Thursday, November 21, 2013

On Alain de Botton on Art Galleries

de Botton
Alain de Botton wrote one of my favourite under-praised books, Status Anxiety.  I also quite like using his Consolations of Philosophy in my class as an additional resource because it simplifies and grounds some theories for the kids.  And I show his TEDTalk on atheism 2.0 every semester when I talk about secular rites in anthropology.

However, he also wrote several books I found difficult to finish - not because they're complex, but because they're unfocused and trite.  They just don't seem to say anything.  I'm a bit wary to write that right out loud because he flipped out after a bad book review, telling the reviewer, "I will hate you until the day I die."  Yikes!  I think I'm relatively safe under my cloak of obscurity though.

Suffice it to say that he's hit and miss.

His next mission is to fix all the museums and art galleries.  He's concerned that all those people who pay good money to walk through galleries are confused and don't really know what they should be doing there.  They just walk up to paintings, look at them, and move on.  The women come and go,   talking of Michelangelo and all that jazz.  Well, he's right.  That's what it looks like alright.  He thinks if the works were organized differently, grouped by themes instead of periods for instance, then people would better understand what to do with them.

But that's what I look like in a gallery too, and I don't need instructions.  I don't go to impress anyone, conscious about how I look when I'm there.  I like to look at pieces of art and think about them a bit.  Some resonate with me, and others don't, but I can usually take something from most of them.  Much like he does.  But he has a lofty idea that we'd all prefer captions on the paintings - his captions.  This is where I draw the line on supporting his philosophical pursuits.

Fra Filippo Lippi - The Annunciation
Under this particular piece, he would write,
Our world, for all its technological sophistication, is lacking in certain qualities. But this painting is a visitor from another world, where those qualities—tenderness, reverence, and modesty—are very highly valued. Take it as an argument against Fox News and the New York Post.  Use it to find the still places in yourself.
I appreciate where this is coming from - his efforts to get people to talk about art more comfortably, like they do music and movies, is laudable.  But little captions of crap like this under beautiful pieces might send me scrambling out of the building.  It certainly wouldn't help me understand the artwork further or feel what he's hoping for me to feel.

On one tumblr site, de Botton was voted #18 in a list of the 100 worst people on Twitter. Like Peter Griffin's meatloaf, he can be painfully shallow and pedantic.

He says, "We need something to get the ideas flowing."  He wants to bridge the gap between what's seen as high brow and pop culture.  He wants people to connect each piece to their lives, turning art viewing into a therapeutic effort.  I think philosophy can certainly be consoling, but art isn't always about how to live or think.  Sometimes it's just there to be beautiful, to inspire awe or wonder or nothing at all.  And there's something terribly condescending about suggesting we need words to help us feel something when we look at art - particularly his words.  Not to mention there's something a little creepy about someone maybe watching what I do when I look at art and making assumptions about how I feel based on how long I look at a piece!

If we could all write what we'd like under each work, I might enjoy the game, but then we'd quickly lose the areas of restraint around each piece.  I'd rather go to the gallery, then come home to blog about what I think of the pieces.  Then people can think for themselves about each piece unconstrained by advice from random new-agey philosophers.

 If the hope is for everyone to be more comfortable talking about art, then we need to make it more common.  We talk about music and movies because they're everywhere.  People are exposed to them from many sources.  We don't need to change the galleries and museum - they're fine they way they are.  We need to bring some of the pieces - copies of pieces - out of the galleries and plaster them on buses and in grocery stores and all over the internet.  People will get comfortable with art when it's part of their daily life, when it's so ubiquitous that we can't avoid talking about it all.

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