Art as/is Therapy

According to Armstrong & de Botton (2013) and subsequently in de Botton’s talk (The School of Life, 2013) the impact of art is often not what it should be because the frame is wrong, we aren’t actively encouraged to bring ourselves to it, or see ourselves in it. To illustrate this he references his experience as a young man in the Rothko room(s) at Tate, not knowing what he was allowed to feel in their presence. The caption didn’t help, it described what it was made of, what it was worth, with affiliations to galleries and collectors.

Years later he stumbled across an interview Rothko did with TIME Magazine where after much to-ing and fro-ing he lost his temper and said; “Look, you’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, my works of art are places where the 2 sadnesses can meet and therefore both of us can feel less sad.” de Botton suggests this quote would have been a far more successful caption next to the paintings because it would have been a productive frame with which to enter a relationship with those artworks. This alludes to what I think research craves too; a ‘productive frame’ in which to be viewed.



But as theory becomes practice, interesting and valid points disappear in their intervention (Art is Therapy, 2014) on the walls of the Rijksmuseum. On first glance, the museum appears unchanged until you notice further lengthy captions/footnotes on big, yellow squares by Irma Boom, displayed with the charm of Passive Aggressive Notes, 2016. From this perspective they seem more like a disgruntled teacher’s notes on poorly executed homework than, what I’d hoped to be the catalyst for a bold new curatorial movement in museums geared more towards pedagogy. From my experience of talking to people about supporting materials in exhibitions, half want more of it and half don’t want it at all. This puts the curator in a position where they can almost never be right.

Art critics seemed almost offended by the exhibition (which isn’t a great surprise) and went about tearing it apart in their reviews. Through no fault of their own these reviews cloud the better points contained in his book, these include:

  • Society is moving away from religion, culture is suited to filling its shoes
  • Distilling theory into something digestible for new or untrained eyes
  • The need for a facilitator between big books and a diverse audience
  • Solutions to changing the world lie in mass communication
  • Moving away from devotion to academic categories
  • Purposes of criticism
  • The ever growing role of ‘the artist’
  • Accepting the legitimacy of raising taste across the board
  • The need for ‘enlightened capitalism’

The intervention highlights the importance of what Murray (1997) calls, “…the gold standard of aesthetic and critical value”. It’s not enough to have a good idea, how you show it matters just as much, if not more.


Refracted exhibition at Russell-Cotes Art gallery & Museum 


Refracted (2017) at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum negotiated a similar translation on to the walls of a museum, using it’s own collection really quite well, thoughtfully, clearly, boldly and with grace. Using the idea of refraction (splitting of light into its component colours) coinciding with the rainbow flag, members of the local LGBT+ community re-hung elements of the museum collection across several themes denoted, in the exhibition, by the colour of the wall on which they’re placed. Here the lens is changed, we see a historical collection through the eyes of those in society who should have been welcomed to the party a long time ago.

We’ve earmarked the art gallery and museum as a place to experiment, question, challenge each other’s perceptions and put ourselves under the microscope. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (1992) quite rightly says that social institutions serve many masters and must play many tunes accordingly. Success could be defined by the ability to balance all the tunes that must be played and still make a sound worth listening to. I think we should also be making one more people can hear.

Betascore: 54


Art as Therapy (2014) [Exhibition]. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 25 April – 7 Sept 2017

De Botton, A. & Armstrong, J. (2013) Art as Therapy. Phaidon

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1992) Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London: Routledge

Molina, J. (2017) Refracted Exhibition. Available at:

Murray, N. (1997) ‘Culture and Accessibility’ in Wallinger, M. & Warnock, M. (ed.) Art for All? Their Policies and Our Culture. London: Peer, p58-62

Purdon, J. (2014) ‘Pointless Exercise’, Apollo Magazine. Available at

Refracted (2017) [Exhibition]. Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth. 13 May – 8 Sept 2017

Sehgal, P. (2013) ‘Patronizing the Arts’, The New York Times. Available at

Searle, A. (2014) ‘Art is Therapy review’, The Guardian. Available at

The School of Life (2013) Alain de Botton on Art as Therapy. Available at