I love Alain de Botton. His writing is so clear and sensible and logical. His Religion for Atheists was something of a revelation – I thought I was the only Atheist who felt that religion-shaped hole in their lives. His latest book Art as Therapy (with John Armstrong) is not only one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen in a long time, but looks set to challenge and enhance the way I understand Art. I haven’t even got to the end of the first chapter, ‘Methodology’, and already I’ve had one of those light-bulb moments about how I respond to art, and for me most particularly, how I respond to Music.
In a section about ‘Growth’ de Botton opens with the following observation:
It is one of the secret, unacknowledged features of our relationship with art that many of its most prestigious and lauded examples can leave us feeling a bit scared, or bored, or both.
Who of us hasn’t felt this at one time, and then felt guilty or inadequate for feeling this way in the face of ‘Great Art’ or ‘Great Music’ or ‘Great Literature’?
De Botton questions why we may have such a negative response to particular art works when others may find them beautiful or moving, and he proposes that this may be based on some negative experience that we have come to associate with a particular work or style or genre. This is of course a very subjective and personal perspective to have of a work or art but then a huge part of how we approach art is subjective and emotional – so it shouldn’t be surprising that there is the potential for a negative response. This hostility that we may experience towards a particular work of art or genre has the potential, de Botton claims, to “taint” our experience of aspects of life because they can trigger “…a variety of defensive behaviours in us”. If we take a defensive stance towards a piece or art and by association an entire genre or style, we are in effect depriving ourselves of potentially enriching experiences. We move from a particular negative experience and generalise and project this onto our experience of a whole range of related works of art. “We employ a powerful, erroneous emotional logic.”
Part of de Botton’s project in this book is to suggest ways in which we can gain more from our experience of art – how it can be potentially ‘therapeutic’. He invites us to move beyond our initial negative emotional response and ask ourselves why we respond that way – to be open to our discomfort or ambivalence or distaste and its root causes. In this way engagement with art can help us to address past negative experiences and their ongoing emotional legacy and move beyond our defensive response. “The first and crucial step to overcoming defensiveness is to be highly alert to its reality: to be generously aware of how normal it is to harbour strongly negative views about things.” From there he suggests that we try to gain some insight into the artist’s perspective and “…look out for points of connection, however fragile and initially tenuous, between the mindset of the artist and our own.”
This all seems totally sensible and reasonable and in some ways obvious, but it took Alain de Botton to point it out to me. I find it all to easy to hold on to an initial negative response to a particular artist’s work or genre, often stemming from an initial negative emotional response of not ‘understanding ‘a work and feeling irritated or inadequate. There are composers whose work I almost instinctively reject because of my ‘defensive’ response – and for some reason it never occurred to me to move beyond my flawed emotional logic. I had always put it down to individual ‘taste’ – I just don’t like it because it is not my kind of music. This in not to say that there is no such thing as individual aesthetic preferences but I wonder how much of our assumptions about what we like or enjoy or respond to in art are tainted by a negative response somewhere in our past that we probably can’t even remember. I have always thought that I was quite open minded and eclectic in my musical tastes but reading this book has led me to challenge quite a few assumptions about how I respond to different kinds of music.
So thank you Alain de Botton, for again asking me questions and suggesting new ways of looking at things. And for reminding us that we all have flawed judgement from time to time, because we are human, but that we can find ways of moving beyond these self limiting defensive responses and become more open and receptive to new experiences and all the world of art has to offer.