April 24, 2024


I Fall For Art

Art’s Profound Purpose

In the realm of Western culture, art has long dwelled in the paradoxical space of reverence without a clear-cut intrinsic purpose. An unspoken agreement persists: we hold art in high regard because, implicitly, we believe it serves a meaningful role in our lives. But what is this role? The answer, I propose, lies in the therapeutic power of art—a capacity to cajole, console, and steer us towards improved versions of ourselves, both individually and collectively, thereby enriching our lives.

The reluctance to fully embrace this idea stems from the contemporary skepticism surrounding the term “therapy,” with its association with dubious or ineffective mental health methods. However, labeling art as therapeutic doesn’t imply it adopts therapy’s techniques; rather, it shares the profound ambition to aid us in better navigating existence. Even perspectives on art that appear to diverge from this goal ultimately hint at therapeutic underpinnings.

Art’s ability to shock and disrupt remains a compelling facet of its appeal

It serves as a vital catalyst for our collective vigilance, jolting us from complacency. This is especially crucial in combating societal norms that we may inadvertently take for granted. Art has the power to unravel these artificial constructs, revealing their impermanence and potential for transformation. For instance, Sebastian Errazuriz’s ingenious transformation of mundane street markings into dollar signs in Manhattan aims to provoke a radical reevaluation of our relationship with wealth—a wake-up call rather than an encouragement to amass riches. Shock, in this context, seeks to elevate our state of mind, fostering a keener awareness of complexity and nuance and fostering openness to doubt, ultimately pursuing psychological improvement.

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Nevertheless, shock alone falls short when we require different emotional adjustments. At times, we yearn for reassurance to combat doubt and anxiety or for simplification amid life’s complexity. We may need encouragement when pessimism looms. Shock, while effective in combating complacency, represents merely one facet of addressing impoverished thinking or ungenerous dispositions.

Another avenue involves delving deep into the past

Consider Vittore Carpaccio’s “The Healing of the Madman,” a visual time capsule of Venice circa 1500, featuring the Rialto Bridge in its wooden glory. This artwork serves as an invaluable window into the architecture, religious ceremonies, clothing, hairstyles, and societal intricacies of its time. Moreover, it offers insight into how the past was perceived by the artist, shedding light on the economics of art and its societal context. Beyond scholarly interest, this historical exploration ultimately leads back to the concept that encountering history through art enriches our lives—underscoring the therapeutic essence of art, even when overlooked or dismissed by some.

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Another perspective regards art as an evolving journey of discoveries and innovations in representing reality. Much like how we celebrate explorers and inventors from history, we exalt artists who pioneered novel techniques. Yet, the assessment of such technical advances in art remains incomplete if we do not recognize their therapeutic potential—their ability to enhance and rejuvenate the art form, thus benefiting us.

If we align with Hegel’s notion that art is the sensuous presentation of the ideal, we must probe why such presentations hold value. What are the core challenges or aspirations that make art indispensable to us?

The therapeutic argument goes beyond mere speculation about art’s value; it centers on its potential to enhance our lives. Art operates as:

  • A Corrective of Memory: Art encapsulates experiential insights, preserving them for posterity.
  • A Source of Hope: Art keeps consoling elements in our view, bolstering our resilience against despair.
  • A Conductor of Dignified Sorrow: Art legitimizes sorrow as a noble aspect of life, helping us acknowledge difficulties.
  • A Balancing Agent: Art accentuates our positive qualities, recalibrating our nature towards our best possibilities.
  • A Guide to Self-Knowledge: Art aids in identifying profound yet ineffable facets of life, fostering self-recognition.
  • A Guide to Expanding Experience: Art accumulates diverse experiences, extending our horizons and enriching our understanding of the world.
  • A Tool for Re-sensitization: Art reawakens our appreciation for the familiar, reminding us that novelty and glamour are not the sole solutions.

Consider, for instance, Tischbein’s “Goethe at the Window of His Roman Apartment,” which captures Goethe during his transformational sojourn in the warm South. This artwork serves as a memento of the insight one gains while away from familiar surroundings, preserving the best version of the self. Similarly, Caspar David Friedrich’s “Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore” beckons us to a state of mind attuned to the vastness of time and space, allowing us to confront our deepest griefs with resilience.

The notion that art’s value finds its roots in therapy is not novel; it traces back to Aristotle’s musings on poetry and drama. Aristotle contended that tragic drama could heighten our experience of fear and pity—two emotions that profoundly shape our lives. Art’s ultimate task, in this framework, is to aid us in flourishing and becoming “virtuous” in the sense of being adept at living, even in adversity.

This therapeutic perspective, while somewhat eclipsed in recent times, stands as the most compelling lens through which we can truly comprehend art’s value. Other viewpoints, as we have discerned, invariably presuppose it, even when they appear to diverge. To contemplate art from a therapeutic vantage point is to embrace its profundity and reestablish its central role in modern culture and life.