Photo Credit here.
BY ROBERT AYERS
Alain de Botton, the witty and versatile popular philosopher, has curated an entire exhibition at the Rijks Museum that, according to the exhibition, focuses “on the therapeutic effect that art can have,” and The Spectator has rewarded him by calling him a moron. He has furnished the masterpieces in the exhibition not with dry accounts of their creation and creators but comments that may inspire the person experiencing the painting.
When I first read the derisive article it amused me and rang true. Why, I wondered, do people expect art to have some sort of spiritual benefit? But as I thought further I realized that I do much the same thing.
I recently read The Black Prince, a novel by Iris Murdoch that deals with the theme of art as an agent of morality. The main plot hinges on a rivalry between two novelists, one successful and mediocre, the other unsuccessful yet intent on perfection. As the story unfolds it becomes rather unclear which of the two writers has moral superiority. On the successful writer's part, he has attempted to make great art and failed which is more than his rival can claim. Yet, his rival, the protagonist, has maintained his dedication to publishing only his best work. Both, however, corrupt the people around them. One of the points of the book is that one's artistic integrity has no bearing on one's morality. The book says that art cannot save us. But we continue to expect it to.
A few years ago I went to see The Mill and the Cross at Seattle's lovely Harvard Exit Theatre. The film was a live action representation of Bruegel's crowded masterpiece Road to Calvary. With no story to speak of, and a few dazzling technical feats, the beautifully shot film failed to inspire. It plodded on interminably. It confused me, it bothered me - annoyed me even. When watching a movie my mind asks "what is this about"? The Mill And the Cross refused to answer that question. The experience has stuck in my mind because, for whatever reason, I had high expectations. I expected to be moved, to be changed a little bit for the better.
But still, I do think de Botton has a point. Looking back on the film, if I had to choose between what I perceived as the filmmaker's perspective of art and de Botton's, I would take de Botton's. Art may not save us but it ought not damn us either. True, it should bear witness to the human condition - tragic or comic - and try not to push us one way or the other. It can help us cope though, it can help us make the best of a bad situation. If art cannot make us moral, I do think it can at least attempt to help us in our endeavors. Alain de Botton has attempted to make art a means to enrich life. And I think that should celebrated. Art should not just be experienced in the abstract, it should be experienced in the everydayness of our lives. Whatever the weaknesses of de Botton's approach may be (and there are many) he is right in making art about man and not man about art.