Joshua Rothman wrote an interesting review of Art as Therapy, a book co-authored by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. The premise is that of challenging the way we view art, the way we consume it in art galleries, pointing out that categorizing art in its historical context ignores the real power in the artwork, which is the transmission of meaning and emotion. Art as Therapy proposes an alternative: categorize art by topics important to everyday lives, and describe the artworks in that context. The article is worth reading, but there is one comparison that de Botton made that I found very interesting:

“The claims I’m making for art,” de Botton said, “are simply the claims that we naturally make around music or around poetry. We’re much more relaxed around those art forms. We’re willing to ask, ‘How could this find a place in my heart?’”

Reading this sparked an image in my mind of what it might look like if we had the sort of classical art galleries we have today for poetry or for music. Instead of consuming copies of these things in the comfort of our own environments, we would be forced to arrange a trip to a major gallery where the originals are held, and when we get there, to walk through a set of corridors, pick up a pair of headphones, and listen to the only “original recording” of a piece of music, all the while reading a short blurb about the history of its creation and its author, or, in the case of poetry, to get the chance to read the “originals” from behind glass panels in the author’s own hand. An absolutely absurd notion, but that is exactly how the world today views classical paintings. Instead of caring about the content of the art, all that seems to matter is the authenticity of the copy.

In large part this is because people don’t take the time to discover and understand art, but it is also because the way art is currently presented in galleries frames the content in a different light, giving it the function of a museum that archives historical artifacts rather than being a collection of things that are still very much alive and have the power to influence and improve people’s lives.

I think de Botton and Armstrong have the right idea, but we could go even further. Art was never meant to be locked away in a gallery. No artist or craftsman ever makes a thing destined to become an exhibit, they make it to be used and to be viewed daily. Art should be a public fixture, should clothe and decorate the street and the public building, becoming a part of the daily commute. In this way, the graffiti artist, however primitive, is actually right in one thing, earning to cover the gray blank wall of our modern city with some semblance of meaning and emotion. And as we whitewash these creative outbursts yet again, we should ask ourselves: why is it that they keep coming back?

November 2013