09/10/2013 13:37 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Problem With the Art Establishment

The modern world thinks of art as very important, something close to the meaning of life. The symptoms of this elevated regard include the opening of new museums, the channelling of significant government resources towards the production and display of art, the desire on the part of the guardians of art to expand 'access' to works (especially for the benefit of children and minority groups), the prestige of academic art theory and the high valuations of the commercial art market.

Despite all this, our encounters with art do not always go as well as they might. We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we anticipated did not occur. It is natural to blame oneself; to assume that the problem must come down to either a failure of knowledge or of a capacity for feeling.

I allege that the problem is not primarily located in the individual. It lies in the way that art is taught, sold and presented by the artistic establishment. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the public's relationship to art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.

Together with my co-author, art-historian John Armstrong, this is the question that I set out to answer in our new book, Art as Therapy. It is very unfashionable to think that art can 'do' anything for us. There is an assumption in our culture that art isn't 'for' anything in particular. It's just very interesting and important. However, this explanation doesn't seem focused enough to me. I believe that art is a tool, and that like all tools, it has functions. I also think it is important to know what the tool is for, so that we can better know how and when to use it.

In Art as Therapy, we argue that art is a tool that can variously help to inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us. The books runs systematically through these functions of art, and in each area, we pick out a selection of works from across the history of the subject that we feel show art performing its task in optimal ways.

We are being shocking and deliberately so, because we believe that it should be common-sense rather than surprising to ascribe a purpose to art. Art can help us with our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas, asking: What can I do about the difficulties in my relationships? Why is my work not more satisfying? Why do other people seem to have a more glamorous life? Why is politics so depressing? The purpose of this book is to introduce a new method of interpreting art: art as a form of therapy. It's our contention that certain art works provide powerful solutions to our problems, but that in order for this potential to be released, the audience's attention has to be directed towards it in a new way (which they demonstrate), rather than towards the more normal historical or stylistic concerns with which art books and museum captions are traditionally associated. The authors propose that the squeamish belief that art should be 'for art's sake' has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential. This book involves reframing and recontextualising a series of art works from across the ages and genres, so that they can be approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life.

This all could sound really abstract, so for a more down to earth taste of what we're up to, take a look at the website we built:

In the meantime, here is one answer to a reader's question:

What would you suggest to look at if I feel miserable and depressed? And what would be good looking at if I am searching for the meaning of life?

In a moment of sad panic, I recommend the Dutch painter Ludolf Bakhuysen's Ships in a Storm (Oorlogschepen tijdends een storm, 1695)

It looks terrible. How can they survive this? But the boats were designed for this, their hulls minutely adapted for these conditions. The crew have practiced for this. This is an homage to planning and experience. The older sailors on the ship are saying to the novice, with a laugh, that just last year off the coast of Jutland, there was an even bigger storm - and slapping him on the back with paternal playfulness as the youth is sick overboard. We should feel proud of humanity's competence and skill in the face of these dreadful but strangely awe-inspiring challenges. We're better able to cope than we think.

For someone who feels that their work is a bit too routine, that their work has no meaning, I'd go for another Dutch painting, Pieter de Hooch's Linen Closet of 1663

It can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do everyday and in the environments where we live. We have jobs to go to, bills to pay, homes to clean and keep running and we deeply resent the demands they make on us. They seem to be pulling us away from our real ambitions, getting in the way of a better life. Art, and art galleries, feel far away from all this: they are for a day off, somewhere to visit on holiday.

The linen closet itself could easily be resented. It is an embodiment of what could, under an unhelpful influence, be seen as boring, banal, repetitive - even unsexy.

But the picture moves us because we recognise the truth of its message. If only, like de Hooch, we knew how to recognise the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life - the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships - are always grounded in the way we approach little things. The statue above the door is a clue. It represents money, love, status, vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen (and all that stands for) is not opposed to these grander hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. We can learn to see the allure of those who look after it, ourselves included.

It's a hard message to hold on to, because we are constantly being told other things. This painting is small in a big and noisy world - but that so many people revere it is hopeful, it signals that we know, deep down, that de Hooch is onto something important.

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong published by Phaidon is available on 14 October.