A lain de Botton is a renowned philosopher and author, who co-wrote the book Art as Therapy with art historian John Armstrong. He is also the founder of The School of Life, a global organisation that helps people weather crises and cope with emotional challenges – and that publishes a range of books and offers online courses and psychotherapy.
As we live through unprecedented times, he considers the capacity of art to console, connect and comfort. Looking at works spanning six centuries, he argues that art offers us validation, courage, resilience, optimism and perspective.
Journeying from Andrea del Verrocchio to Henri Matisse to Vanessa Bell, de Botton explores how art acknowledges our flaws as humans and contemplates the weight of existence; how it might provide us with psychological and cultural companionship; and how it reminds us to value the world around us.
What Can Art Do For Us Now?
Art has never been mere entertainment. Alongside religion, it has been humanity’s chief source of consolation. There is no reason it should not continue to function in this way now.
The greatest share of the art that humans have ever made for one another has had one thing in common: it has dealt, in one form or another, with sorrow. Unhappy love, poverty, discrimination, anxiety, sexual humiliation, rivalry, regret, shame, isolation and longing; these have been the chief constituents of art down the ages.
Much of the time, in public discussion, we are often unhelpfully coy about the extent of our difficulties. The chat tends to be upbeat or glib; we are under awesome pressure to keep smiling in order not to shock, provide ammunition for enemies or sap the energy of the vulnerable.
We thereby end up not only sad, but sad that we are sad – without much public confirmation of the essential normality of our melancholy. We grow harmfully stoic or convinced of the desperate uniqueness of our fate.
All this art can correct, standing as a record of the tears of humanity, lending legitimacy to despair and replaying our miseries back to us with dignity, shorn of many of their haphazard or trivial particulars. ‘A book [though the same could be said of any art form] must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,’ proposed Kafka, in other words, a tool that can help release us from our numbness and provide for catharsis in areas where we have for too long been wrong-headedly brave.
There is relief from our submerged sorrows to be found in all of history’s great artistic pessimists. For example, in the words of Seneca: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’ Or the sigh of Pascal: ‘Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched’. Or the ironic maxims of Schopenhauer: ‘There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… The wise know it would have been better never to have been born.’
Such pessimism tempers prevailing sentimentality. It provides an acknowledgement that we are inherently flawed creatures: incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always – slowly – dying.
This vast painting (nearly four metres across) by Anselm Kiefer is extremely forthright about the essentially sorrowful character of the human condition. Everything we love and care about will come to ruin, all that we put our hope in will fail. In a note to the painting, Kiefer writes: Even ‘rock that looks as though it will last for ever is dissolved, crushed to sand and mud’. The dramatic scale is not accidental: it’s a way of trying to make obvious something that is often repressed and ignored: dejection, sadness and disappointment are major parts of being human. The work’s icy, grey, harsh character summons up equally grim thoughts about our own lives.
It’s not an intimate picture because the fact Kiefer is asserting isn’t a personal one: it’s not so much we who are unduly down, it's life itself which demands a melancholy response. He’s not attempting to delve into the unique painful details of our individual sorrows. The painting isn’t about a relationship that didn’t work out, a friendship that went wrong, a dead parent we never fully made peace with, a career choice that led to wasted years. Instead it sums up a feeling and an attitude: lonely, lost, cold, worried, frightened. And instead of denying these feelings as worthy only of losers, the work proclaims them as important, serious and worthy. It is as if the picture is beaming out a collective message: ‘I understand, I know, I feel the same as you do, you are not alone.’
Our own private failings and woes - which may strike us as sordid or shameful or very much our own fault - are transformed; they are the personal way in which a tragic theme of existence happens to play out in our own lives. They are, in fact, ennobled, by their kinship to this grand work. It is like the way a national anthem works - by singing it the individual feels themselves part of a great community, they are strengthened, given confidence, they can see themselves as strangely heroic, irrespective of their circumstances. Kiefer’s work is like a visual anthem for sorrow, one that invites us to see ourselves as part of the nation of sufferers, which includes, in fact, everyone who has ever lived.
Corot described this painting as a souvenir or memory. It is filled with the idea of farewell. The moment will pass, light will fade, night will fall; the years will disappear, we will wonder what we did with them. Corot was in his late sixties when he painted this: the mood is elegiac, mourning what has gone and will never come back. Ultimately, it is a farewell to life but it is not a bitter or a desperate one. The mood is resigned, dignified and, although sad, accepting. Our own personal grief at the passing of our lives (if not soon, then someday - but always too soon) is set within a much wider context. A tree grows, it is bent and twisted by fate, like the one on the right, and eventually it dries up and withers, like that on the right. The sunlight illuminates the sky for a while and then is hidden behind the clouds and night descends. We are part of nature. Corot isn’t glad that the day is over, that the years have gone and that the tree is dying, but his painting seeks to instill a mood of sad yet tranquil acceptance of our own share in the fate of all living things.
This is a move we encounter repeatedly in the arts: other people have had the same sorrows and troubles that we have; it isn’t that they don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t worth bothering about. What counts is how we perceive them. We encounter the spirit or voice of someone who profoundly sympathises with suffering, but who allows us to sense that through it, we’re connecting with something universal and unashamed. We are not robbed of our dignity, we are discovering the deepest truths about being human – and therefore we are not only not degraded by sorrow but also, strangely, elevated.
How Can Art Help Us In Our Isolation?
Confronted by the many failings of our real life communities, art gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends, with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.
The fifteenth-century Italian painter Verrocchio – one of whose apprentices was Leonardo da Vinci – was deeply attracted to the biblical story of Tobias and the Angel. It tells of a young man, Tobias who has to go on a long and dangerous journey. But he has two companions: one a little dog, another an angel who comes to walk by his side, advise him, encourage him and guard him.
The old religious idea was that we are never fully alone; there are always special beings around whose aid we can call on. Verrocchio’s picture is touching not because it shows a real solution we can in fact count on, but because it points to the kind of companionship we would love to have and yet normally don’t feel we can find.
Yet, there is an available version. Not, of course, in the form of winged creatures with golden halos round their heads. But, rather, the imaginary friends that we can call on from the arts. You might feel physically isolated in your home – but you are not psychologically alone; key figures from your imaginary tribe (the modern version of angels and saints) are with you: their perspective, their habits of mind, their ways of looking at things are in your mind, just as if they were really by your side whispering in your ear. And so we can confront the difficult stretches of existence not simply on the basis of our own small resources but accompanied by the accumulated wisdom of the kindest, most intelligent voices of all ages gone by.
Given the enormous role of sadness in our lives, it is one of the greatest emotional skills to know how to arrange around us those cultural works that can best help to turn our panic or sense of persecution into consolation and nurture.
We might, for example, spend a little time with Matisse and his friends.
Henri Matisse began painting people reading from his early 20s and continued to do so throughout his life; at least thirty of his canvases tackle the theme. What gives these images their poignancy is that we recognise them as records of loneliness that has been at least in part redeemed through culture. The figures may be on their own, their gaze often distant and melancholy, but they have to hand perhaps the best possible replacement when the immediate community has let us down: books.
The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott – working in the middle years of the 20th century – was fascinated by how certain children cope with the absences of their parents. He identified the use of what he called ‘transitional objects’ to keep the memory of parental love strong even when the parents weren’t there. So a teddy bear or a blanket, he realised, could be a mechanism for activating the memory of being cared for, a mechanism that is usefully mobile and portable and is always accessible when the parents are at bay.
Winnicott proposed that works of art can, for adults, function as more sophisticated versions of just these kinds of transitional objects. What we are at heart looking for in friendship is not necessarily someone we can touch and see in front of us, it is a person who shares, and can help us develop, our sensibility and our values, someone to whom we can turn and look for a sign that they too feel what we have felt, that they are attracted, amused and repulsed by similar things. And strangely, it appears that certain imaginary friends drawn from culture can end up feeling more real and in that sense more present to us than any of our real-life acquaintances, even if they have been dead a few centuries and lived on another continent. We can feel honoured to count them as among our best friends.
How Could Art Give Us Courage?
In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a tradition of painting that depicted ships in violent storms. These works, which hung in private homes and in municipal buildings around the Dutch republic, were not mere decoration. They had an explicitly therapeutic purpose to them: they were delivering a moral to their viewers, who lived in a nation critically dependent on maritime trade, about confidence in seafaring and life more broadly.
The sight of a tall sailing ship being tossed to a twenty degree angle in a rough sea looks - to an inexperienced person - like a catastrophe. But there are many situations that look and feel much more dangerous than they really are, especially when the crew is prepared and the ship internally sound. The Dutch painter Ludolf Bakhuysen painted Warships in a Heavy Storm in 1695.
The scene looks chaotic in the extreme: how could they possibly survive? But the ships were well-designed for just such situations. Their hulls had been minutely adapted through long experience to withstand the tempests of the northern oceans. The crews practiced again and again the manoeuvers that could keep such their vessels safe: they knew about taking down sails at speed and ensuring that the wind would not shred the mast. They understood about shifting cargo in the hull, tacking to the left and then abruptly to the right, and pumping out water from the inner chambers. They knew to remain coolly scientific in responding to the storm’s wilful frantic motions.
The picture pays homage to decades of planning and experience. One can imagine the older sailors on the ship saying to a terrified novice, with a laugh, that just last year off the coast of Jutland, there was an even bigger storm - and slapping him on the back with paternal playfulness as the youth was sick overboard. Bakhuysen wanted us to feel proud of humanity’s resilience in the face of apparently dreadful challenges. His painting enthuses us with the message that we can all cope far better than we think; what appears immensely threatening may be highly survivable.
What is true of storms in the North Sea may be no less true of the turmoils in our lives. The storms will die down, we will be battered, a few things will be ripped, but we will eventually – as the sun rises over the spires of Alkmaar – return to safer shores.
How Could Art Give Us Hope?
Much to the consternation of sophisticated people, a great deal of popular enthusiasm is directed at works of culture that are distinctly cheerful: songs about hope, films about couples that work through their problems and in the visual arts, cheerful, pleasant scenes: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, and smiling children. The highest selling postcard of art in France turns out to be a reproduction of Poppies by Claude Monet.
Sophisticated people tend to scorn. They are afraid that such enthusiasms might be evidence of a failure to acknowledge or understand the awful dimensions of the world. But there is another way to interpret this taste: that it doesn’t arise from an unfamiliarity with suffering, but from an all too close and pervasive involvement with it – from which we are impelled occasionally to seek relief if we are not to fall into despair and self-disgust. Far from naivety, it is precisely the background of suffering that lends an intensity and dignity to our engagement with hopeful cultural works.
In reality we rarely have the problem of being naively contented with our lives, or with the world in general. On the contrary, we are remorselessly confronted by our own failings and by the radical imperfections of society. Rather than needing a stern dose of disenchantment, we’re more likely to require art-tools that can feed and sustain our beleaguered optimism.
Renoir’s idyllic picture of friends having a picnic together in the shade on a sunny day isn’t imagining a fantasy world in which people magically never have troubles or sorrows. They may have boring jobs or tricky partners; they may have long hours of loneliness. It’s just that, all the same, they can truly enjoy this opportunity of pleasant friendship in a lovely place. Renoir isn’t being sentimental. He’s not implying that life as a whole is a picnic.
He’s portraying a much truer and more helpful idea of which we often need reminding: that despite the manifest failings of life and the world it is still possible for us to have true and solid pleasures. Which leads to the odd conclusion: if (by some strange chance) normal life were to become consistently delightful we would no longer need - and no longer have a taste for - sweetly charming, hope-inducing works of art.
How Could Art Help To Me To Appreciate My Now More Restricted Life?
At the center of our societies is a hugely inventive force dedicated to nudging us towards a heightened appreciation of certain aspects of the world. With enormous skill, it throws into relief the very best sides of particular places and objects. It uses wordsmiths and image makers of near genius, who create deeply inspiring and beguiling associations – and it positions works close to our eyelines at most moments of the day. Advertising is the most compelling agent of mass appreciation the world has ever known.
Because advertising is so ubiquitous, it can be easy to forget that – of course – only a very few sorts of things ever get advertised. Almost nothing is in a position to afford the budgets required by an average campaign, something overwhelmingly reserved for those wealthy potentates of modern life: nappies, cereal bars, conditioners, hand sanitisers and family sedans.
This has a habit of skewing our priorities. One of our major flaws as animals, and a big contributor to our unhappiness, is that we are very bad at keeping in mind the real ingredients of fulfilment. We lose sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much, we trust in the value of objects more than ideas or feelings, we are sluggish in remembering to love and to care – and are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.
It’s fortunate, therefore, that we have art. One way to conceive what artists do is to think that they are, in their own way, running advertising campaigns; not for anything expensive or usually even available for purchase, but for the many things that are at once of huge human importance and yet constantly in danger of being forgotten. In the early part of the twenty-first century for example, the English artist David Hockney ran a major advertising campaign for trees. At the start of the sixteenth century, the German painter Albrecht Dürer launched a comparable campaign around the value of grass.
And in the 1830s, the Danish artist Christen Kobke did a lot of advertising for the sky, especially just before or after a rain shower.
In the psychological field, the French painter Pierre Bonnard carried out an exceptionally successful campaign for tenderness, turning out dozens of images of his partner, Marthe, viewed through lenses of sympathy, concern and understanding.
In an associated move, the American painter Mary Cassatt made a good case for the world-beating importance of spending some time with a child.
These were all acts of justice, not condescension. They were much needed correctives to the way in which what we call ‘glamour’ is so often located in unhelpful places: in what is rare, remote, costly or youthful.
If advertising images carry a lot of the blame for instilling a sickness in our souls, the images of artists reconcile us with our realities and reawaken us to the genuine, but too-easily forgotten value, of our lives.
Consider for instance Vanessa Bell’s quiet picture of her daughter sitting in an arm chair, concentrating on the book she’s reading. It’s a seductive scene – but the charm Vanessa Bell is interested in isn’t expensive or remote. The room might have a few more books in it than our own, but the details, which are lovingly picked out, are modest: a simple rug, a plain vase, a few flowers. And the centre of the allure is the daughter’s intent attitude, with her feet slightly tucked together. It’s not fake glamour: it’s a genuine highlighting of something lovely that we can directly pursue at little cost, if we want, in our own lives.
Art doesn’t have to tantalise us with alluring visions of things we can never attain. It’s capable of drawing our admiration to the easily forgotten, but very real, charms and dignity of everyday life. And it can – in this way – usefully reconcile us to the unavoidable imperfections of existence – a job that’s not all it could be (but does have some genuinely nice moments); a relationship that’s certainly not ideal – but does contain much that is, in less dramatic ways, quite pleasing, things which we could value more justly, perhaps, if more often, works of art shone their spotlight of loving admiration upon them.
Art can do the opposite of glamourise the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it. It is advertising for the things we really need.
How Could Art Help Me To Stay Calm?
Because of the way our minds work, it is very hard for us to be anything other than immensely preoccupied with what is immediately close to us in time and space. But in the process, we tend to exaggerate the importance of certain frustrations that do not, in the grander scheme, merit quite so much agitation and despair. We are inveterately poor at retaining perspective. Here too, art can help – by carrying us out of present circumstances and reframing events against a more imposing or vast backdrop.
This is a move being made by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto through his gigantic empty photographs of the Atlantic ocean in a variety of moods. What is most notable in these sublime scenes is that humanity is nowhere in the frame. We are afforded a glimpse of what the planet looked like before the first creatures emerged from the seas.
Viewed against such an immemorial scene, the precise discontents in our relationship, the frustrations in our work, the machinations of our enemies matter ever so slightly less. We regain composure not by being made to feel more important, but by being reminded of the miniscule and momentary nature of everyone and everything.
As our eyes wander over the vast grey swell of the sea, we can immerse ourselves in an attitude of gratifying indifference to ourselves and everything about our laughably minor fate. The waters of time will close over us; and it will – thankfully – be as if we had never lived.