Alain de Botton defends art as therapy

Should art's primary purpose be "therapeutic"? Alain de Botton defends his thesis in a Q debate.
Philosopher and public intellectual Alain de Botton. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Jian spoke with Alain de Botton about the U.K. philosopher and author's controversial contention that the goal of art should be self-improvement. Canadian writer RM Vaughan, who had a very different view of whether art's ultimate purpose should be therapeutic, joined the debate.

De Botton, who is opening an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario next month, said he's baffled by the resistance to the idea that the visual arts are supposed to have a "mission" to give a "broadly enhancing effect on your life."

"We're put on this Earth despite all these struggles in order to try and be happy," he said.

  • Click here for more about the Art Gallery of Ontario's Art as Therapy exhibition series

Much of the criticisms of de Botton's ideas is that they take a reductionist view of art, but he sees no reason art should exist outside practical life.

"You can value art in all its complexity, and at the same time say, 'That picture has a purpose, that sculpture does something to us,'" he said.

Vaughan countered that "art is simply too mysterious" to be given a purpose. Art can provide a multitude of readings, he said, as well as "the freedom not to read" anything into a piece at all.

What's wrong with simply breezing by a work of visual art because it doesn't speak to someone?

"I feel that by positioning the visual arts as a kind of wellness pursuit, aren't we just giving it a new layer of expertise?" Vaughan said. "Instead of saying art now is something you go to because you're smart and informed...we're replaced education and class values with a pursuit of wellness."

  • Click here for a peek inside de Botton's exhibition at the Rijks museum in Amsterdam (from The Guardian)

What are your thoughts on this debate? Should art be used primarily as a therapeutic tool? Let us know what you think!