Art As Therapy

I’m currently reading an intriguing book this week: Art As Therapy, by art historian John Armstrong and philosopher Alain de Botton (

Their premise is that art is a tool to compensate for our inborn psychological frailties, and they’ve identified seven functions of art that help shore up our inherent human weaknesses.

The Seven Functions of Art 

1)    Remembering: Art helps us remember experiences we value. Most of us have an impulse to photograph our loved ones in order to remember cherished moments. Art historically filled this role. Even with the advent of photography, art still serves this purpose. Art is a way of preserving experiences. A “good” piece of art distills those components of life that really matter, not unlike the concision of a good poem.

2)    Hope: Art can give us hope. The love of beauty is currently frowned upon by the cultural elite. It’s feared that beauty in art encourages sentimentality, which shows insufficient engagement with the problems of the world, and that beauty encourages us to remain in a bubble, oblivious to the sufferings of the world. But de Botton and Armstrong argue that most of us are very aware of the sufferings of the world, but feel powerless to do anything about it, and that this lack of hope is what prevents us from taking action to improve the situation. To the extent that a piece of art can instill hope in the viewer, it is serving a valuable function. “If the world were a kinder place, perhaps we’d be less impressed by, and in need of, pretty works of art.”

3)    Sorrow: Art can teach us how to suffer more successfully by showing us that we are not alone in our suffering, that the artist has felt the same sorrow and has portrayed it for us. Sorrow is written into the contract of life, say the authors, and many sad things become worse because we feel we are alone in suffering them. Rather than being alone with our sorrow, art shows us that sorrow is a universal facet of life. Much art is the artist’s sublimated sorrow, “in which base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine.”

I might add that most artists create in order to stand to live; the sublimation of our sorrow into our art is what makes our own lives bearable.

4)    Rebalancing: The authors note that “few of us are entirely well balanced. Our psychological histories, relationships and working routines mean that our emotions can incline grievously in one direction or another… Since we are not all missing the same things, the art that has the capacity to re-balances us, and therefore arouse our enthusiasm, will differ markedly.”

This explains why people differ in their aesthetic taste; it’s because we all differ in what areas need to be psychologically shored up within us. “We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing, and we dismiss as ugly one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by.”

My own work comes out of the pressures and stressors I feel from society, my desire to escape to a respite of nature, wilderness and natural beauty, and my anxieties about the damage our species is doing to our natural environment. As a consequence, I’m not attracted to art that is shocking for the sake of being shocking (probably why I’m not drawn to heavy metal music). My art appeals to busy people who are in need of escape from their overloaded email inbox, as well as those who find solace in nature.

5)    Self-understanding: We are not transparent to ourselves, the authors argue. We feel a kinship with an object because the values that we sense it carries are clearer in it than they are in our own minds.  Since art has this ability to help us understand ourselves, and then to communicate who we are to others, we tend to care a lot about which works of art we fill our homes with.

6)    Growth: Much notable art is challenging, and can leave us feeling bored, scared, or both. Art can force us out of our comfort zones, forcing us to “discover how to remain authentically ourselves in the presence of potentially threatening things…  Maturity is the possession of coping skills… We are less fragile, less easily shocked and hence more capable of engaging with situations as they really are.” Even if a painting in a museum leaves us bored or uneasy, that is why it has something valuable to teach us.

7)    Appreciation: A lot of research has been done on the human capacity for habituation, our ability to get so accustomed to an experience that we cease to be aware of it as the novelty wears off. This has an evolutionary advantage, enabling us to more easily tolerate insufferable conditions. But it also is the source of one of our greatest unhappiness, becoming inured to the beauty that is around us.

Vermeer’s domestic scenes, and other so-called genre painting, shows us the beauty in simple, everyday life. “Art can do the opposite of glamorizing the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it.”

When I began my formal atelier training, our teacher Juliette Aristides told us that our training would fundamentally change how we see things, forever. This quickly proved true. I soon found myself walking routinely through my garden to the mailbox, yet suddenly much more aware of the colors of the foliage, the beautiful cerulean of the sky, the sound of bird song in the lilac trees above me.

The artist herself reaps the benefit of enhanced appreciation of the simple pleasures of life when she focuses on an object long enough to draw or paint it. Likewise, the collector of still life paintings gets the same sense of comfort.

I’ll keep these concepts in mind as I stand before my easel this week. The advent of the rainy season means I’ll get a lot of painting done.

Wishing you a productive and happy week!