Actually, I’m probably being a bit harsh here. I’ve no idea whether he’s a dick or not, although on the occasions when I’ve heard him arguing in favour of atheism he does seem both a little vehement and also blind to the fact that he can’t prove the non-existence of god any more than I can prove the existence of god. And the School of Life seems like a pretty OK organisation, even if its website did massively piss me off last week, in the process saving me the 110 quid I was about to blow on two tickets to see Arianna Huffington, so that turned out to be quite a good thing on the whole.
Nor do I consider him to be a dick because he has argued that secularism needs to borrow many of its ideas from religion, because it clearly does, nor because in his most recent book he is exploring the idea that “Art can help us with our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas”, a thesis to which the only possible response is “No shit, Sherlock”. Nor do I even consider him to be a dick because it is his contention that certain artworks provide powerful solutions to our problems. Well, yeah, obviously they do. No, it is his follow up to that contention which arouses my ire, namely, that in order for art’s “potential to be released, our attention has to be directed towards it in a new way” (quoting Mr de Botton himself here. I hope he doesn’t mind).
Now, in the first place, this is a bit daft in itself. Is he genuinely suggesting that the likes of Shakespeare, Picasso, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Vermeer and TS Eliot were not best placed to decide how to direct our attention to their work? I mean, call me old-fashioned, but while Beethoven may have considered a big fanfare as a good start to his Fifth symphony, he obviously decided to go with Dah-dah-da-DAH! in the end, and who am I, or Mr de Botton, to stick the fanfare on there in the mistaken belief that it will attract the audience with an attention-grabbing “Oy, everybody! Important piece of music coming UP!” sort of beginning. Similarly, Shakespeare was certainly capable of starting a play with a prologue telling us what we are about to see and how we should feel about it, and indeed frequently did so. If he decides to start his greatest play by diving right into the action with “Who’s there?/Nay, answer me; stand and unfold yourself”, it would be stupid and presumptuous of me to stick a short paragraph on the front saying “You are about to see a play about a young man who has been cast into melancholy and indecision by the death of his father and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle, who has usurped his throne. During the play we shall be looking at the causes and effects of depression, the relationships between parents and children and the feeling we all have sometimes of being powerless to control our own actions. You may find yourself moved emotionally; your responses to the central character may range from sympathy to exasperation. Indeed, you may recognise something of yourself in him, and you may want to think about what effect this has on your opinion of and feelings about him.”
Ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet this is what Mr de Botton has done at the Rijksmuseum. As part of an exhibition connected with their book “Art as Therapy”**, he and his fellow author John Armstrong have commented, in large yellow notices, on 150 of the works in the Rijksmuseum’s collection. I mean, the Rijksmuseum! The museum that contains, amongst other things, self-portraits by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, a number of Vermeers, and, of course, The Night Watch! Now, here I should add that I have no idea whether Mr de Botton has captioned all of the paintings in the Rijksmuseum or just some of them, but either way, I really, really hope that he hasn’t stuck a glorified Post-it note next to one of the acknowledged masterpieces of Western art telling us what we should think about it in the service of “directing our attention towards it in a new way”.
I find I have quite a lot more to say about this, so, more tomorrow!
* only in my humble opinion, obviously. I wouldn’t want him or his lawyers to think that I’m making some sort of statement of fact.
**I should probably also make clear that I have neither read any of Mr de Botton’s books nor seen the Art Is Therapy exhibition, so properly speaking, I’m not actually qualified to comment. But hey, it’s my blog and if I want to shoot my mouth off, I will.