A sermon on art by Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton, November 16, 2014
Alain de Botton, whose ideas last made their appearance in this pulpit regarding his earlier book Religion for Atheists is a British philosopher intent on remaking a western cultural institutions in away that is psychologically healthier. In his previous works he has turned religion, education and other aspects on culture on their heads. How? Typically he asks us to rethink deeply held convictions and standards. He is a man who asks, “What if we thought about it this way instead of that way?” And usually ‘this way’ has something to do with rethinking the institution in question in a more humane way. What if universities were designed to approach topics from an emotional angle rather than a strictly intellectual one? is a good example. His conclusions are fresh, a little disturbing at times and sometimes very liberating.
His latest book – written with John Armstrong – is titled Art as Therapy. Now that doesn’t sound too threatening at first glance. We have been doing art as therapy for people with trauma and disabilities of various kinds for a long while now. In recent years UCE in fact, has had two members and one volunteer teacher who going through the St. Stephen’s program to become art therapists. But of course, those programs are all about encouraging people to express their feelings by making art.
In de Botton’s new book he speaks of how we look at art, how we take it in, how we consume it, categorize it, commodify it. And of course, because he likes a bit of controversy, he quietly explodes the traditional academic ways of studying art history and appreciation, the structure of museums and so on. If you have paid any attention to his books or his TED talks, you know that blowing up cultural traditions is kind of his thing.
The core of Art as Therapy is that art is and should be a tool for growing or soothing our humanity. He says, “Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.
“This book proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.”
It’s an intriguing idea. How many of us ever visit an art gallery with any regularity? How many of us spend time even just noticing art or design in the world around us? And when we do, how many of us take the time to ask why we noticed that particular image, that object, that building? How often do we ask what that thing has done to us or revealed about us?
Not too many, I would venture, and not too often.
This month we are exploring the theme of living with heart. De Botton’s approach to art has far more to do with heart than with art. He is interested not in how we serve capital A Art, but in how it serves us. The response to art is and should be personal and transformative…but only when it actually IS transformative, not when some scholar tells us we should be moved.
I first discovered his new area of interest not in a bookshop, but in the famous Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. Scattered in a number of galleries, beside the traditional plates describing various works of art (always written in too small type) were these kind of posters. Instead of formal plaques they looked like newsprint sheets tacked up with computer typescript…and they seemed so…so…unmuseum-like! There weren’t many, I saw perhaps 10 or 15 in an hour of browsing, but they stood out. They seemed kind of, well, anarchistic.
One that caught my eye was a version of our reading asking “What Is Art For?”
“Our encounters with art do not always go as well as they might. We are likely to leave highly respected museums…feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur.”
Here the text deviated from our reading with a little pastoral pat on the shoulder, saying, in paraphrase, “That’s okay. It’s alright to like what you like and be unmoved by art you are supposed to like. We respond to art depending on our mood, our tastes and the things we are troubled by in that moment. Art reveals us to ourselves.”
Wow! Standing in one of the world’s most renowned museums of western art, it was something like a get out of jail free card. He was saying, “Hey, go like what you like and don’t worry about what the experts say.”
It was a simple reminder that art is really, just a conversation, and that each of us is a full participant in the conversation. That is true of so many areas of human contact. This week I heard a presentation on, I kid you not – exterior acrylic stucco failures. Being neither an engineer nor a homeowner with stucco I was not deeply engaged – though it was a good presentation. That does not make me a bad or uncaring person. It simply did not touch a need in me.
I confess, though I have now seen it twice, the Mona Lisa does nothing for me. Never has. Frankly, I don’t much care about the reason for the enigmatic smile, because it’s not a smile that touches my heart. But de Botton would say, “Don’t worry Kiely, you are not a cultural boor for feeling as you do. Now what picture does move you?”
About 10 years ago I saw a painting from the 19th century by an obscure painter. It was a life sized painting of a beautiful woman standing at her front gate. From the look on her face, it appeared that her husband was late home, perhaps out drinking or gambling. The look on the woman’s face was 1 part pain, 1 part worry and 4 parts “THE LOOK!” It’s a look I have personally experienced many times from mothers, teachers and lovers, a look that freezes me in my tracks like a puppy has just been caught doing his business on the carpet. Now that portrait made me feel something familiar!
And that’s rather the point. De Botton contends that art is a tool for reflection in many different ways. It reveals us to ourselves. The piece that moves us is the important piece, and the question we ask has nothing to do with the artist’s name or materials or brush strokes – No what is important is WHY we react to that piece on that day. How does it touch our hearts? What does it tell us about living with heart?
And so de Botton and Armstrong begin their investigation asking:
“To discover the purpose of art, we must ask what kinds of things we need to do with our minds and emotions, but have trouble with. What psychological frailties might art help with? Seven frailties are identified, and therefore seven functions for art. There are, of course others, but these seem to be among the most convincing and the most common.”
Remembering Vermeer Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
They begin with remembering saying that we are bad at it. Whether it is paintings of ancient scenes or family photographs we use art to help us remember faces and places and the feelings those images conjure from times past. But he suggests that the difference between good art and poor art is not how well it captures a moment in time, but how well it captures the core of significance in that moment in time.
Hope Monet The Water Lily pond Sainte Chapelle Virgin and child
We often dismiss ‘pretty’ pictures for being light of weight and lacking substance. The critique is that such images are designed to make us feel happy and to ignore the unhappy realities of war, poverty and injustice. But de Botton argues that “most of the time we suffer from excessive gloom”. We need cheering up. We need hope. How many of us speak of how the news is always depressing.
Take this Example of the Sainte- Chapelle Virgin from about 1250. What unusual thing do you see when you view it? Mary and Jesus are smiling! Playing! How unusual. Mostly Mary gets to gaze reverently and Jesus gets to look wise. This statue delightfully reminds us of the joy of parenting and the love between mother and child. I find it refreshing.
Art can be respite from gloom rather than an escape and more importantly, it reminds us that there is always some cause for hope. “Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate.” We too often forget that living with heart is living with love, optimism, compassion and hope.
Divorce in Moscow, 1966 Eve Arnold
“One of the unexpected important things that art can do for us is to teach us how to suffer more successfully.”
Those of us who work with grief know how vitally important it is to turn and face our sorrows now and then. We live in a culture that promotes, sells and demands happiness. Yet we can’t be happy all the time. Art that evokes the sorrow within us, seen in a moment when we are ready to deal with it, can be a wonderful gift. As a 19 year old traveller I encountered Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters at a moment when I guess I was questioning my world. The haunted despair in the faces of these peasants seared my soul that day in ways I never would have expected. And for all the happy memories of trekking across Europe in that long ago summer, none has stayed with me more powerfully than the sadness I took from that painting.
A few years ago I got to see it again, and while I still admired it, it didn’t touch me the same way. I was no longer that boy-man. My sorrows had changed. My heart had grown older and wiser. But 40 years later the therapeutic moment of that first encounter remained with me.
We are all too something, according to de Botton. “We may, for example have a tendency to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of our missing equilibrium to our listing inner selves.”
A good place to examine this is in our own homes. Sometime in the next week take a good look at where you live. What does the decor say about you? Why did you choose to display that particular thing? The home is where we most likely go to ground ourselves. Looking at our choices tells us about how we find balance.
Self-understanding and growth
I am combining two of his categories here for I feel they are connected. “We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition.” Ben Nicholson 1943
Art that catches the eye, that we find disturbing or merely distracting often has something to reveal to us. Art can be a mirror if we take the time not to wonder at the piece, but what it says about us. This week the hip hop singer Nikki Minaj was in the headlines sparking outrage with her latest video. Why? Her videographer used Nazi cartoon symbols to illustrate her song. I was fascinated by the strength of the reaction. This is a rapper who in previous videos has all but had sex on screen, who sings about sex and violence in a ‘that’s normal’ way. So why are critics responding so viscerally to drawings that echo some long ago Nazi rally? Strong response art says more about the viewer. Studying our reactions offers an opportunity for increasing self-knowledge. As a side note, Minaj tweeted that her video person is, in fact, Jewish.
“Art that starts by seeming alien to us is valuable because it presents us with ideas and attitudes not readily available in our familiar environments…It is when we find points of connection to the
“One of our major flaws, and causes of our unhappiness, is that we find it hard to take note of what is always around. We suffer because we lose sight of what is always around. We suffer because we lose sight of the value of what is before us and we yearn, often unfairly for the imagined attractions of elsewhere.” Or…the grass is always greener…because we aren’t good at appreciating what’s in front of us.
So much of art – especially modern art -asks us to take a long look at the mundane. Think of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, or the posters of doorway of particular cities that were ubiquitous a decade or so ago. We see so much that is well designed or interestingly made that we forget to look at it.
This is another place to take a chance to revisit your home with a fresh eye. Perhaps you need a trick. Imagine yourself a visitor. What do you see? What catches the eye? I like to walk around my neighbourhood with a camera now and then, for a camera in my hand encourages me to pay attention as I look. I may take pictures or not, but I will see things I had forgotten to appreciate.
We cannot do that every minute of every day. That’s demanding that we become mindful in a rather zen populist way that I don’t think is really possible. Sometimes we just have to sit and appreciate a cup of tea.
But one aspect of living with heart certainly has to be choosing to notice more intentionally and more often. Art can help us do this, says de Botton. It can be our tool, our tour guide if we take time to look at it not as scholars or critics studying history and technique, but if we choose to engage with it as people of heart looking for what it does to us, waiting for the piece that moves us in some way and then pondering why it was that we responded.