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In front of Rogier van der Weyden’s painting Descent from the Cross, a “man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?” (Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, 8)
Contemporary literature has given new life to precisely this critical question of how we experience art – whether it is visual art, poetry or music – to explore how we reflect on our aesthetic experiences. An art to be experienced in itself, literature articulates our visual and auditory experiences outside their intended spaces of reception and mediates our artistic encounters through language. Although a literary concern, it is also a vitally important interrogation into our contemporary experience, mediating the way we listen to music and see art in order to comment on the way we experience and understand the experience, not simply the experience itself. Indeed, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong (2013) have propositioned that there is a new way of interpreting art: “art as a form of therapy”. Just as the man viewing Descent from the Cross, we can have a therapeutic or emotional experience with music, poetry, literature and any form of art.
Art provides us with comfort through beautiful and hopeful images, sounds and words, and also through a recognised social expression of suffering. In art, we can see the faces and hear the voices of sorrow and grief, of the marginalised and the dying, and this not only teaches us compassion, but that we are not alone. Given some of our shared experiences in recent times, this is a significant element of living.
Some of us, we stood in silence
Some bowed their heads and prayed
I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust
And let it fall over his grave (Lucinda Williams)
Art, however, also gives us a vision of hope. Indeed, “if the world were a kinder place, perhaps we would be less impressed by, and in need of, pretty works of art.” (16) Sometimes it is a work of beauty that reduces us to tears, because sometimes it is this “that can be, for a moment, heartbreaking.” (16)
And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be (McCartney & Lennon)
A central problem of contemporary experience, and what de Botton calls “one of our major flaws, and causes of our unhappiness,” is our difficulty to be present within our current space: “We suffer [and are unhappy] because we lose sight of the value of what is before us and yearn, often unfairly, for the imagined attractions of elsewhere.” (59) Perhaps, then, art’s gift of therapy is that – for a moment at least – it asks us to be still, to consider, to understand and to be with and involved in our experience of being alive in this world.