The Art of Useless Suffering

The art as therapy idea is back, thanks to Alain de Botton.

In a surprise move, the Netherlands’ top cultural institution, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has been turned into a giant therapeutic centre designed to help people with emotional issues. The operation has been masterminded by two intellectuals, author Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong. The building has been decked out in banners screaming ‘Art is Therapy’ at the city, 200 works have been equipped with giant captions next to them, detailing the therapeutic benefits on offer, and six new rooms have been created to shed light on such themes as ‘Sex’, ‘Love’ and ‘Money.’ The show is expected to last until the autumn.

The reaction was swift and predicable.

This move has, naturally, created outrage among the cultural elite. ‘The idea that art should help people to live is a piece of babyish absurdity we should all have grown out of long ago,’ declared the Guardian‘s fiery chief art critic, Adrian Searle. The New York Times similarly cast off its normal restraints to declare: ‘Reducing art to self-help is the greatest imaginable insult to the masterpieces of culture.’

Great art can survive insults even from the art therapy movement. However, the philosopher Emmanual Levanas has the concept of "useless suffering," which is exactly the opposite of art therapy. According to Levanas, pain disrupts our ability to experience anything with any kind of coherence. We can't communicate effectively, but this is good because pain disrupts our interior life so much that we are forced to realize we're dependent on other people. Latching on to the wholeness of canonical art sooths the wounded autonomy of the self while obscuring the difficult demands placed on us by other people and the world in general.

The cure? Difficult, disruptive, demanding Modernist art. No comforting harmonies there, just the theraputic demand from the Other, symbolizing the experience of pain so it is out there in the space between self and Other, where it belongs. 

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