It is clear, from this point of view, that art in and of itself is not liberating; it either is or it isn’t depending on the type of capacity it sets in motion, on the extent to which its nature is shareable or universalizable. For example, emancipation can’t be expected from forms of art that presuppose the imbecility of the viewer while anticipating their precise effect on that viewer...
— Jacques Ranciére
ONE FRIDAY AFTERNOON this past March, I found myself standing in the midst of about 50 incarcerated men, eight university students, and a guest artist in the large gymnasium of the California Institution for Men (CIM), a prison in Chino, California. I was moderating a lively debate about the subject of a mural we were about to embark on as a group. Between the many ideas and voices, and poor acoustics in the gym, it was hard to hear anything, so I quickly made another plan, asking each of the students to gather a team of 10 men together to jot down their ideas, and then share these with the rest of us. My undergraduate and graduate art students proceeded to listen to their groups’ ideas in this way. We then listened attentively as each student read from a quickly scrawled list, pausing occasionally to allow someone else to offer a correction or addition. The lists included many ideas — soccer, birds, food representing a variety of cultures, a live volcano — but two words recurred in all of them: metamorphosis and transformation. These words became the basis of a design that emerged over the next two hours in a process that variously included more discussion, a few votes (volcano or no volcano? a running soccer player?), impromptu teams of sketching artists, and input from everyone involved, including a very helpful guard who offered advice on the prison’s guidelines and limitations on particular imagery (multiculturalism was problematic; certain colors and numbers were disallowed).
What emerged from this collaboration was a three-panel design of a forest immersed first in fire, then in a process of regeneration, and finally in full bloom. There was one issue that generated more debate and discussion than any other, and this was the use of light. At one point, we posited that the scene would move from day to night. Several hands went up and one of the men articulated what was apparently on many of the others’ minds. The design needed to move from night to day, and not the other way around. They were emphatic on this point. So we rearranged our still-imagined picture so that the fire occurred in the moonlight, regrowth in a period of dawn, and the healthy forest in bright sunlight.
The mural discussion was part of an ongoing community-based art program I initiated through blending the curriculum of a series of courses I teach at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), with and the needs and interests of our partners in the community, including the prison. The university students learn about the ways that social, cultural, and economic factors impact access to art, including examining who studies it—most schools in wealthy neighborhoods, for example, have thriving art programs while the vast majority of public schools, particularly those in urban neighborhoods and inner cities, do not—as well as some of the current forms and approaches to art education taught and presented in schools, galleries, museums, and universities.
CSUSB is located in the Inland Empire, specifically in the city of San Bernardino, which declared bankruptcy in 2012. Most of my students are local and many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They are highly motivated. When they read that art is left out of a majority of public schools, it does not come as any surprise. It often opens up a discussion about the ways that their schools had limited art programs, such as one student who shared that a football coach with no art experience led the art class, or none at all. Discussions and readings on this topic open the door for students to participate in shifting this paradigm by facilitating art programs in the community at sites that have little or no access to art. We started with two community partners a little over a year ago. Since then word has spread, and students teach or have taught art in eight separate sites.
It is in this milieu that I learned about Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s recent book, Art as Therapy. Initially I was excited about its emphasis on making art more accessible to a wider swath of the public. This is something that had been of interest to me for years, not only through teaching, but through writing as well; it was the impetus behind a series I write for The Huffington Post, “On Seeing,” among other articles about art for non-art publications. But perhaps because I approached the book as a kindred spirit, it was even more disappointing to learn that, instead of making art, in all its vivid complexity, come alive in a way that many people could relate to, it offers prescriptive answers that flatten the potential of even the most exciting artworks. The book includes numerous beautiful images of art throughout history, organized according to relatable themes, yet it discusses these works in such a watered-down way that it is dismissive to both the art and the audience, dismissive of art’s inherent capacity to invite questions more than answers and of viewers’ organic capacity to respond to art with individual feeling and analysis.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anyone who loves art, or is even curious about it, could enjoy Art as Therapy. The book maintains a confusing mix of bombastic pronouncements and clear-headed analysis, cheerleading for art while simultaneously summing it up and dumbing it down beyond recognition. This is why I both applaud and deplore this publication. On the one hand, it responds to a vital issue of access, but on the other, it does so in a way that demeans the audience — the last thing we need in addressing the ugly truth about access to art, in all its intricacy, in contemporary society.
In essence, the argument of Art as Therapy is this: if we employ art as a tool to improve our relationships with people, nature, money, and more, we will no longer need art and, as the authors insist, be able to do away with it. Like a hammer or knife, “art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.” The text veers quickly into reductionist mode, identifying seven “psychological frailties,” and seven accompanying “functions for art.” The frailties the authors identify — that we have bad memories, get bored in relationships, or fail to notice what is around us — feel disturbingly mundane, champagne problems, if you will, considering the host of possibilities — violence, cruelty, greed — in evidence in humankind. If art is to solve our problems and make us better, might it not at least be given the room to have a deeper impact on humanity?
The book’s introduction, which reads, down to its enlarged font, like a textbook for a primary school, is classic de Botton — oversimplifications of complex ideas wrapped in neat packages with clean answers — and yet, it makes a vital but under-recognized point. “We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur. It is natural to blame oneself,” the authors continue,
This book argues that the problem is not primarily located in the individual. It lies in the way that art is taught, sold, and presented by the art establishment. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our relationship with art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for.
And there it is: a big idea — that people feel alienated from art — summed up with a reason which will be followed by a solution. The problem, of course, is that it’s not that simple.
From here the book is broken down into thematic chapters, each one integrating works of art into the discussion of a particular frailty or weakness. In the clear-eyed universe de Botton and Armstrong propose, there will be no more posing questions about what art means or initiating challenges to think more deeply about ourselves and our assumptions about art, life, or one another. Instead, the authors write, “The true inspiration for art should be to reduce the need for it,” ostensibly by using it in a prescriptive way to relieve ourselves of each of life’s struggles. Statements like this inspired me to write "ugh" and "no!" throughout the book, first on colorful Post-its and finally on the glossy pages themselves. To be fair, there were also paragraphs that inspired me to write, "yes" or “lovely”. Between snarky trivialization and gleeful generalization lies a depth of information about art, charmingly (at times) contextualized by historical and cultural tidbits. (Did you know, for example, that the 18th century, Swiss-born painter Angelica Kauffmann “was tricked into marriage by a sociopathic adventurer who posed as a Swedish count?” I didn’t.) There is much informative writing on art throughout, and the book boasts numerous attractive images. The authors’ enthusiasm to make art part of everyday life, albeit as a problem-solver for complaints large and small, is infectious and commendable. But all of this is outweighed by the tired premise, which they insist upon at every turn, that art must be a tool for our betterment, even going to a cartoonish extreme by suggesting that gallerists function as therapists, finding the “right” art for each client’s condition. About halfway through, I started to wonder if one or both authors was a frustrated artist.
People don't need to be told that Matisse’s dancers will lift their sprits or that da Vinci’s drawings will teach them to be curious; not even people with very little education, literacy, or knowledge of art — whether because of their young age or because of their socioeconomic background — need this kind of prescriptive focus. And that, I think, is the saddest aspect of Art as Therapy. The authors appear to take something as open to interpretation and sensory experience — as full of possibility — as art and tell people to see it in a singular way. We as a society, and even more specifically, a community of artists and writers and teachers, do need to find better ways to make art accessible to a wider amount of people, but telling someone what to think takes away the most unique aspect of art: the ability to create personal meaning from it. Rather, to de Botton and Armstrong, Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze from 1960 “teaches us a lesson: how to look with kinder and more alert eyes at the world around us.” In reducing the potential of the beer cans-cum-altar to a single, perhaps valuable, but also simplistic moral, the authors eradicate the opportunity for a viewer/reader to find further meaning in the work, or seek answers, or even learn more about it.
Throughout my teaching experience over the past 20 years (which began when I was hired as a bilingual third grade teacher with LAUSD right out of college and has since included: teaching art to fourth and fifth grade students; taking my students on field trips to local art galleries; coordinating an art program for families at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court with a local nonprofit; teaching art at a charter high school; leading a class that took students to local art exhibitions at a community college; and my current job on the faculty at CSUSB), I have made, discussed, and looked at art with people of all different ages — from toddlers to grad students to adults—and myriad cultural backgrounds, including new immigrants to the United States from a range of countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Armenia, and Korea. My students have come from populations as varied as people who are homeless and those that have been artists their whole lives (sometimes both). Some have received education in art, but not the majority. However, this doesn’t strike me as the demographic that Armstrong and de Botton have in mind, and that’s exactly the problem. What is it about our society that relegates certain cultural opportunities and experiences to some and not to others? What might happen if we took any of the well-written and informative — if decidedly less flashy — art appreciation textbooks already in existence and put them in the hands of students in high schools in Colton or Compton, or in the prison library in Chino, informing people about art while inviting them to form their own opinions about the work and its impact and connection to their lives?
De Botton and Armstrong’s proposition that we use art to solve our problems may not be the right one, or even a good one, but it is the one on offer in their book, and since its publication the authors have been invited to put their ideas into practice by writing new wall texts for three exhibitions of permanent collections in museums at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and Canada’s Art Gallery of Ontario (which opened this spring). Like the book, the exhibitions identify — and seek to rectify — people’s seeming disconnection from art. Writing for The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman sums up the authors’ view of the problem with art; the art establishment “should never have embraced as their guiding paradigm the discipline of art history; it’s led them to lose track of what actually makes art interesting.” Perhaps this is why the authors chose to leave dates off the works in their captions. The majority of wall texts I had access to began with a brief and often breezy description of the piece before careening towards longer diversions and summing up with the “problem” each work supposedly addresses. Problems addressed by works grouped under the theme “Love” range from: “Feeling that I don’t deserve to be loved” (Barbara Heptworth’s Mother and Child) to “I’m feeling impatient, and getting too many emails” (Agnes Martin’s The Rose) or “Thinking my ideal age range is 25-32” (Sydney Strickland Tully’s The Twilight of Life). Here is a full caption, from the theme Nature:
Kazuo Nakamura, Blue Reflections
This is nature, entirely independent of us. There are no signs of human endeavour, no reminders of technology, industry or settlement. It is the world apart from people — with no need of anything from us. The day-to-day concerns of our lives don’t matter here.
Nakamura is providing a balancing experience. Most of the time we just have to be obsessed with our own lives. We have to live in cities, think about money and plot and scheme to keep our lives in reasonable order.
Problem: I lack perspective. I’m too wrapped up in routine.
In a similar mode to the writing in Art as Therapy, the wall texts begin by talking about art in plain terms on the assumption that this is what a majority of people will likely appreciate. However, avoiding the extensive theorizing that leaves many numb is not a new idea. Many museums have endeavored to reach out to the public through workshops, panels, tours, and other means for years, and museum education is only growing. In one recent example, Brian Droitcour, writing about MOOCs for Artforum.com, shared that the online course he took with MoMA, Puzzles in Contemporary Art, “presented artworks around themes: Beauty, Value, Originality, Concept, and Process.” That said, employing a more straightforward language in wall texts would surely support more people, educated or not, to engage with the text around art.
De Botton and Armstrong’s wall text for George Richmond’s Portrait of Mrs. William Benson provides another example. Like the others, it lacks a date, isolating the artist and his work from the scope of history in a move that presumes a lack of appreciation for the way that time, place, culture, and other contextual cues inform viewing. It also carries the brazen implication that those not typically interested in art are uninterested or, worse yet, unable to understand how the time and place of a work would be relevant. (For the record, the date of the painting is 1853.) The text begins, “She was wealthy — whatever she wanted she could buy. She lived in a large, beautiful house. She had servants to do the domestic chores.” From there it moves into the authors’ idiosyncratic views, offering up a tangential monologue that begins: “There are many negative images of the rich, so it’s not hard to conclude that they are almost universally scandalous, unfit to manage their privileges and a waste of time. There may be a little truth in this, but there is also — understandably — a lot of repressed envy too.” It continues along these lines, concluding with: “Problem: I refuse to accept that the rich can be good."
The Richmond text demonstrates the authors’ seeming lack of self-awareness (ironic in the midst of all the pseudo-therapeutic analysis). They proclaim to want to make art available to everyone, but their repetitive use of the word “we” transparently identifies a very specific demographic that mirrors their own in gender, age, and culture. Needless to say, they don’t want us to be angry with rich people.
One of the underlying problems of Armstrong and de Botton’s book and their exhibition project is the authors’ failure to distinguish between their personal point of view and their premise. They chastise the institution of art, for good reason, it might be argued, but then participate in the same sort of dogmatism they dislike in the discipline of art history, simply along different lines and with a different flavor. I wonder, too, at their love of art or artists, especially with lines such as this one, “We should dare to conceive of art as more than just the fruits of the irregular imaginations of artists.” (Ouch!) But love or hate it, Art as Therapy addresses something that needs far more honest discussion in the art world — access to art. And by that I don’t just mean museum admission prices or having the chance to study art in school — though these are surely important — but access on a metaphorical level too; that people from all walks of life feel as if they are welcome to look at, interpret, and discuss art, and that it is for everyone.
If people feel inadequate or incapable of forming their own relationship with visual art, this is not resolved by doing it for them; it is resolved by opening the experience up to more people through education, by fostering creativity and critical thinking in all children, not just in children that are able to attend private or charter schools where art more often has a place, but in all youth in all schools. To deny this to so many people is unethical, but it's also bad for art. Art grows when a diversity of experiences are reflected in it. Access to art is a social justice issue, but it's also a contemporary art issue. We need more people to make, discuss, relate to, and form opinions about art for it to grow. And, unlike the authors’ indication that art will diminish if successful, I believe art is successful when it grows and thrives and continues to challenge boundaries of media, thought, and discipline.
While Art as Therapy has an astonishing capacity to elicit irritation — all of a sudden, with a single phrase — and takes a too simple view of the complicated issue of access to art, the authors identify a key problem that needs more attention than the small bands of artists/teachers/others can give it and catapult the issue into the mainstream in a thought-provoking if wildly frustrating book.
Meanwhile, the first week in June, we held a certificate ceremony at the prison for the men that participated in the program. The mural is not yet complete — students and inmates will continue to paint through the summer — but the light is already apparent, shifting across the wall from a blood red moonlit sky to a pinkish yellow dawn and into a clear blue horizon.