Art for Life’s Sake

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Alain de Botton: Art for Life's Sake -                                    11/3/13 11:35 AM

 Art for Life's Sake
 Art enjoys such financial and cultural prestige that it's easy to forget the confusion
 that persists about what it's really for. Questions like "What is this painting about?"
 or "Why should this old sculpture matter to me?" have a way of sounding impudent
 and crass. Nice people generally don't ask such things, except in the privacy of their
 hearts, on their way down the concrete steps of white-walled galleries.

 Art's Life Lessons

 In 'At the Linen Closet', a
 modest domestic scene by the
 17th-century Dutch painter
 Pieter de Hooch, we see a
 couple of women putting the
 household linens in order. His
 painting suggests that the big
 themes of life--the search for
 prosperity, happiness, good
 relationships--are always
 grounded in the way we
 approach little things and         Page 1 of 9
Alain de Botton: Art for Life's Sake -                                    11/3/13 11:35 AM

 ordinary routine. Peter

 Meanwhile, the art establishment proceeds under the assumption that art can have
 no purpose in any instrumental or utilitarian sense. It exists "for art's sake," and to
 ask anything more of it is to muddy pure and sacred waters.

 This refusal to name a purpose seems profoundly mistaken. If art is to deserve its
 privileges (and it does), we have to learn how to state more clearly what it is for and
 why it matters in a busy world. I would argue that art matters for therapeutic
 reasons. It is a medium uniquely well suited to helping us with some of the troubles
 of inner life: our desire for material things, our fear of the unknown, our longing for
 love, our need for hope.

 We are used to the idea that music and (to an extent) literature can have a
 therapeutic effect on us. Art can do the very same thing. It, too, is an apothecary for
 the soul. Yet in order for it to act as one, we have to learn to consider works through
 more personal, emotionally rich lenses than museums and galleries employ. We
 have to put aside the customary historical reading of works of art in order to invite
 art to respond to certain quite specific pains and dilemmas of our psyches.

 What follows is a selection of works of art juxtaposed with the intimate issues of life
 which we might fruitfully bring to them.

 Work and Abundance

 In "At the Linen Closet" (above), a modest domestic scene by the 17th-century
 Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch, we see a couple of women putting the household
 linens in order. There are no soldiers, kings, martyrs or divine figures in sight. This
 is ordinary life as we know it to be even now.         Page 2 of 9
Alain de Botton: Art for Life's Sake -                                    11/3/13 11:35 AM

 It can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do every day and
 in the environments where we live. We have jobs to go to, bills to pay, homes to
 manage, and we often resent the demands they make on us. They seem to be pulling
 us away from our real ambitions, getting in the way of a better life.

 A linen closet could easily be resented. It could be seen to embody all that is boring,
 banal and repetitive about running a home. But this picture moves us because the
 truth of its message is so radiant. If only we, like de Hooch, knew how to recognize
 the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. His painting
 suggests that the big themes of life--the search for prosperity, happiness, good
 relationships--are always grounded in the way we approach little things.

 The statue above the door in the painting is a clue: It represents money, love, status,
 vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen doesn't stand opposed to these grander
 hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. This painting is small in a big and noisy world,
 but its appeal lies in our knowing that, deep down, de Hooch is onto something

 In a roughly contemporaneous still-life painting by Adriaen van Utrecht, "Banquet
 Still Life" (at left), we see laid before us the most beautiful fruits and foods of the
 earth. We are meant to admire this lavish spread. There are lemons, grapes, figs and
 strawberries; game pies, hams and a lobster.

 In our own day, the term "consumerism" has become a stick with which to beat the
 modern world. But consumerism doesn't have to be stupid. At its best, the word
 refers to a delight in human ingenuity and an appreciation of the vast achievements
 of labor and trade.

 Van Utrecht's picture takes us back four centuries, to a time when abundance was
 new and not to be taken for granted. He knew it was hard to get that lobster.
 Europeans of his era were amazed (as we still should be) that human beings can         Page 3 of 9
Alain de Botton: Art for Life's Sake -                                    11/3/13 11:35 AM

 arrange the world in such a way as to make possible so bounteous a feast. They
 knew that marshes had to be drained and cattle fed through the winter, and they
 were impressed that lemons could reach a northern table. Perhaps these very fruits
 were carried by donkey from the Neapolitan hills down to the harbor, onto leaky
 wooden ships that braved storms and struggled with unreliable winds.

 People of that day felt the beauty of trade and understood how easily it could be
 disrupted by blockades or war. Every pleasure of the table was sending money
 around Europe--a force for peace and prosperity. The picture remembers all this
 effort and celebrates it.

 Today we are so afraid of greed that we forget how honorable the love of material
 things can be. In the 17th century, homage was still paid to the nobility of commerce
 --a concept that boredom and guilt have made less accessible to us. Perhaps we can
 learn from this picture. A good response to consumerism might be not to sacrifice
 these pleasures and live without lobster and lemons but to appreciate what really
 goes into providing them.

 Our desire to have luxury cheaply is the real problem. If the route to your table were
 dignified and ethical at every stage, a lemon would cost more, of course. But maybe
 then we'd stop taking lemons for granted and find their zest all the keener.

 Anxiety and Suffering

 In this abstract black-and-white photo, "North Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of
 Moher," by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, we find ourselves in a still,
 undefined vastness made up of only sea and sky.

 We should let our eyes wander over the vast gray swell of the sea, which invites an
 attitude of serene indifference. There is no very definite horizon in the photograph,
 just a gentle zone of transition where the sea merges with the sky. The black at the         Page 4 of 9
Alain de Botton: Art for Life's Sake -                                    11/3/13 11:35 AM

 bottom becomes the white at the top through a multitude of tiny stages. This has a
 tranquilizing effect, which can enter into our own being and perhaps adjust how we
 respond to challenges and anxiety.

 A tranquil state of mind is supremely valuable in dealing with the lesser troubles of
 life. Our capacity to get infuriated (and hence, usually, to make matters worse) is
 often driven by a refusal to accept how things are. Another person simply isn't very
 interested in what we think; the world isn't going to reorganize itself in sensible
 ways; the traffic will be maddeningly slow, the train overcrowded. At times, we
 should know how to close down our hopes and give ourselves over to the
 contemplation of all that we will never be able to alter, here symbolized by the even,
 pure tones of an eternal horizon.

 Mr. Sugimoto hasn't just photographed the sea. He has provided us with a work
 that captures an attitude of mind to be summoned up at times of trial.

 Turning now to "Christ Crucified" by Diego Velazquez, the greatest artist of
 Spain's 17th-century Golden Age, we move from the mundane to the transcendent.
 Velazquez shows us the son of God, the King of Kings, bleeding on the cross like an
 ordinary stricken man. He will be dead in a few moments.

 Christianity is upfront about the idea that our lives can be burdened by suffering. It
 takes the view that loss, self-reproach, failure, regret, sickness and sadness will
 always find ways of entering life. Our troubles need practical help, of course. But
 Christianity identifies another need as well: for our suffering to have some honor or

 This picture of the Crucifixion achieves that. It shows a good--indeed, a perfect--
 man being humiliated, injured and ultimately killed. It is tenderly sympathetic to
 sorrow without being hysterical or vengeful. It invites us to contemplate the
 centrality of suffering in the achievement of all valuable goals. Rather than         Page 5 of 9
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