Art as Therapy: or, Why Your Career Development Plan is a Trip to a Gallery


A recent book by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, “Art as Therapy,” offers a different way of dealing with the issues that present themselves in private, public and work life. From the website for the book (

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong have a firm belief that art can help us with our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas, asking: What can I do about the difficulties in my relationships? Why is my work not more satisfying? Why do other people seem to have a more glamorous life? Why is politics so depressing?

The purpose of this book is to introduce a new method of interpreting art: art as a form of therapy. It’s the authors’ contention that certain art works provide powerful solutions to our problems, but that in order for this potential to be released, the audience’s attention has to be directed towards it in a new way (which they demonstrate), rather than towards the more normal historical or stylistic concerns with which art books and museum captions are traditionally associated. The authors propose that the squeamish belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential.

This book involves reframing and recontextualising a series of art works from across the ages and genres, so that they can be approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life.

An interactive website,, gives readers the opportunity to browse through the author’s perspectives on the role art can play in re-interpreting and re-imagining aspects of life including work. For example, run the cursor over the phrase “my work is so banal” and one sees this 1663 painting “At the Linen Closet” by Pieter de Hooch and this commentary:

At the Linen Closet 1663 Pieter de Hooch

At the Linen Closet 1663 Pieter de Hooch


It can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do everyday and in the environments where we live. We have jobs to go to, bills to pay, homes to clean and keep running and we deeply resent the demands they make on us. They seem to be pulling us away from our real ambitions, getting in the way of a better life. Art, and art galleries, feel far away from all this: they are for a day off, somewhere to visit on holiday.

The linen closet itself could easily be resented. It is an embodiment of what could, under an unhelpful influence, be seen as boring, banal, repetitive – even unsexy.

But the picture moves us because we recognise the truth of its message. If only, like de Hooch, we knew how to recognise the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life – the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships – are always grounded in the way we approach little things. The statue above the door is a clue. It represents money, love, status, vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen (and all that stands for) is not opposed to these grander hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. We can learn to see the allure of those who look after it, ourselves included.

It’s a hard message to hold on to, because we are constantly being told other things. This painting is small in a big and noisy world – but that so many people revere it is hopeful, it signals that we know, deep down, that de Hooch is onto something important.

In May 2014, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto will host an exhibition based on “Art as Therapy.” The press release:

Coming in spring 2014, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) presents an innovative exhibition entitled Art as Therapy, co-curated by renowned British philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong. Exploring the therapeutic potential of artworks, the exhibition opens on May 3, 2014, marking the project’s North American debut.

Presented as a series of interventions, and featuring works from the AGO collection, the exhibition brings to life the ideas set forth in de Botton’s and Armstrong’s highly anticipated new book, Art as Therapy, launching Oct. 14, 2013.

Engaging, lively and controversial, de Botton’s and Armstrong’s book is packed with 150 examples of outstanding art, architecture and design, while chapters on love, nature, money and politics show how art can help with many common difficulties — from forging good relationships and finding happiness to accepting mortality. Seeking to help readers develop a deeper understanding of art and of themselves in equal measure, the book provides fascinating reading for those familiar with art as well as those new to the subject.

In an installation that brings the book to life, de Botton and Armstrong will select key works from the AGO collection to illustrate their theory in seven areas throughout the Gallery. Accompanying these works will be interactive strategies designed to connect visitors to the art on a personal level.

“Art as Therapy underlines one of the AGO’s key goals: to bring people closer to art,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO. “We couldn’t be more pleased to be the first institution on the continent to debut the project. Alain’s and John’s research is extraordinarily thought-provoking, and we are excited to play a part in igniting this important conversation.”

The AGO is the first North American institution to present the exhibition, which will be uniquely tailored to the Gallery’s collection. It will also be presented at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The AGO exhibition will be accompanied by a series of public talks and book signings, to be announced in the new year.

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