Alain de Botton, to whom I normally feel kindly disposed, continues his unfortunate quest for a secularized form of religion with a plea for art museums to become bastions of moral instruction, with curators apparently assuming the role of priests:
The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?
…Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? Perhaps art shouldn’t be “for art’s sake”, one of the most misunderstood, unambitious and sterile of all aesthetic slogans: why couldn’t art be, as it was in religious eras, more explicitly for something?
Modern art museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as “the 19th century” and “the Northern Italian School”, which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. A more fertile indexing system might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to our inner needs. A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things that are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.
There are numerous problems here, the most obvious being: Alain, buddy, the death of God does not weigh heavily upon me. I do not have a God-shaped hole in my life that requires filling. My “inner needs” are—
When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress”, the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites.
Ahem! Chill out, I’ve got this! Sorry, Nietzsche was eavesdropping. He had heard enough, and couldn’t resist interrupting. But, uh, yeah, he’s right.
Anyway, de Botton seems to be using “modernist” problematically, when he really appears to mean “elitist”. I can sympathize, though I think he carelessly suggests cryptic pretension is best countered by exhortatory preaching. I too want to see artists – poets and musicians, not just painters — illuminate more of the personal intellectual and emotional context surrounding their work, not because I need to be told what to think and how to feel, but so that I can feel like I’m having a conversation with a distinct point of view. I already know what I think; that’s the most easy and boring thing in the world. Tell me what you think, what made you express it in that way. Surprise me with a different perspective.