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Originally published Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 4:04 AM

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‘Art as Therapy’: remembering hope and sorrow through art

In “Art as Therapy,” author Alain de Botton and philosopher John Armstrong argue that art should be created that addresses people’s personal, practical and psychological needs.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Art as Therapy’

By Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

Phaidon, 240 pp., $39.95

In one of the more curious passages in Alain de Botton’s 2012 book, “Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion,” he imagined art museums becoming institutions with “a declared interest in teaching us the art of living.”

No longer would exhibits be organized by geography, era or style. Instead, there would be a Gallery of Suffering, a Gallery of Compassion and galleries of fear, love and self-knowledge.

In “Art as Therapy,” cowritten with philosopher/art-theorist John Armstrong (whose authorial voice blends so seamlessly with de Botton’s as to be undetectable), this notion is vastly expanded. It’s also accompanied by handsome color plates to illustrate the authors’ points, hence the steep price.

The main proposal of the book is that art is “a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.” Its seven functions, in de Botton’s and Armstrong’s view, are concerned with remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. As the authors address these functions one by one, they propose ideas that take deliciously oddball turns: “One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us,” they write, “is teach us how to suffer more successfully.”

An artwork, they say, can also help us “latch onto something we have felt but never clearly recognized,” or deliver “an image that is in love with nothing happening.” (Any number of Impressionist works seem obvious examples of this, but de Botton and Armstrong find instances in work from other eras.)

The book packs in plenty of art history, noting how institutions ranging from communist governments to the Catholic Church commissioned propaganda pieces that explicitly aimed to push their ideologies. With secular institutions — museums, corporations — now having the most art-commissioning power, art’s purpose, the book suggests, has grown a bit more uncertain and rudderless.

The authors’ refreshing remedy: commissioning art that addresses people’s personal, practical and psychological needs rather than the agenda of any church or state. “There should,” they say, “be nothing strange at all about an artist helping you relate more successfully to death, get on better with your children or manage problems with money.”

The artworks they cite as serving these purposes will seem like a perfect match or truly bizarre, depending on your tastes. (Richard Serra’s featureless steel walls are more likely to bore or repel me than help me “suffer more successfully,” as the authors suggest.)

There’s one minor mistake I caught: David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” depicts a scene in the south of France, not California. The book’s ultimate conclusion — that “the true aspiration of art should be to reduce the need for it” — is unexpected, too. Surely the eye will always need, or at least savor, its pleasures?

Still, there’s bountiful food for thought here, elegantly phrased and finely illustrated.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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