I’m miserable. I could perhaps use help from (a) friends or family, (b) a therapist, or (c) a museum. A museum? Who turns to a museum for personal help?
Creating art can be therapeutic: Artistic expression as healing is the basis the vibrant field of art therapy. And, as I’ve explained in other posts (see Shedding Skins, Transformation by Fire), public display of art created in the course of healing not only brings further healing to both creator and audience, but also increases public confidence in a healing/recovery narrative. But can art created for other or unknown purposes and exhibited in a museum be healing? Is a museum an institution that could or should deliberately foster healing from emotional pain?
Art as Therapy, an exhibit currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), tackles these novel questions. Curators Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, contend that art museums have become irrelevant or intimidating to many people because exhibits appear to demand homage for artistic importance and to sanction reactions not based on sophisticated knowledge. Kind of like implying that people shouldn’t bother going to movies unless they are prepared to recognize and knowledgeably discuss the cinematography, directing, casting, and artistic importance of the film.
De Botton and Armstrong argue that museums could and should present art in an entirely different manner, i.e., as a means to identify and resolve important personal and collective problems. To demonstrate, they have selected works from the AGO’s permanent collection and exhibited them in relation to themes, without regard to artistic period or medium. The result is five rooms where the viewer is invited to consider how the art on display might relate to matters of Love, Politics, Money, Sex, and Nature. For example, “Problem: I’m trapped in money worries.” Next to the piece, DeBotton and Armstrong point out, “. . . often enough the anxieties around money are the work of imagination: we fear humiliation (rather than actual bankruptcy); we are worried about not getting some alluring luxury; . . . . These worries can be very distressing. But in an important way they create an imaginary prison. They make us feel poorer than we really are. The solution might not be extra work to make more money. It might be greater self-knowledge.”
Viewers can write comments on interactive screens, and these comments are on display in each room. De Botton and Armstrong provide generous guidance on the AGO website, in an hour-long lecture at the AGO, and in a recently published book.
Does this work? Toronto Star journalist, Heather Mallick is delighted and has written “Think of art as your ticket to mental health” and “Doctor Art can find a cure” (which, sadly, does not seem to be available online). Mallick explains how she uses museums as sanctuary from emotional pain, and points out how a sculpture at the AGO (not in Art as Therapy) conveys, “Problem: People can be mean”. I see Mallick’s point, and I suspect that many people use museums privately in the way she does, i.e., as a kind of refuge where individual works offer emotional connection and fresh personal perspectives. Art as Therapy publicly promotes such experiences as purposes for a museum visit.
For a museum exhibit to openly encourage viewing art in this way feels very new, somewhat disorienting, and also rather exciting. I relied heavily on the curators’ comments. It would never have occurred to me, for example, that Jesus washing the disciplines’ feet as the group hung out together might be seen as valuing of bonds of affection in a dog-eat-dog world. However, this perspective transformed the painting from an Italian Renaissance artifact (painted in about 1545) or Christian teaching on humility to an image of sustaining friendship during hard times. I recognize this experience. I’ve been through hard times and deeply appreciated the friendships that helped to keep my head above water. I now hold in mind a fresh image for these experiences, and feel more deeply joined with others, perhaps hundreds of years in past, who shared such caring with one another.
I also quite enjoyed other viewers’ comments, which also helped me to connect my own reactions to those of others and offered further insights. I’d be eager to see museums set up more exhibits to engage viewers in considering art pieces, old and new, in relation to personal and community concerns. Museums could provide a powerful new institutional venue for naming and responding to emotional pain (see Emotional Pain for more on why this is important). Then, yes, it would definitely occur me to go to the museum when I felt in need of a bit of healing.