Guffwatch - 'Art is Therapy' (ctd.)

May 29 2014

Image of Guffwatch - 'Art is Therapy' (ctd.)

Picture: Rijksmuseum

It's time for another of Alain de Botton's guffy gems (from his 'Art is Therapy' gig at the Rijksmuseum):

It looks terrible. How can they survive? But the boats were designed for this; the crew have practised. This is a homage to planning and experience. We should feel proud of humanity's competence and skill in the face of dreadful but awe-inspiring challenges. We're better able to cope than we might think.

I suspect the artist here, Ludolf Bakhuysen, was trying to convey exactly the opposite message. But never mind. 

What's more certain is that the de Botton experiment has become a PR disaster for the Rijksmuseum, and has been universally panned. As Nick Cohen writes in The Guardian:

The critics have been unrelenting. In the Dutch press, Bianca Stigter put it best when she said the Rijksmuseum was presenting art as cod liver oil: the nastier it tasted the more good it did you. Her colleague Wieteke van Zeil made the essential argument that the job of a gallery was to give people the space to think, not to tell them what to think.

The British press has been no less condemnatory. I am not disagreeing. The moral exhortations and cautionary tales the Rijksmuseum offers are historically ignorant, visually illiterate and brazenly propagandistic.

Update - a reader tells me Art as Therapy has got to Canada, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. And there it seems also to be meeting with some derision, as David Balzier writes on Canadian Art:

[...] after reading the book and seeing the show, I now know that the art world hates “Art as Therapy” because it’s just plain awful. I remain comfortable with its intention; its tone and execution, however, are all wrong.

At the AGO, de Botton appears in videos activated by the push of a button. The first is embedded in a science fair–like stand after the gallery’s entrance wickets. A quote by de Botton and Armstrong tells us that “an art gallery should not only be a place to learn about art [but also] should be a place where we can learn about ourselves.” Five themed sections, placed throughout the AGO on multiple floors, are then identified with a map. In these sections, permanent-collection works are curated by de Botton and Armstrong alongside instructive and interpretive panels.

In every video, one for each section, de Botton urges us to express our feelings via doodling or writing on iPads, the results of which are displayed on screens. In addition, throughout the building, we see aphorisms with the #artastherapy hashtag and symbol, an apothecary’s cross. One garbage can reads, “Art is advertising, for what is good.”

This encouragement to engage immediately appears suspect and ironic. In the videos, de Botton is remote and supercilious. He uses British diction such as “trolley” (instead of “shopping cart”) and jokey-cute, sugar-coated phrasing such as “the whole ticklish subject” (to speak of sex). (In the book, he even uses the term “the gentle sex.”) The tone, consonant with previous de Botton books but obnoxiously amplified in speech, is best described as dumbed-down-patrician. Despite de Botton’s sentiments of aesthetic-humanist magnanimity, he looks wan, uncomfortable, even hateful in the videos, hunching forward and speaking through a wince, his eyes squinting, his voice echoing through a generic gallery setting. One imagines him bound to a chair off-frame.

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