What to Teach and How to Teach It: Advice from Alain deBotton

Art is Therapy

In the following blog I provide an summary of Alain de Botton’s Art is Therapy Project and then apply his thinking to curriculum issues, timely I hope given that Lewis is close to a launch date for a  new curriculum after more than five years of study.

When I visited Amsterdam’s newly refurbished and spectacular Rijksmuseum in May, I saw a large neon sign over the entryway: “ART AS THERAPY.” I had a some prior knowledge about this message because I had read about a book with the same title, a collaboration between cultural critic Alain de Botton and philosopher John Armstrong. Inside many of the galleries, the museum directors, working with de Botton, had placed large (4’x4’) post-it notes alongside the usual wall plates. De Botton believes that the conventional approach to wall text privileges a particular approach to art, largely historical, but it’s one that unfortunately does not speak to the needs of the museum goer. On the conventional wall plate one learns about the date of composition, who commissioned the work, the dates of the creator’s life, and in expanded exhibitions, information on artistic trends and new technologies, the artist’s contemporaries and their influence, the past and current status of the movement of which the artist was a part, details of the personal life, and the spirit of the times. De Botton regrets the absence of appeals to the affective experience and the lack of  invitations to the museum goer to engage the work on a personal level. De Botton believes that this approach is absolutely necessary in itself as well as a precondition for subsequent levels of engagement which are centered research questions posed by art historians. Thus running alongside the conventional information that accompany painting and sculpture are the post-it notes which ask questions like “What does it mean to be a member of a family unit?” or “What is the best way to think about human suffering?” or “What are the elements of your great, good place, the natural environment in which you would like to spend time?” or “How can I stop envying my friends?” The museums shouldn’t simply be archeological sites devoted to the exhumation of past but also beacons pointing a way to a better future.

De Botton’s project is an extension of the argument that he makes in Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. De Botton laments the fact that in our secular age, we have thrown the baby out with the paper. Political correctness and situational ethics have caused us to lose sight of “the old verities.” We dismiss our dogma when we realize the full array of dogmas, some similar, others radically different. We reject preaching when we see that appeals to strict religious orthodoxies and the crusades against religious others have created mountains of grief. We reject church leaders when we discover their hypocrisies. We reject religion when scientific research lays bare the false realities of scriptural claims. [These arguments are advanced most forcefully by the new Atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, et. al. though the optimistic de Botton distances himself from this crowd.] In this book, he wants to pull the baby back out of the sink in order to show that religions were powerful ways of shaping character, promoting moral lives, and saving souls. He wants to recover the forms of religious practice (liturgies, festivals, and, especially, art) and put them at the service of gently and positively shaping human beings. He’s not the first to suggest that Art replace the God declared dead by Nietzsche. You do not have to believe in the Immaculate Conception to support the central role that Catholic Church art gave to the mother-child relationship. And if you don’t want to select from medieval iconography, then Kathe Kollwitz, the 20th- Century German expressionist, provides wonderful images of affectionate mothers and their loved children.

On Sunday the cathedrals may be empty but the museums are filled. [Elsewhere De Botton has theorized that the rise of the museum in the 19th century coincided with the decline in religion.] The attraction of these “new temples” would be fine but for the fact that the museums, according to De Botton, are improperly arranged. Most of the great museums are organized around the periodization of art history and/or attention to art from particular nations. We move from the galleries displaying 18th century British art to art of the 19th century. We gravitate toward the American wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Museums create their reputations around the largest collection of important artifacts from particular eras and make their decisions about new acquisitions based on gaps in their coverage of art history. What De Botton proposes is that we not dismantle or discard the collection but that we rearrange it.  If he were king-curator-museum administrator he would create galleries with the following titles: The Gallery of Love, The Gallery of Self-Knowledge, The Gallery of Fear. These overarching themes would dictate the selection of pieces from the collection that would be put in conversation with one another.

De Botton is fervid in his belief that his project is a fruitful way of addressing the contemporary malaise (and its various manifestations). The attentive study of artistic expressions that privileges the affective responses is a powerful way of addressing the psychological needs of a flawed and struggling humanity. We are resistant to “otherness,” to individuals from outside our tribe; art provides ways for us to experience the realities of other lives. We get habituated to the familiar and grow unappreciative of the commonplace; art can shake us out of our complacency while helping us to discover the miraculous in the ordinary.

And now for the application to conversations about curriculum at Lewis and throughout higher education. De Botton’s argument gives us another way of thinking about the purposes of education and about the selections for course objectives and materials that are governed by the purposes we select. De Botton’s arguments about museum reconceptualization are applicable to a rethinking of the design of all Fine Arts courses and, perhaps, other courses typical found in General Education.

[My own short working definition of a Fine Arts course is one that has as its center the attentive study of artifacts produced by creative individuals or collectives, “performances” which endeavor to say something about human experience.]

Thus, following De Botton’s thinking, a general education course in literature would be built around a set of wide ranging texts that are in conversation with one another about crucial dimensions of life. Coverage of historical periods and the study of technique/aesthetics would be subordinate to this primary concept, not banished entirely but no longer forming the spine or primary organizing principle of the course. A course that I’m teaching this semester takes a half-step in that direction. 21st Century American Fiction is less about American creative writing post-2000 or about the craft of the genre called fiction (although I do touch on these matters) and more on what teacher and critic David Mikics calls “slow reading in a hurried age.” If I teach the course again I would not organizing the course around a collection of contemporary literary “stars” like Alice Munro, Philip Roth, and George Saunders. I would select works that address topics like “obstacles to and the realization of self-knowledge” or “what’s an education for?”  I could  also more deliberately order the current reading list to follow this thread. In other words keep the collection but change the wall texts.

I’m much more comfortable categorizing Literature as a Fine Arts course than a course that provides a sense of the Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, an admirable but unreachable goal. Long before De Botton arrived on the scene, a branch of literary criticism called “Reader-Response” (or Reception Theory) examine the roles that real readers – not trained specialists – play in the construction of meaning. Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Experience (1938), in which she defines and illustrates her transactional approach to reading, is the foundational text. Many college English teachers, especially those that labor in the fields of General Education, will be amenable to DeBotton’s arguments.

If we were to act upon De Botton’s advice, a General Education Fine Arts would be less about historical trends and artistic movements and key figures. They would not be constructed as courses foundational for future study in the area or as preparation for the major. A redefinition of purpose would also have implications for pedagogy. Courses that are less about information delivery and more about personal student engagement with the material invite different kinds of classroom structures and sets of requirements (which I would prefer to call student performances that receive formative and summative evaluation by the teacher). Teachers would be called upon to end their imitation of how they were taught in graduate school by teachers would were following the example of their mentors.

Finally, De Botton, who would applaud the clarity of the Lewis University values-centered education, provides a way for us to connect more tightly the professed mission goals and characteristics of the graduate. We may easily put courses into categories that develop students who are “intellectually engaged” and “ethically grounded” and “globally aware” and “socially responsible” (but interestingly neither “affectively  engaged” or “aesthetically sensitive”) but we don’t seem to have done much at this point to imagine how a course in the Fine Arts (or any other GE course for that matter) contributes to this development. De Botton provides for the collections of teachers who teach fine arts courses a flag that all can salute and, in so doing, produce courses that share a great deal in common. Furthermore, these courses, built upon the association of students and teachers in the common enterprise of learning to live well, are better able to inculcate wisdom as well as knowledge.

Some academics will find difficulty with De Botton’s therapeutic approach to art museums and, by extension, to art education. College teachers usually don’t think of themselves as therapist; they were not trained to perform this role. But if they can get around or find a more acceptable term (moral guides?), they will find much in his writing that can inspire creative thinking about the role of the fine art in our lives, about the purposes of arts education, and even about nettlesome topics like curriculum reform.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *