The News: A Therapeutic Theory of Art

I want to put a proposition to you that follows up from my previous blog, which is that stories are not there just to entertain us or to help us pass the time. And they are not just made up of themes and tags that can be accessed by hyperlinks or search functions. At their core they offer something more; at their best they can fulfil psychological needs in the reader, even provide some kind of philosophical point of view. This idea is expanded upon in a book called The News by the philosopher Alain de Botton, who puts forth the notion of a therapeutic theory of art (and consumption). To get the point across, it’s worth quoting him at length:

“Art is a tool to help us with a number of psychological frailties which we would otherwise have trouble handling: our inability to understand ourselves, to laugh sagely at our faults, to empathise with and forgive others, to accept the inevitability of suffering without falling prey to a sense of persecution, to remain tolerably hopeful, to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and to prepare adequately for death…”

“…This explicitly therapeutic theory of art in turn hints at a purpose for cultural journalism: that it should direct our lonely, confused, scared and stricken souls to those works of culture most likely to help us to survive and thrive.

“The cultural journalist should act as a kind of chemist, picking out from among the myriad of available works those most likely to be able to help their audiences with their inner travails, treating the storehouse of art as if it were a gigantic pharmacy.

“At the end of reviews one might find discrete tags, comparable to the labels on pill packets, that would specify what sort of situation a given work might be for – and why.”

The crucial question here is what is art for, what therapeutic effect does any given artistic expression, be it a painting or a science fiction short story, claim to have on its intended audience? In his own whimsical yet insightful way, De Botton offers up some possible effects, such as confidence, consolation, perspective, conviviality, calm, resilience, rationality, etc. Clearly, these effects or ‘claims’ veer uncomfortably close to the world of advertising, with its own suspect claims for its products (this aftershave will make you sexy, etc), and de Botton does place his speculations within the world of consumerism. But he also makes the point that “by focusing on genuine needs rather than inchoate desires, we might start to do proper justice to the underlying aspirations generated by consumer goods – goods that we exhaust ourselves and our planet to make and pay for”.

Perhaps it’s possible to identify all the therapeutic effect ‘types’ that satisfy our psychological needs, or enough to at least suggest a framework or spectrum that they exist in? I imagine such a spectrum overlaying something like my science fiction hub, adding a kind of three dimensionality to its two dimensional schema.

I wonder what sort of society we would have if all its endeavors were geared towards satisfying its inhabitant’s needs, whether physical, psychological, spiritual or otherwise. Would we eventually transform into something else, something better perhaps? Is there transcendence in that notion? And if so, what would come next?

Still, the idea that consumer goods, or stories and other art forms, can satisfy or have some therapeutic or transcendental effect seems, to use that word again, a little whimsical. Stories that may cure loneliness? Items of clothing that build confidence? Paintings that assuage anxiety? Maybe so. And I haven’t even begun to look into the possibly insidious effects that could be caused by the more negative stories, media and consumables our society produces. I think at the heart of any art form or consumer product, or whatever, is a mystery, a kind of wildness that cannot be explained or its effects quantified. But I also think endeavoring to get to that transformational state is at least worthwhile.

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