What is Art For?

My friend Sigrun, who lives in a harbour in Norway and writes about art on the inspiring web log, Sub Rosa, has posed an intriguing question: Is Art Therapy? It’s not Sigrun’s question, actually, although she wrestles with it as openly as she does many challenging works. It comes from her reading of Alain de Botton & John Armstrong’s book Art as Therapy, which proposes that art, rather than having transcendent goals, metaphysical roots, or philosophical underpinnings, or even proto-scientific experimental methods, is a form of therapy. This proposition would mean, I think, that artists look like this:

Sigmund Freud

The Artist Formerly Known as Sigmund Freud Showing Off His Wrist Flexes

Some no doubt do. I am writing this today not to challenge Sigrun. Her open intelligence needs no challenge but only the respect that it gives to the world and all things in it. I’m writing this to challenge de Botton and Armstrong. I’m doing so, because according to their proposition, this is therapy…

vincent_van_gogh_-_branches_of_an_almond_tree_in_blossom_f671

Almond Blossoms, Vincent Van Gogh

It’s preposterous, really. Yes, Vincent was on an uneven keel, and this painting, despite the beauty of its colours and the intricacies of its forms, is a bit bonkers and smells of the kind of clarification out of anguish that early 21st Century culture recognizes best as therapy, but logically that doesn’t mean it’s therapy. For one thing, Vincent pursued his self-immolation or self-re-assembly, however you wish to put it, through a series of strategies that have come to be called art. Art, however, in the sense of artifice and the making of useful or decorative articles, came long before it was given a name as an aesthetic activity, the one that fills galleries and university Fine Arts departments. That aesthetic form of art is a creation of science, which needed something to separate itself from, and like science it is an abstraction built out of an earlier form of unified work. What was there before aesthetic art? Art was the means by which the aristocracy designed and ruled their estates, for one thing, and for another it was the capacity of humans to integrate a set of learned procedures into gestures of great subtlety and grace. Such gestures might include the art of fencing, or the art of arrow-fletching, or the art of good talk, the art of cooking, or even the art of creating symbolic objects with a language of their own, in social conversation with the aristocracy, but not of it. Objects like this:

David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David.

The sentence of death of the Greek philosopher Socrates and the courage with which he faced it (in this image, he is reaching for the cup of poison decreed by the Athenian court, as punishment for leading the young men of Athens away from marriage and into orgies of gay philosophy and kalamarika), is one of the central images of romantic humanism (well, short of the gay reference). The only thing is, the figures in the above image are wrong, and the old man sitting at the foot of the bed, Socrates’ pupil, the philosopher Plato, should be young in this image. Well, that is if it were an image of time and place. It isn’t. It is an elaborate social gesture. It was through such sleights of hand that the painters of the pre-industrial tradition maintained a conversation with each other, beneath the noses of their noble and bourgeois patrons. Is it therapy? Well, it’s an image that could be used in therapy, because it is almost endlessly narrative, but why is it so? Because of the arrangement of space and colour and line, at their junction with an arrangement of history and time. Is that therapy? Hardly. It is politics. It is an embodiment of Christian symbolism and ethics. It is artfulness. It is a gesture. It is all of these things at once. To suggest that this is therapy is to suggest that early 21st century understanding and concepts are the measure of all of human history, or that early 21st century deconstructionist art and art installation is the pinnacle of all of the human capacity for art in all of time. That’s just silly. Art is human. Humans are art. The whole world’s going to show up there. It’s a language.

P1320342

The Language of Art is Continually Reinventive

So is human-ness. They are the same. Art is a mirror.

Art is a mirror? Well, that’s not exactly the same as therapy, is it. Still, there can be art in therapy and therapy in art, and as the authors of this discussion point out, and Sigrun so generously lays out for us:

The authors see art as a tool, which has the power to extend our capacities beyond those the nature has originally endowed us with. While traditional tools often are extensions of the body, art is an extension of the mind. Art, says the authors, help us with psychological frailties.

Oh well, so much for poets and musicians and barrel wrights. We are only speaking about intellectual art here, the art of the mind. But that’s a bit sly. This tradition was invented for practical purposes, and holds within it that gesture of deliberateness. Every human who confronts it has to accept or reject or somehow come into conversation with that structure of power. What’s more, every gesture of paint on canvas has been made by the body as much as by the mind. They come together in the art. It is a language exquisitely not of the mind. To apply to all of art a definition of art rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the primacy of intellect, just because they share the same name (art), is plain silly, but so it is in a contemporary kind of rhetoric that substitutes partisan debate for discussion. Sigrun, in her generosity and endless curiosity goes on, to explain the authors’ thesis:

The seven functions of art are:

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self-understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

These are to be understood as therapies. Well, it’s the function of memory to remember, of hope to hope, of sorrow to grieve, and so it goes, on and on. These capacities come before therapy and remain a part of daily human life. They’re just words, that’s all. It’s a dangerous thing to do as these authors have done and to transfer the words back onto the world. That’s rather artless. Might it not be that rather than art being therapy, therapy and art both are drawn from life, and that there’s a bit of therapy in art and a lot of art in therapy? Might it also not be that if any particular approach to art tips over that threshold and becomes therapy, that it is indeed therapy, just as the author’s suggest, without changing the definition of forms of art that have not made than change? Of course, it might be. The real question presented to us here is whether there is a line that has evolved over time, of which only the leading point of that line can be called art; anything else is an echo of art. Well, if one wants to define art that way, sure, but this remains:

P1330192

 Toad Wishing I Would Just Go Away

Humans may have evolved far past toads, but toads are still better toads than humans. It’s not a contest. It’s not a value judgement. What’s more, this image, although documentary in nature, is so because of the artfulness in it: the long tongue of green extending from the toad to the lower left, anchoring the image in the foreground, although the toad is off balance to the right, and so on. That’s not therapy. It’s how the human mind works. It lives in the same territory as therapy, and it can be used for therapy, just as therapy can be used for art, but it’s just not the same thing at all. There is no dichotomy here between popular sentiments set up to be knocked down like straw men. There are toads, and there are humans, and there are our particular ways of being, on this planet in which almost all life forms come together from two genders and create life from their coitus, their being together, their union. Art is like that. Like humans, it is very much of the earth and of bodily experience. Like words, it is a language. It can be used for many things, including therapy… or not.

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One thought on “What is Art For?

  1. Pingback: dear friends, | sub rosa

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