“What is art good for?” This question is often asked but seldom convincingly answered. It could be that the query itself doesn’t make much sense. What is sex good for? At a guess, humans don’t make art because it’s useful. We paint, write, read, look, listen, make music because it’s what we do. Imagination is built into the way we think; it’s our interface with the world and with each other.
Often the question “Why art?” really means something else, like “Do I have to pay for it?” “What’s its cash value?” or even “Whose ideology does it support?” These questions are not about art, but about greed and power.
Sometimes, though, the question arises from a feeling of powerlessness. Frustrated by work that demands too much of us, embarrassed to dislike a novel that has been much praised, overwhelmed by the sheer flood of new books pouring over us, we balk, we sulk, we throw out the arts section unread. By “we” of course I mean “me”: critics aren’t immune, on the contrary. A critic tries to sort the meaningful from the lightweight. But there are times when it feels there are an infinite number of monkeys generating books, and I’m one of a finite number of monkeys doomed to read through the pile.
Two recent books seek to remedy this sense that reading and looking at pictures is an unequal contest between the viewer and the work. They remind us of the joy of seeing something beautiful, the pleasure of losing oneself to a book, while claiming a role for art that can withstand even an individualistic, anti-intellectual climate. Art isn’t important because it criticizes society, confers higher social status, or stimulates thought. It matters because it’s good for your mental health.
Both books come out of the School of Life, a London institution co-founded by popular philosopher Alain de Botton, which attempts to use philosophy and the arts to help people cope with daily existence. In “Art as Therapy,” De Botton takes up painting and sculpture as tools for achieving emotional balance. Meanwhile, the authors of “The Novel Cure,” who give “bibliotherapy” courses at the School of Life, offer fiction as a resource for self-knowledge. Their light, lively approach will remind you of how much pleasure you’re missing, every moment when you don’t have a book in your hand.
De Botton and his co-writer, art historian John Armstrong, insist that art doesn’t have to be so dauntingly intellectual, that it’s all right to say how a painting makes you feel. Art, they write, can give us hope, create “balance,” teach us to see beauty, give suffering a place in our life, remind us of our mortality.
An artist can be a superior maker of snapshots, preserving a scene in memory by choosing just the right details, as Vermeer does in his “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.” He can show the way to a “playful and natural eroticism” (Sir Laurens Alma-Tadema), suggest that we enjoy life more (David Hockney), teach us “how to look with kinder and more alert eyes at the world about us” (beer cans sculpted in bronze by Jasper Johns).
For the amateur art-viewer it’s a liberating idea that art should please the viewer and not the artist’s vanity. There are problems, however. For one, De Botton and Armstrong write in a deadly serious tone that conflicts with their efforts to take art away from the experts. (All remaining humor and clarity in their prose has been mucked up beyond recognition by the five translators.) For another, as so often happens with a great plan, they take it too far.
When they say that London’s Tate Gallery should seek to “collect works that meet the psychological needs of the [British] nation,” I can live with that. If the message of a 15th-century Flemish image of Christ appearing to Mary is, as they say, to call your mother more often, why not?
But then they suggest dividing museums, not by period or provenance, but according to “the important rebalancing emotions encouraged by particular works”: there should be a gallery for Self-knowledge, Love, Fear, Compassion, Suffering, and so on. At this point every intellectual, history-loving bone in my body objects. “The Courtyard of a House in Delft” by Pieter de Hooch may have a lot to say about my life, and about how to “strengthen our capacity for (…) mature love.” (De Botton loves the universal “we” and “our.”) But surely it also has something to say about what it’s like to live in the 17th century, or to be Pieter de Hooch?
To become too serious about art (like sex), to try to say it is this or it is that, is to miss the point. The best way to respond to art and literature is to try to read or see intelligently, creatively, on every level on which you are capable of responding. (We critics like to think we can help.) And if you take a playful approach to your reading, at least that rules nothing out.
The well-read writers of the successful self-help guide to fiction “The Novel Cure” (in Dutch “De boekenapotheek”) have taken the critic’s job and transformed it into a cross between an advice column and a kind of advanced party game. From a broken heart to broken china, from apathy to xenophobia, whatever your problem, they can suggest a novel to read that will improve your situation—or at least let you know that someone else is in the same boat. Their belief in the power of reading is so strong that it’s infectious, making you once again view that heap of unread books as a garden of delight.
Some of their prescriptions are predictable, like “Madame Bovary” to cure adultery or W.F. Hermans’s “Onder professoren” to cope with envy. (The latter is a suggestion from Maarten Dessing, who adapted the book for Dutch readers with help from De Culturele Apotheek, a group of Dutch bibliotherapists who “hold office hours” in libraries and at literary festivals.) Some of the choices are more daring, like prescribing Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” for an identity crisis, or “One Hundred Years of Solitude” for “death, fear of.”
In some cases the entries are more concerned with the ailment than with the book. Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” is the peg on which the authors hang a brief warning against procrastination. Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” occasions a lecture against selling your soul. In other essays the authors use the ailment to talk about a book’s literary merits—invariably making you long to pick up the book and (re)read it. If you suffer from nausea, they suggest, return to “Brideshead Revisited” and observe how Evelyn Waugh “uses repetition to maintain a state of measured equilibrium (…) Watch alliteration and overlap [carry] us forward in precise, dancer’s steps (…) while commas accommodate the fluency of flow and twirl. (…) This prose is a dance, and Waugh is the graceful, accomplished partner whisking us around the floor.”
The authors are open to a wide range of tastes, recommending classics, new books, nearly forgotten books that might deserve a revival. (Though “Stoner” doesn’t make their list, James Salter does.) They are by no means literary snobs, prescribing Westerns, science fiction, children’s books, and popular novels where necessary. But they are not averse to educating their readers, either. While prescribing Georges Perec’s wonderful “Life: A User’s Manual,” they add a brief explanation of the literary group to which Perec belonged, the lovably avant-garde writers who called themselves Oulipo.
The two British bibliotherapists, Ella Berthaud and Susan Elderkin, have put no Dutch writers on their list, and only one, Francophone Belgian, Georges Simenon. In the Dutch edition, their choices have been supplemented or replaced with Dutch and Flemish books. For some indispensable Dutch classics, new rubrics have been added, such as “know-it-all, being a” (“Max Havelaar”) and “parties, dislike of” (“Het leven is vurrukkulluk”). Unlike the English writers, the editors of the Dutch edition favor the 21st century over the 20th. They incorporate four novels by A.F.Th. van der Heijden and five by Renate Dorrestein, but just one Harry Mulisch, one Hugo Claus, one Hella Haasse, zero by Nooteboom, nil by Nescio.
For extras, the authors add sections discussing how to organize your books (alphabetically, chronologically, geographically by country of origin: “It doesn’t matter what system you choose; just have a system”). They give the ten best books to get your partner to read more—with separate lists for men and women. They tell you how to convert a non-reading partner—if all else fails, divorce may be the only option.
And they slyly defend their own discursive project with a quote from “Tristram Shandy,” Laurence Sterne’s incomparable, beloved oddity of 18th-century literature: “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine. They are the life, the soul, of reading!”
Ultimately “The Novel Cure,” for all its appeal to the individual, is part of what seems to be a collective project: the growing and successful genre of books in praise of reading. We readers, feeling threatened, huddle around the campfire of books like “The Novel Cure,” feeling the warmth of its bookish zeal. Books like this haven’t been replaced by Internet reviews, book groups, and other forms of public reading. They only seem to create more demand. What is art for? For talking about. The authors of “The Novel Cure,” quoting Italo Calvino, say, “What is more natural than that a solidarity, a complicity, a bond should be established between Reader and Reader, thanks to the book?”
To say that art is useful because it’s good for our mental health seems logical and benign, but there’s something narrow and profit-driven about it, too: you might as well say that art has value because it increases worker productivity. So it’s not the appeal to the individual that I like about “The Novel Cure,” but the parts where the authors argue for solidarity, complicity, reading as shared pleasure. I’ve always seen my work as a critic in that light: I don’t see myself as a therapist or a judge, but as a participant in a meaningful conversation.
Maybe for this reason I don’t see online reviews as a threat to the books and arts sections in the daily newspaper. To me, being a critic is about reading with curiosity and imagination. The more voices in the discussion, the better. But for that you need a forum, a space for debate—the very space the newspaper claims to provide. If newspaper editors say that readers are discussing books online, so we don’t need it in the papers, then what we’re saying is that there’s no room in the public discourse for talking about art. And that’s the same as saying you’ve given up on the imagination as a tool for human understanding—which is a pretty in-human state of affairs.
Trouw, December 21, 2013. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Art as Therapy (Phaidon, 2013). Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, The Novel Cure: An A–Z of Literary Remedies (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013), De Boekenapotheek, translated by Hester Tollenaar and Roos van de Wardt, edited and supplemented by Maarten Dessing (Amsterdam, Podium, 2013).