Art has been embedded in our understanding of culture for centuries and institutions like museums have evolved a way of delivering the content. Money, power and elitism have always been present where art is concerned, and even more so now with auction house and gallery market manipulations.

The curators of Art as Therapy exhibition, British pop philosopher, Alain de Botton is known for his books How Proust Can Change Your Life and Religion for Atheists, while art historian, John Armstrong works at Melbourne University in Australia and is the author of The Intimate Philosophy of Art, Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy and In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea.

They have co- written a book titled ‘Art as Therapy’, whose central thesis is that traditional museums fail because they exclude the healing potential of art. The book discusses emotion, with chapters on love, sex, money, politics and nature, demonstrating how art can help ease our passage. The exhibition at the AGO is a visual correlation to these ideas. Similar exhibitions take place at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

The AGO show is presented in 5 pods, scattered throughout the museum. The pods are titled Politics, Love, Sex, Money and Nature. Each holds a random selection of paintings from the AGO’s collection that pertain, often tenuously, to the theme. Wall texts relate the works to feel-good messages that are over-simplistic in tone, eschewing any ‘academic-speak’ or museological dogmatisms like chronological ordering. One imagines Art as Therapy relates to psychological interpretation but it doesn’t. De Botton means to induce therapeutic engaging of the senses with the subject matter. Each pod has a video where de Botton explains the theme and invites people to interact and write their reactions on a pad that displays on the same screen.

Like many new ideas, it has been buffeted by fierce criticism. Most critics, including myself, react to the work negatively. I thought the exhibition was ludicrous, and quite possibly the worst show I have ever seen. The art chosen ranged across the ages without hierarchy to include artists like Tintoretto, Monet, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, with Toronto artists like Evan Penny and Brian Burnett.

The wall texts were trite and didn’t provide any in-depth insight into the works. An out of focus painting by Gerhard Richter, Helga Matura, indicates his evasion of crushing ‘reality’, alleviating the anxiety of politics. At the end of each text plate, de Botton includes a personal phrase expressing on subjects like ‘not feeling guilty about being patriotic’. He is concerned with perfectionism, anxiety-inducing pressures of modern life like losing jobs, peer pressure, meritocracy, failure, finding love and then seeing it grow stale, unrequited sexual needs and a host of other Western bourgeois ‘plagues’. The sex section was particularly awful and spare. Augustus John’s The Marchesa Casati, a portrait of a red-headed socialite looking archly at the viewer, is accompanied by text: “She knows about sex, she wants it as much as we do”. A postscript adds: “Problem: No one has ever asked me what I really, really want”. The most risqué image is a photograph of Robert Markle standing behind a semi-nude burlesque friend at the Victory Burlesque. An inane comment reflects upon the gender issue of the clothed male’s gaze and vulnerable woman, but retreats to deflect the moment.

So, what gives? De Botton slides away from offering any truly meaningful experience for art aficionados. The answer is quite surprising, as he is initiating a subdued revolution. He established the School of Life in 2008 to try and formulate a new approach to living with stress. It offers classes on finding jobs, love and general living. Sometimes he delivers philosophical sermons on Sundays. As an atheist, he has subverted church strategy to proselytize, substituting art and culture for religious dogma. His insight is that art should be didactic. The aim is to make people engage with art and use it to uplift their societal values, displacing the mean and greedy. It’s a utopian view founded on the perception that museums have rendered themselves obsolete because people have become alienated from art.

Time will tell if there is any traction for Alain de Botton’s ideas. It is a brave experiment and our culture needs transformation. However, the church has also shown itself to be a despotic censor, making me wonder if de Botton’s system wouldn’t ultimately proscribe. 

AGO, Toronto
May 3, 2014—April 26, 2015