The Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam is spotted with gargantuan yellow post-it notes. The philosopher Alain de Botton, whose Architecture of Happiness I regularly assign to my Philosophy of Architecture class, has taken on as his latest project to reinvent the museum label. His Art as Therapy project -- which started in England, and may go to other museums -- in a way takes us backward in time. His "chat labels" want us to look at art as offering lessons for our lives.
I was thrilled to see this at the Rijksmuseum and wholeheartedly support the purpose. Over the years, I have found myself almost always annoyed by what curators choose to put in the labels. They range from the purely academic art historical, with detailed discussions of provenance, or analyses of the painting purely on formal grounds, with no reference to the subject, to the mildly annoying biographical, a litany of dates that flit in and out of our brains. This kind of information is invaluable for some, and should be available, but it is not what most are interested in. At the very least we should be embracing the simple notion of the de Botton exercise, which is to offer different approach to "reading" a work of art.
So, I was thrilled to see someone stating what I think is common for most regular people who visit art museums: we look for what is beautiful and meaningful. In a sea of paintings and sculptures, we are drawn to those that seem to speak to us, that call to something we wish for, are disturbed by, are working out, are missing in our lives. De Botton is absolutely right that so much of art of the past was indeed meant to convey ideas, even teach lessons. Indeed, it is safe to safe that most art was created with more didactic purpose in mind than some "pure" appreciation for "art for art's sake." George Steiner, in Real Presences, mocks this notion, not because he is against art as an important endeavor. Indeed quite the opposite:
Why should we shy from exploring the ethics expressed through art? Visiting an art museum is, in part, an object lesson in flattening time. We do not act as historians, visiting a "foreign country" to understand how people thought and felt in a different time. Mainly, we want to see ourselves in the past, and want to see how others have tried to capture universal dilemmas of living on earth. No doubt, we can learn much by recognizing how foreign the past is -- this is the basis of historical study and I was well-trained not to be a Presentist -- slur of all slurs in graduate school. But when I go to an art museum, I do hope, as de Botton suggests, to find some answers, or refuge in possible answers, whether it is in Giotto's kiss of Joachim and Anna in the Scrovegni Chapel, or the clean starched sheets in a de Hooch painting of bourgeois life in Amsterdam.
So, the "Art as Therapy" project is a brilliant idea, a necessary endeavor.
Too bad so many of the "post-it notes" were so pathetically simplistic or downright offensive. To Adrian Coorte's still-life of strawberries we are told that the lesson we must learn is to appreciate our loved ones more: Don't always go looking for a more beautiful or more tasty bowl of strawberries. Confronted with an awful scene of war at sea, we are blithely told that the lesson is obvious: sometimes we need to fight for what we believe in. As I read more and more of these commentaries, I was more and more frustrated. Here was a great idea which deserves to be embraced, but might not be because of the weak execution.