The Seven Functions of Art
“What if art had a purpose that can be defined in plain terms? Art can be a tool, and we need to focus more clearly on what kind of tool it is - and what good it can do for us”
Alain de Botton & John Armstrong
This instalment of The Why Does Art Matter? Series is a reflection on Art as Therapy written by philosopher Alain de Botton and philsopher art historian John Armstrong, a book described by The Times newspaper as being ‘one of the most intellectually exciting books’ to be published in 2013.
Both thinkers were ahead of their time in anticipating the now central discourse surrounding art and its potential as a tool to help us overcome the challenges we face in our contemporary world. That art in some way allows us to temporarily transcend the shallower everyday flow of our lives and in doing so leaves us better equipped to deal with the particular challenges, disappointments or griefs we might suffer in being of the human condition. de Botton and Armstong assert seven main human frailties, seven psycho-emotional processes that we human beings are constantly striving to master, but that we often find difficult. These are; remembering, feeling a sense of hope, dignifying sorrow, staying balanced, self-knowing, extending our horizions and appreciating what we already have. In assisting us and extending our natural capacities, art can ‘…guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves’. Culture can offer support to us in our lives as a source of selfhelp for our innermost problems, the problems of the soul. de Botton and Armstrong are calling for a reframing of the way we look at art so that we can release its power to help us.
The two thinkers ask the following key questions under six subtitles:
What is the Point of Art?
What Counts as Good Art?
What Kind of Art Should One Make?
How Should Art be Bought and Sold?
How Should We Study Art?
How Should Art be Displayed?
However, in this article, the question ‘What is the Point of Art?’ will take centre stage. So what is the point of art? We have already outlined it’s 7 key functions but let’s go a little deeper into this theory of art.
1 : A CORRECTIVE OF BAD MEMORY
It is true that we have trouble remembering and holding onto all the precious moments in our lives. Whatever they are for each and every one of us, these moments become memories. And try as we might we cannot always hold onto all of the memories we would wish to. More often than not, we need a reminder and while we may take photographs of moments we want to remember, not every meaningful life moment is captured or indeed capturable in a photograph. Here art can step in and in its capacity to be universally meaningful we can perhaps find ourselves in its image, and can be catapulted back to a place, time or indeed person we had long since forgotten.
2 : A PURVEYOR OF HOPE
We need something that can ease the hardships of daily life and one of art’s and beauty’s main functions is precisely that. In these testing and disorienting times we need beautiful art with universal relevance that can offer us a glimpse of a more hopeful future and help us to imagine how we might get there. de Botton laments the long held assertion among the art elite that ‘prettiness’ in art is something to be looked down upon, because it is believed that pretty art denies the darkness that faces humanity.
But as the philosopher said, “it’s my firm conviction that most of us are not in danger of losing sight of the darkness. In fact, we suffer from an opposite danger which is being overwhelmed by the darkness - losing hope, not being able to cope, being so overwhelmed by the darkness that faces humanity that we can’t go on anymore. In other words art has a very important function in giving us hope. This is not naive, indeed the more the simple images of happiness touch us the more it’s a sign that there’s a lot of darkness it our hearts”. He argues that the most moving pretty paintings are painted by artists who have a trained eye to draw our attention to the beauty in the world, despite all the suffering, “art restores hope and prettiness is an essential part of its mission”.
Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies
3 : A SOURCE OF DIGNIFIED SORROW
Art, de Botton shows us “…reminds us that we are not alone in suffering, all of us suffer and all of us at some point are convinced that we are alone in suffering”. Our society is undermined by a dominant social mode that seems to dictate that we ought to pretend that everything is ok to everyone else, at all times. Within this set up, it is normal that in their suffering people will feel isolated and alone. Art can serve as a tool to uplift us by helping us overcome feelings like disconnection and loneliness, by reminding us that we are not alone and in doing so give a dignity to our suffering in that we share it with all other human beings. Art can bridge the gaps in human communication that society so often creates. “Works of art provide opportunities for communion around the dark realities of our life in a way which is eloquent and dignified”, and in doing so, de Botton explains, we come to recognise them as parts of a noble human existence.
The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse
4 : A BALANCING AGENT
All of us tend to extremes, we are none of us always fully balanced and we live in a world that is faced paced and anxiety producing. Art can serve to balance us. We are all so unique and so the artworks we connect to and don’t, will of course form a pattern unique to us. But, that pattern will give us an idea about who we are and how we feel about our current situation, all the way to who we want to be and what we are ultimately aspiring to. We will be drawn to artworks that embody how we want to feel, to live, love and be and in this way art can serve to bring us into a closer relationship with ourselves. Art can put us back in touch with ourselves when for example, we have been so consumed with work that we have neglected to nourish ourselves and focus on what we need as an individual rather than what our boss needs from us by Monday morning. By looking at art that embodies what we value, we are inspired to become a bit more like it and motivated to make the inner or life changes that will get us there.
Statue of the Buddha at the Gal Viharaya temple in Sri Lanka
5 : A GUIDE TO SELF-KNOWLEDGE
‘We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions…Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before…when we feel a kinship with an object, it is because the values we sense that it carries are clearer in it than they usually are in our minds’.*
Art helps us get closer to what values are central to our view of the world and ourselves within it, this is often hard to put into words but because art transcends language it can reflect us back onto ourselves through intense direct experience. ‘We don’t just like art objects. We are also, in the case of certain prized examples, a bit like them. They are the media through which we come to know ourselves, and let others know more of what we are really about’.*
Dame Barbara Hepworth
6 : A GUIDE TO THE EXTENSION OF EXPERIENCE
‘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. In the privacy of our minds, an uncomfortable proportion of the world’s art collections can come across as alien and repulsive’.*
The philosophers explain that we frequently reject potential experiences, societies, people, eras and places because they have negative associations for us that often relate to our early experiences. What are often kneejerk rejections leave us totally unable to connect to what is ‘foreign’ to us or usefully inhabit different perspectives. We may for example have a particular hostility towards certain art genres due to negative or distressing experiences which cause us to feel a sense of aversion towards certain imagery. These can trigger defense mechanisms in us that cause us to close down to things, particularly in the case of art. But for both de Botton and Armstrong this can seriously undermine our lives where our often unconsious aversions make us too quick to judge and apply emotional logic, closing us down to potentially life changing new experiences and world views.
‘An important first step in overcoming defensiveness around art is to become more open about the strangeness that we feel in certain contexts. We shouldn’t hate ourselves for it; a lot of art is, after all, the product of world views that are radically at odds with our own’.* With that in mind, initial negative responses to artworks are understandable and reasonable, all the two thinkers are suggesting we do is stay in that feeling of aversion or strangeness we feel initially and reflect on why we feel that, because even an artwork we hate can teach us something.
‘Encouters with art that seem initially offputting…offer us lessons in pyschological growth. Growth occurs when we discover how to remain authentically ourselves in the presence of potentially threatening things…Our usual routines may never awaken the important parts of ourselves; they will remain dormant until prodded, teased and usefully provoked by the world of art’.*
The Loving Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl
7 : A RE-SENSITiZATION TOOL
‘One of our major flaws, and causes of our unhappiness, is that we find it hard to take note of what is always around. We suffer because we lose sight of the value of what is before us and yearn, often unfairly, for the imagined attractions of elsewhere’.* This flaw, De Botton and Armstrong express, is caused by our mastery of the art of habituation. We can so easily become dissatisfied with what we might view as our ‘humdrum’ lives when we allow ourselves to become unmindful about what we already have. Art invites us to ascend above our habitual daily lives and revisit what we admire and love in our lives and our daily environment with a renewed gaze. Art reminds us of the value in the everyday, it foregrounds what we often take for granted and in doing so elevates everyday life.
Sir Frederic Leighton
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
This book has far more to offer than can be summarised here, learn more by following the link below. Alain has also created numerous videos and given interviews on this theme, most of which are readily available on Youtube on The School of Life channel.
*quotations taken directly from Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and Robert Armstrong