a chance. Instead of staring up at an abstract piece of art and dismissing it as infantile and unskilled, we have a lot to learn by finding out who has painted it and why it looks like that. Art can be embraced as a lesson in experiencing new things not in terms of our like or dislike for them, but perhaps in terms of what we have in common with them, what we don’t, and by finding ways to relate or deviate from them.

A final un-sung function of art that the book deals with is its capacity to inspire appreciation. It can help us appreciate the mundane elements of daily life, instead of constantly yearning for something else. It can guide us towards getting reacquainted with our surroundings, moving us towards acceptance rather than offhand rejection of everything that makes our life what it is.

“Art can do the opposite of glamorising the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it,” write de Botton and Armstrong.

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