Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Alain de Botton at the Rijksmuseum: Therapy or Vexation?

(picture from martenbrante.com)

For an exhibition entirely made up of oversized yellow post-it notes, Art Is Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong attracts a fair amount of attention at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The concept is straightforward: the two philosophers comment on 150 objects and spaces in the Rijksmuseum including artworks and objects in the cafe or entrance. Their thoughts are printed on giant post-it notes placed hung right next to the object being discussed. The goal is to introduce novel ways to perceive art's therapeutic effects, and many of the post-its do succeed in tearing down the viewers' limited perception of beauty. In other cases, however, the philosophers' musings sound so didactic they turn out to have the opposite effect: instead of opening up new opinions on art, the notes infantalize all visitors by dictating how they ignorant they are about art appreciation and how they should improve themselves by listening to de Botton and Armstrong's wisdom.

The first part of the exhibition that hit museum-goers is the large "ART IS THERAPY" display above the entrance of the Rijksmuseum, a light neon-green sign that disconnects with the museum's nineteenth-century grandeur but might appeal to visitors who enjoy a modern spin on the severe facade. 

Once visitors enter the museum, the notes are found everywhere -- next to artworks, besides staircases or in the main hall. All of them have the same format that begins with the philosopher's generalization about what is wrong with the museum's caption or the visitor's opinion of the artwork. The paragraph then goes on with a piece of advice authoritatively dispensed by the de Botton or Armstrong, and finally closes by reiterating the "sickness" with which all museum-goers are inflicted. For example, next to van der Kooi's "Piano Practice Interrupted" is the following instruction from Art is Therapy:

"Try to stop worrying about who painted this and when. What's good about this work is primarily the enchanting human dynamics at play. The older boy, delighting in the antics of the little brother, is torn between disciplining him and goading him on. But the child's naughtiness is motivated by nothing worse than a desire to engage the attention of a much loved - and eminently lovable -- sensible older sister.
Ordinary human experience is all we need in order to get to the heart of this work. But, unfortunately, we have tended to hold ourselves back from such projective exercises. We tell ourselves that unless we know the artist, the dates and the stylistic influences, we should keep quiet and study the catalogue. […]

What year was this painted in?"

Excuse me? "We tell ourselves that unless we know the artist, the dates and the stylistic influences, we should keep quiet and study the catalogue"? Who are "we"? The authors behind Art is Therapy seem to be talking to a group of visitors who are imagined to be subservient slaves to the museum's facts about an artwork and hence incapable of having their own interpretation of it. De Botton and Armstrong probably meant to dispel the common impulse to formally analyze a painting based on its period or genre, which is a valuable project, but because their tone is so teacher-like, it turns readers off. They also assumed that some basic information about the date and artist of a painting would immediately color the way one views it, which is not entirely true. A viewer could have perfect knowledge about the tradition to which an artwork belongs and still form an emotional response independent of those facts. 

Another example is the following note next to Rembrandt's "The Jewish Bride" in which the biblical couple Isaac and Rebeca is seen in an intimate and private moment:

"The warmth and quietness of their love for one another, even though neither is especially attractive or particularly accomplished by the standards of the world, is shocking, as well as deeply moving. Outstanding though this is, it is a picture that is geared to produce an ambivalent reaction. We delight in it, yet -- at the same time -- feel regret. We don't live up to the beauty of the picture. We have too often been mean, angry, curt with the person we love; or we catch our breath with a sigh because so little of this loyal, tender devotion has come our way. Rembrandt illuminates, with painful accuracy, our lack: we don't have nearly enough genuine love in our lives and in our world. […]

My problems are impatience, selfishness, unkindness. I rarely put my arm around my spouse."

Yet another assumption about how all of us are filled with vices and in search for a cure at the Rijksmuseum. It might be true that many viewers get the same notes of envy and regret from the painting the way the authors described. But it is important to also take in account visitors who might interpret the work simply as one of Rembrandt's commissioned paintings that celebrates (as opposed to mourning the lack of) intimate love. Since the idea of the artist is nearly always postulated, visitors have the liberty to read the painting however way they want to instead of being talked at as if they were mental health patients being diagnosed with "impatience, selfishness, unkindness."

(picture from theguardian.com)

The analyses in Art is Therapy are often thoughtful and well-intentioned yet due to their holier-than-thou attitude, they end up alienating people who have a strong idea about why they go to museums and prefer not to be babysat by self-help book authors. The director of the Rijksmuseum who invited de Botton to put his Art as Therapy book to practice expected the viewers to be either delighted or appalled, having anticipated a divisive reaction. Both de Botton and the Rijksmuseum director wanted to propagate the idea that high art does not have be just for "art's sakes" but applicable to our presumably problematic life. This theory about art being a self-improvement tool could have been executed better. The ubiquity of the notes makes the voices of de Botton and Armstrong way too loud amid the tranquil air of the overall museum, making the supposedly therapeutic captions more in-your-face than they should be. In response to criticism, De Botton argued:

"My view is that there is absolutely no danger of viewers having to follow the captions I offer them. If they don’t like them, they need only turn their head away. So the idea that I am coercing the viewer is madness, I am merely whispering into the ear of those who want to hear."

Since de Botton's whispers take the form of oversized post-it notes, it is hard to imagine them as anything but the proud chanting of a lecturer who believes his opinion has the ability to transform and convert listeners. In the room reserved for daguerrotype photographs, a post-it prominently featured but the entrance announces, "This is one of the saddest rooms in the museum […]" How could a viewer build up her own perception of these early photographs when the first thing crammed into her head was a definitive value judgment as such? The fact that these subjects passed away does not automatically lead to responses in the line of melancholia or loss. It could a perfect reason to cherish photography as an effective medium to immortalize life. De Botton may not be explicitly coercing anybody but his captions definitely prime and affect many viewers, especially when they come in catchy, large and light-yellow post-its.

The Guardian mirthlessly concludes, "Botton's evangelising and his huckster's sincerity make him the least congenial gallery guide imaginable." The article even points out, "Ideally, [de Botton] envisages museums reorganised according to therapeutic functions – with a basement of suffering, leading upwards to a gallery of self-knowledge on the top floor. It's like Dante's circles of hell." It really is a bit harsh to compare De Botton's vision to Dante's inferno, but it is clear that Art is Therapy is forced upon those who hate it. The project also comes with an app, audio guide and catalogue for sale, and therefore might seem even more overbearing with its commercial and multimedia shebang. If only Art is Therapy was carried out more graciously and less high-handedly, maybe with fewer commentaries or more playful notes, the vision of art is a therapeutic tool might have been appreciated by many more people. For now, it shall have to withstand scathing reviews like that of a Dutch reporter on the Volkskrant, "the exhibition Art Is Therapy is an insult three times over: for museums, for the works of art and above all for the visitor who is addressed as a childish victim and is not encouraged to look or to think." Yikes. 

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