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Alain again – de Botton 2

First published in The Guardian, 25 June 2014.


I know, I know – fart jokes are an incredibly subtle form of humour and this one will have wafted over the heads of less perceptive readers. I have learnt my lesson and will dumb it down in future. I don’t want to spend my life alone in an ivory tower of uber-sophisticated humour. But don’t get me wrong – I love my tower. No matter how high property prices go I refuse to sell. It’s my dream home and to even consider selling it would be a slap in the faces of those 7,463 selfless elephants who gave their trunks. It would get a really good price though – it’s the only ivory tower in the street and I know for a fact that everyone around here is jealous. To give just one example, the postman Mr Wang breaks off a bit every time he delivers the post. I once caught him in the act; he was stuffing my doorknob into his mailbag. When I berated him for his jealousy he wailed that he was not jealous, just sterile. WTF? Maybe I should move – so many nutters around here.


In their book “Art as Therapy”, Alain De Botton and the philosopher John Armstrong ask the question “what is art for?” They suggest that art is a therapeutic medium that can help us with our psychological frailties. I’ve got a couple of those which would inevitably draw jail-time were they discovered but luckily I have had a good hard look at a Corot and am now a functioning member of society. I jest of course. The Corot didn’t work. It is an interesting book and it certainly promotes closer looking at various artworks from unlikely angles which is a great thing, but my hackles are automatically raised by any New Age-y guff. But hey, I’m not everyone and for some people that works. Whether some art can be therapeutic or not is completely beside the point of why I love certain artworks. I certainly never think “how can this help me lead a better life?” when I look at a painting. Actually, it is probably a question of mental habits. I suspect that whatever De Botton looks at, not just art but anything, he is thinking about it in terms of how it could be reframed as a therapeutic tool. I just don’t think like that. When I look at something the questions and observations I make are completely different (potentially jailable). In fact, he either misses or intentionally ignores the central point of why art is sometimes overwhelmingly great – that visual music, with resonances and references tying together in beautiful and unexpected ways. As worthy as de Botton’s way of thinking may be, and he certainly thinks it is THE most worthy way (hence his confidence in wading into so many different areas, e.g. literature, philosophy, class, media, art, etc), I certainly don’t believe it is a more rewarding way of viewing art than my own, which has been the source of great pleasure. I welcome and enjoy his take on things but I suspect it is his belief that this is the best way, the proper way, of thinking about art that grates with some people – especially, it seems, with artists and critics, i.e. those who take profound pleasure in art but with completely different mental processes.


All part of life’s rich blanket I guess.

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Alain de Botton

First published in The Guardian, 28 May, 2014.


Alain de Botton is a mix of philosopher and self-help guru. A clever, busy guy, he has written books like “How Proust Can Change Your Life”, “The Consolations of Philosophy” and ‘Status Anxiety”; made TV shows based on his books and is a founder of The School of Life, an institution which aims to “offer instruction on how to lead a fulfilled life”.  I have been struck by the strength of anti Alain de Botton feeling a number of readers have expressed to me. If you’re pretty happy with your life I guess you might be liable to find someone telling you there’s a better way to lead it really annoying. I’m full of self-loathing so I’m not bothered. 

However he has written a book called “Art As Therapy” which offers an alternative way of viewing art. Alternative ways of viewing art is exactly what I spend my time trying to think up, so the book was perfect grist for my comic mill. The painting in the cartoon, The Laughing Cavalier, is one of the most annoying paintings in the world. The guy is not laughing; his mouth isn’t even open! Unless he was an admired ventriloquist the title is completely misleading. Apparently he is not even a cavalier. A more fitting title would be “A Complete Hypocrite”. In my cartoon De Botton follows his own advice to the letter – so you can’t accuse him of that.