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March 17, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Art as Therapy as Bullshit

Last year, philosophers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong published a book called Art as Therapy. In it, they propose that art has the potential to solve life’s most intimate dilemmas, but, they argue, we’re looking at it the wrong way. Organising art chronologically serves only to anaesthetise it. We’re accustomed to thinking of art academically, favouring rational readings to emotional responses, and this allows for elitism to flourish. They outline a utopian vision of art appreciation, one in which art museums are modelled around their immediate emotional purpose. In their future, individual galleries in large institutions will be arranged around specific moral quandaries, such as anxiety or loneliness.

Right now, the idea seems novel to the point of ridicule, but it is gaining traction. In May, the Rijksmuseum will display a large-scale exhibition curated by de Botton. Personally, I’m not convinced. It may be the crippling debt I’ve accrued for my conviction in thinking about art critically, or it may be because I like reading wall text. De Botton’s vision would assume consensus. It would require a didactic approach from curators, one that makes claims for what artworks do to individual viewers based on a general feeling.

In arguing for a holistic overhaul of art-viewing, though, the authors strike at a pertinent question. In the present climate, art’s claims to self-betterment are based more on the stockpiling of cultural capital than on a concern for emotional wellbeing.

During the New Zealand Festival, Melbourne-based artist Jason Maling offered personalised sessions intended to cure patrons’ arts anxieties. Patients were led into a small room on City Gallery’s first floor and asked to take a seat. Everything from the couch to the computer was upholstered in blue (almost International Klein Blue) billiard-table material. Adjacent to the couch stood two tables equipped with a range of implements designed for healing – a mallet, leather straps, blindfolds. After a brief chat, patients were encouraged to select items that may interest them and roam the galleries.

Maling plays with the disengagement de Botton and Armstrong are concerned with. Going so far as to pathologise it, as indifference disorder – a natural defence against the oppressive nature of gallery behaviour. During my own session with Maling, he showed me a few examples of other patients; some took the opportunity to make political statements – one woman, frustrated by the lack of seating in the gallery, placed a chair in the middle of Simon Starling’s retrospective; some actions were meditative, others whimsical.

He noted my reluctance to engage with the objects. He wasn’t wrong. Full disclosure: I hate being asked for input. As I was leaving the house to go to my session, I decried participatory art as “fucking irresponsible” or something a little less eloquent. Maling, however, never takes you further than you’re willing to go. Some patients, he said, preferred to stay inside the room for the entire session, just chatting.

Eventually, I blindfolded myself and let Maling lead me around the gallery. He told me to take my shoes off and I did. When I felt the time was right, I arranged a set of felt squares on the ground.

The project’s appeal is in its transgression. There is something deeply exciting about being granted permission to act outside a sanctioned behavioural code. Maling’s manifestation of art as a therapeutic experience is perhaps more effective than de Botton and Armstrong’s, because rather than relying on a pedagogic notion of what art should evoke, Maling allows for a reclamation of public space. The patient is entitled to turn the gallery into what they wish.

Until 22 March, at 29 Manners St (formerly an ASB branch), artist Vanessa Crowe and Dr Sarah Elsie Baker will be staging an installation called ‘Moodbank’. The project is an examination of urban space as a site of exchange. Late capitalism relies on the suppression of emotion to sustain itself – to act professionally is to refuse to dissociate the irrational self. At the same time, governments are concerned with measuring the relative happiness of populations. Moodbank acknowledges the absurdity in trying to quantify collective happiness, but it also gives credence to humans as emotional creatures – its aim is to create an emotional map of Wellington – to realign the value placed on particular kinds of happiness, and to refute the notion that it can be purchased.

De Botton has been accused (by me, right now) of a kind of blind idealism. The problems of disengagement are timely, but his solution – a prescriptive populism – is too limiting. Both Maling and Moodbank rely on similar anxieties around alienation, but they let participants drive the work. Art’s function as a tool for emotional healing can’t rely on audiences being told how they should respond to art – rather, if art is to re-establish itself as an unironic tool for social good, it must do so with the complicity and input of its audience.

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