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…


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:


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.


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:


 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.


What is Art?

Seriously. I ask, because there’s this: How Food Replaced Art As High Culture. Don’t be fooled. In its musings, that article from the New York Times doesn’t give the explanation it suggests that it might, but it does say this:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.

You can be forgiven if you are confused by this point, or if you sense that the article is a wee bit patronizing, because it is. Here, I’ve boiled it down for easier understanding:

The Red Herring Within the Text

In a culture based upon advertising, partisan debate and rhetoric, expect fish.

Yes, everything in the article is true about food. Food really isn’t art, as least as the article presumes it is. That’s not the question, yet here’s how the article puts it, with its unstated assumptions:

Art, as WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ sees it. Food as he doesn’t.

Art is story, idea, symbol, and evoker of emotions. Food is food and a sensory pleasure. That’s what the man says.

Can he really have it both ways? Can he reserve all these categories of thought for art and none for food? So far, classified within the thingamajig he calls art, Deresiewicz has fiction, philosophy, mathematics, and emotional doodad. I promise, tens of thousands of artists, writers and thinkers across the world would be happy to refute every one of those points. And that’s not even getting to the poets, who seem to be strangely left out of Deresiewicz’s universe. In fact, any broad collection of happy thinkers and cognitive and cultural workers would dismantle Deresiewicz’s thesis in endless profusion. And would still be a red herring. The question would be better put as this:

The Real Question

Now we’re getting somewhere. Take a pear. It has a history. It has colour, to which people respond. It has nuances of flavour and shape. Has a context and provides a context. It has social, political and ethical connections. It provides personal and cultural meaning. It must be cultivated, can be produced industrially yet tastes far better and does better social work if produced artistically. It  does the soul good. It is alive. Those aren’t art, exactly, but they’re parallel to it, which means that, yes, they’re art, just for a different class of people, within a different intellectual, social, and aesthetic context.

Horticultural Watercolour of a Vicar of Winkfield Pear

When illustrations such as this were made a century ago, watercolour painting was not considered art. It was considered a technique for the accurate rendering of colour and shape in medical, botanical, zoological and agricultural specimens.

Artists moved on, and showed how watercolour technique could develop a rich language of textures and gestures. When it did, it was accepted as art, although one could point out that it was art before that as well. The pear, on the other hand, was industrialized. That was a cultural choice, not something inherent in pears. Pears today, remain as that cultural choice. Anything we do with pears is in dialogue with such cultural choices. And not just pears…

1930s California Orange Crate Label

A century before the art and illustration within horticultural paintings parted cultural ways, pears and art had not been separated from each other yet. The planting of pear trees and the growing of pears was considered high art indeed. It was all craft, which included the crafts of painting china, writing poetry, dance, painting portraits, and growing pears, just to give a few examples. There was a time in which this mattered. Here’s an image from that time. This statue looks out over the botanical garden towards the greenhouses of a baroque remake of a renaissance city residential palace in Fulda, Germany:

Agriculture, Stadtschloss, Fulda

Here is her consort:

Mathematics, Stadtschloss, Fulda

They were a a pair. Through applying the spiritual and intellectual force known as the art of agriculture, in conjunction with applied mathematics, known as land surveying, a prince could run his kingdom, through applied art. The only difference between that and Deresiewicz’s conception of art as a high craft is that the focus has moved from the leading of kingdoms through the integration of all sensibilities in the court (and especially in the body of the prince) to the administration of constitutional democracies through the development of those characteristics within all individual citizens. It’s not the prince who develops thought through balances between various emotional pressures in Deresiewicz’s world, but everybody. It’s not the balanced administration (hopefully) of a kingdom that is the goal, but the balanced development (hopefully) of individuals, who can then contribute their deeply developed energies to a common pool of energy. The conclusion Deresiewicz might have drawn is that these people, given an art that granted privileged status to universal feelings of social and political connectivity through narratives of the individual and his or her emotions, have now accepted that, and have moved into it. The circle is complete. No, the new food culture that is the result is not ‘art’, as Deresiewicz defines it, but it does what art does, for a new people, looking for an expanded sense of ethics able to more accurately reflect the complex interconnectivity between citizens.  And why not, when the kind of connectivity that comes out of Deresiewicz’s art world leads to manipulative discussions, such as Deresiewicz’s own? Here’s an image of what I mean:

Wild Cherries Left on the Branch …

…against a backdrop of colonial era orchards. Early November. Okanagan Landing, BC

The fact that pears, or apples, or peaches are even grown is very much a series of cultural choices, which meant that other cultures, such as, in the image above, the Sylix plateau culture, were suppressed in order to grant it ascendancy. It’s all politics. It’s all ethics. It’s all art or the suppression of it. As the East German dissident writer Stefan Schütz said, after being stripped of citizenship and booted out to the West (in paraphrase), I will look for  creative energy wherever I find it, even among the criminal classes, if that’s where it is, because it is invaluable and I’ve seen too often what is there when it isn’t. He meant, even among the political elites. He meant, even in the sanctioned artistic classes.

Public Art Installation (Electrical Power Box) Okanagan Landing

This is what official, public art looks like when politics and art have been divorced. That the people are asking for them to be reunited in the context of food is a good thing. Let’s run with it. The confluence of energies produced a whole world once, the world we’ve been living in for a couple centuries. We can do it again. Art’s not dead. It’s just gathering its breath for a new flowering.

Why not join the conversation? I’ve been exploring these ideas for over a year now, in my blog Okanagan Okanogan. For a summary of the story so far, click on the .pdf file at the bottom of this page.