As if it weren’t enough that Alain de Botton tells atheists that we need atheist church-equivalents, and how to set them up, he’s apparently now doing the same in the art business, at least according to the Guardian. Their new piece, “Art as therapy review—de Botton as door-stepping self help evangelist,” by Adrian Searle, bascially takes de Botton apart like a house of cards.
I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago, and had a great time seeing what few Rembrandts were on display (it was being renovated). Now, however, the museum has reopened, but there’s a skunk in the woodpile: a Mephitis mephitis named de Botton. For some unaccountable reason the Rijksmuseum has agreed to allow de Botton (below) to put up giant Post-It™ style notes next to the paintings, telling the viewer how he/she is supposed to react to the paintings.
Read for yourself:
A flashing neon sign hangs over the grand entrance to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Art Is Therapy, it reads, mirroring the cover of Alain de Botton’s recent book Art as Therapy, written with the philosopher and art historian John Armstrong.
The Rijksmuseum reopened last year after major reorganisation and restoration, to almost universal acclaim. It had more than 3 million visitors in 2013. They thought they had a museum; what they have is a crammed-to-the-gills tourist attraction. It’s the Tate Modern effect.
Perhaps troubled that 3 million visitors was not quite enough, Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes invited De Botton and Armstrong to make an “intervention”. The authors have filled the place with loud, intrusive labels – giant Post-it notes that often dwarf the exhibits – along with a number of thematic displays.
And oy, what the notes say!
“You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self disgust,” reads a note next to Jan Steen’s 1660s genre painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas. “You are probably a bit like this picture,” the label goes on. “There are sides of you that are a little debauched.” The labels tell us what’s wrong with us, and how the artworks and artefacts they accompany can cure our ills.
In front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the crowning glory of the collection, another big yellow label tells us what it believes we are thinking: “I can’t bear busy places – I wish this room were emptier.” De Botton sees the Night Watch as an image of communality, which I suppose it is. There’s not much fellow-feeling in the audience around it, and I guess that’s the point, too.
Can you believe that?
Here’s another one, completely superfluous. Perhaps it went next to a Mondrian.
Next to Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter and his quiet Delft street scene, beside teapots and Chinese gods, alongside an Yves Saint Laurent dress and aRietveld chair, the labels proliferate. De Botton is trying to mend what he sees as a disconnection between art and life, between past and present. This is an unexceptional ambition. Artists and designers do it all the time. Why do we need De Botton? In a display of 19thcentury daguerrotypes, under the curatorial theme of memory, we are told we are in “one of the saddest rooms in the museum. You might want to cry.” Why? All the people in the pictures are dead. They generally are in photographs this old.
Banality and bathos are the stock-in-trade here. De Botton’s curatorial rubrics – as well as memory, there’s fortune, money, politics and sex – are anodyne, his insights and descriptions shallow and obvious. De Botton insists that art can tell us how to live: “It should heal us: it isn’t an intellectual exercise, an abstract aesthetic arena or a distraction for a Sunday afternoon.” His petulant tone is wearing. I also dislike the self-improvement shtick. In front of an athletic bit of statuary, a label inquires why, if we can accept going to the gym to improve our bodies, we don’t visit the museum “to work on our character”.
. . . De Botton’s evangelising and his huckster’s sincerity make him the least congenial gallery guide imaginable. He has no eye, and no ear for language. With their smarmy sermons and symptomology of human failings, their aphorisms about art leading us to better parts of ourselves, De Botton’s texts feel like being doorstepped. But art contains concentrated doses of the virtues! You could coerce any art at all into his cause of mental hygiene and spiritual wellbeing. De Botton reduces art to its discernible content. He doesn’t make us want to look at all.
But tell us how you really feel, Mr. Searle! All I can say is that I’m very glad he had the temerity to call this bovine guano exactly what it is.
de Botton has an obdurate streak of both pedantry and self-styled superiority that we’ve learned about from his interaction with the community of nonbelievers. Do we really need someone telling us how we’re supposed to feel in an art gallery? And who has the right to tell us how we’re supposed to feel? The good thing about art is that each person brings his or her baggage and history to each work of art, imbuing it with different meanings. Imagine what would happen if de Botton went next door and got his sticky fingers on the Van Gogh Museum!
What baffles me is why this man has any reputation at all. I suppose it’s because Brits, like Americans (and now presumably the Dutch) like self-helpy stuff, too. And apparently de Botton runs a “School of Life” in London whose purpose is to teach students the way to lead a meaningful life.
In short, he appears to be Britain’s answer to Deepak Chopra, without the quantum stuff and merchandise. I’ll take my art straight, thank you.
Professor Ceiling Cat has arranged a demonstration of what would happen were de Botton to get hold of literature in the same way. We’d likely see stickers in bookstores like this: