Patronizing the Patronizer: Sehgal Blows Up De Botton

Right or wrong, a neatly puncturing review

Offering more wise and practical philosophy on daily life and its major topics than any other latter day Socrates, Alain de Botton gets trashed by some puppy on the NYTimes book review? Hardly seems fair!

Today the New York Times Book Review carries a fairly spectacular debunking of Alain De Botton, the graceful thinker who has deconstructed the virtues of and lessons inherent in challenging topics ranging from what Proust has to offer us to travel, architecture, love, work, philosophy and a few other topics now being dealt with by co-authors in his School of Life series from Picador (How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff), although they may have been been upstaged by the series from Oxford University Press in philosophy and psychology (A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why they Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine,Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson., What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? by John Corvino) which puts the self help genre on a higher, more informed plane.

Alain de Botton’s work has always seemed rather impressive to us in its limpidly thoughtful style, both thorough and entirely accessible, and we are always surprised by the way in which he can turn something which seems too banal to have much depth into analysis which makes telling points. So what if it is self help? We love self help! We like to read people who have advice to offer even if it seems quite wrong for us, since it opens up interesting questions, and De Botton seems right and often original in what he says. He has tackled a huge range of basic subjects to turn them into day to day philosophy and he often makes excellent practical suggestions – for example in his treatment of religious faith he suggests a temple for atheists in London.

But trust an editor of the Book Review to have no patience with de Botton’s respect for supposedly trivial topics which inevitably excites the snobbery of the literate, who are used to complex and multilayered treatments of the eternal verities of daily life and its preoccupations. What we like in the following is the resolute puncturing of what the author as reader sees as the inflated, even grandiose conception of De Botton of himself as philosopher and truth seeker that he proceeds to prick with his full quiver of darts.

We happen to think this broadside is misdirected and De Botton is a not especially arrogant, valiant tiller of fields at the base of the mountain of truth and it is generous of such a talented thinker (one born wealthy, educated with the elite and visibly good with the ladies) to devote himself so assiduously to the difficulties of the less philosophically literate. But no one can gainsay the firmly balanced stance of Sehgal as literary archer as he fires off his sharpest arrows.

Patronizing the Arts: ‘Art as Therapy,’ by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong By PARUL SEHGAL 239 pp. Phaidon. $39.95. Published: December 13, 2013

Who’s afraid of Alain de Botton? At 43, he’s already an elder in the church of self-help, the master of spinning sugary “secular sermons” out of literature (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), philosophy (“The Consolations of Philosophy”), architecture (“The Architecture of Happiness”). He has a remarkably guileless face and a friendly, populist vision of art. Why then do I keep checking my pockets? And why the grumbles that he condescends to his subjects and regards his readers, as the British writer Lynn Barber put it, as “ants”?

De Botton’s new book, “Art as Therapy,” written with the historian John Armstrong, begins with grim news. Every day, honest, upright citizens “leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed.” It’s a scandal, especially since the authors firmly believe art exists to make people “better versions of themselves.” They dream of a day when art can be prescribed for specific “psychological frailties” (including poor memory and pessimism), when museums can be redesigned as gyms for the psyche, grouping works not by style but by the feelings they depict and the muscles they work. Captions will whisper prompts like: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy,” for Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “The Iceberg.”

“Art as Therapy” is handsome and depressing. It lays bare the flaws in de Botton’s method, chiefly that, well, he does regard his readers like ants. How dispiriting it is to be told that we cannot appreciate mystery, to see complexity cleared away like an errant cobweb. True, perverse, playful reductiveness has always been de Botton’s shtick — he’s just never done it so badly. The grant proposal prose saps all the fun from the proceedings. What should come across as cheeky sounds unhinged: “The true aspiration of art should be to reduce the need for it”; “We should revisit the idea of censorship, and potentially consider it . . . as a sincere attempt to organize the world for our benefit.”

Irritatingly, the authors do have a point: there is a hunger to believe art has a pragmatic purpose in our lives (witness the excitement over studies showing that going to museums makes us smarter and reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic). And of course art consoles and nourishes and does everything Armstrong and de Botton say it does. The problem is that we don’t need them as middlemen, and we certainly don’t need paintings puréed down to pablum and spoon-fed to us. But Armstrong and de Botton think so little of us, they design museums like Temple Grandin designed humane slaughterhouses, to minimize our fear and confusion. And in sparing us the horror of feeling “inadequate,” they deprive us of a chance at rapture, to work to possess the work ourselves. (Recall the caption on that painting of the iceberg: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy.”)

I’m reminded of the historian Leo Steinberg’s reaction to Jasper Johns’s early work, specifically “Drawer,” in which a drawer is embedded in a canvas. Steinberg’s essay is an elegant, instructive tantrum, the kind of thing one imagines actually entices people to look at pictures. It is modest, frank and very funny on the variety of feelings an interesting image can elicit. Steinberg passes from confusion to contempt to terror (“I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it”) to a puzzled sort of pleasure. “It is a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful,” he writes. “I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right.” It is, in fact, wonderful. What would Armstrong and de Botton make of “Drawer”? “Open yourself to new experiences,” maybe. Worse: “Search within.”

Pity; the idea of knowledge as a process not a pellet is something that used to matter to de Botton. It’s something he has forgotten (and can be forgiven for forgetting; unreliable memory being, after all, the first “frailty” mentioned in “Art as Therapy”). If de Botton were to consult his Proust again, he’d encounter the painter Elstir, whom he treated tenderly in his breakout book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” Elstir’s message is this: “We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” No one, not even Alain de Botton.

Parul Sehgal is an editor at the Book Review.

Well, we aim only to point to well written articles and reviews, not to say whether they are true or not. But is the prose quoted really grant proposal style? We don’t find it that heavy footed, do we? And surely there is room for explaining art to the many that come to the Guggenheim, for example, and say in response to Christopher Wool’s current exhibit, “My child could do better.” (Not that they may not be right in that case!)

De Botton is a teaching philsopher and he tries to teach people who know too little and want to appreciate more about modern art, it seems, and it is surely not wisdom that he is trying to inculcate but the very open minded exploration that Parul Sehgal himself wants to encourage.

Of course we haven’t read the Alain De Botton book or even looked into it, so we may be quite wrong. But at the very least this is a finely wrought example of how to blow a book out of the water without sounding unfair.

Let’s hope it is justified. Let’s hope that Mr Sehgal is not a writer on the make wielding knives to make himself look good. For in this case, we doubt that all publicity is good publicity. A lot of potential readers are going to be put off.

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