Culture House Daily

Alain de Botton: We need art to help us to live and to die

24 March 2014

9:55 AM

24 March 2014

9:55 AM

The world’s big national museums are deeply glamorous places. We keep quiet in their hallowed halls, we wander the galleries in reverence, we look at a caption here and there, but, sometimes, if we’re honest, deep in our hearts, we may be asking ourselves what we’re doing there.

Art enjoys unparalleled prestige in the modern world, but the reasons for this are rarely explained in plain terms. Just why does art matter?

When people want to praise art museums, they sometimes remark that they are our ‘new cathedrals’. This seems an extremely accurate analogy, because for hundreds of years, cathedrals were, just like museums, by far the most significant places in society; they were the buildings people lavished money on and felt proudest of. They were the spiritual hearts of the community.

But there remains a huge difference between museums and cathedrals in terms of our collective awareness of what the two types of buildings should be for. You used to go to the cathedral for some clear reasons: because you wanted to save your soul, because you were looking for comfort, you needed community, you wanted to develop your moral character or you were hoping for consolation and redemption.


What do we go to the art museum for? We know that art is meant to be somehow good for us, but to ask simply ‘What is it for?’ may sound childishly naive, impatient or vulgar. Some of our visits therefore bear the hallmarks of an uncertainty about their purpose. There is huge respect but also, somewhere within many of us, a distinct confusion.

Now in truth, art can do for us a remarkable number of the very things that religion once did. Culture is in a position to replace many of the functions of scripture. Art too has the power to console us, it too can bring meaning and purpose, it too can increase our powers of empathy and generate a sense of community. The problem is that if you showed up at the art museum with these sort of ambitions in mind, you might swiftly be deemed more or less insane. It would seem all a little too intense, heavy, emotional or weird. One is allowed to cry in churches and cathedrals, but it would seem demented to do so in a gallery. The art establishment is, to its core, sober, cold and academic; it doesn’t allow the treasures in its possessions to do what they were arguably always actually meant to do (in the eyes of those who created them): help us to live and to die.

Surprisingly, it wouldn’t take too much to transform museums so that they could really function as adequate replacements for cathedrals. For a start, you might want to rearrange how the art in them was presented. Art museums typically hang their collections in a chronological way, reflecting the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. But an indexing system more alive to the inner needs of the audience might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the sorrows and dilemmas of the audience.

There might be a room on love, another on death, a third on children, a fourth on money, a fifth on aging – and so on. Just like music or literature, art has the power to work a deeply therapeutic effect on us. Connection with the right piece can explain, re-invigorate, rebalance and console us, but in order for this to happen, we need a little encouragement to believe that such intimate effects might be possible or desirable.

With a different ‘frame’ around them, art collections could begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators could put aside their deep-seated fears of a ‘purpose’ for art and once in a while co-opt works to a distinctly therapeutic mission. At that point museums truly would be able to honour the claim that they had properly fulfilled the excellent but as yet elusive ambition of becoming a substitute for the old cathedrals.

These thoughts have recently born fruit in a pioneering project. At the end of April, a new show is opening up at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The show carries the provocative title of Art Is Therapy, and is designed to turn the museum’s collection into a giant psychological resource; something to help us with the painful and confusing business of living.

To find out more about the show and its underlying approach, please visit:

Alain de Botton is founder of The School of Life and has written numerous books, including Art as Therapy with John Armstrong. He is also the editor of

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Show comments
  • BaraccoBarner

    The author sees Art as a substitute for Religion. It is not and never will be because Art (and it’s appreciation) cannot save the soul. Art offers only a temporary solution to a permanent dilemma – who will save me from this wretched body of son?

    The best that Art can achieve is to point to the ultimate artist, the creator, God Himself. Seeing Art as a substitute for Religion is like saying a film trailer is better than the movie it is portraying. Some film trailers are better, but only because the movie is poor, not because of the trailer.

    The author seems to be on a quest to replace God. He will never succeed. Much better to worship God than to waste time with displacement activity.

  • Liz

    I agree. We do it with poetry anthologies, why not art?

  • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

    I always took great pride in coming from a city where the Museum is a bigger and more impressive structure than the cathedral. I was never out of the place as a kid, and even though it’s changed immensely I find it a true place of solace.

  • Count Boso

    If we’re honest, deep in our hearts, we may be asking ourselves what de Botton is doing here.

    De Botton enjoys unparalleled prestige in the modern world, but the reasons for this are rarely explained in plain terms.

    ‘What is de Botton for?’ may sound childishly naive, impatient or vulgar.

    • Frank

      No, lots of us have been asking that question for some years.
      I suspect that it is a question of “The Emperor is naked”, somehow all part of the razzamatazz of the phony market for modern art in New York / London (ie you pump up the reputation of some artist and then dump the works on unsuspecting mugs).

      • Count Boso

        I am away from March 25 to April 2. I shall be picking up all emails on my return. Regards,
        Peter Jackson

  • edithgrove

    Anyone who has followed curating trends over the last twenty years knows the kind of presentations you are advocating are anything but new. We have endured thematic installation from the V&A to the Museum of Modern Art, New York for several decades. Its evil twin is the intervention.

    You use ‘art’, ‘culture’, ‘museum’ as interchangeable words which they are not.

    People don’t keep quiet or behave with reverence in museums, try Tate Modern on a Saturday afternoon, more like a children’s playground, or the Musee d’Orsay’s clicking hordes. We live in an age of art tourism.

    Why would anyone be ‘deemed insane’ or ‘weird’ for looking to art to find meaning in life or because they were moved to tears by it. And who would be making this judgment, the guard?

    Art enjoys unparalleled attention in our culture largely because as an investment it has out-performed gold, property, the stock market, you name it. Museums are palaces of wealth. You say lets make art like music or literature but art isn’t music or literature. And ideas like yours try to commodify art, re-author art, give it a purpose it was never intended to have, because you never got it in the first place.

  • Frank

    Trite article and concept.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    That`s Brits for you; resort to personal abuse at the drop of a hat. A nation of bullies, it`s undeniable.

    • Kitty MLB

      You may find most believe the big ole Uncle Sam to be a bully, makes more noise
      then anywhere else in the New World – and very fake with the ‘ have a nice day’.
      English are kind people, educated most of the world at some point,
      are gracious not politically correct, do not suffer fools gladly.
      Eccentric, mild mannered and when angered or disappointed will say so,
      not forgetting a sense of humour. we have good and bad , the occasional
      hot temper but never bullies – which is why most try and take advantage of the good fair nature.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        I`ve found Internet correspondents from the US rather more polite than Brits, and less inclined to resort to personal abuse. Something to do with the right to bear arms, perhaps?

  • mitate

    good to see the reasoned, intelligent, not to mention highly explanatory, by way of antidote to the ad hominem to which it responds. but i take issue with “there is huge respect”. huge respect for the masters, yes, but only confusion for the contemporary.

  • tjamesjones

    Good on you ADB. I don’t personally think Art and Museums act as a replacement for churches (for a start because churches are inherently social places). But I think you are right to point out that art has taken some sacred place in the modern imagination, and to some extent replacing theology as the magic in our lives, and it’s no bad thing for galleries to try to grapple with this.

    • Kitty MLB

      Churches are inherently spiritual places.
      Meusems and galleries contain beautiful objects
      and show the creativity of our fellow humans,
      but as anyone ever said they felt at peace in the presence
      of God in such places.

      • tjamesjones

        Yes, I agree with that.

  • Kitty MLB

    Museums and galleries are a show piece for the creative
    genius of mankind throughout history.We visit because we
    like to see beautiful creations and that culture makes the soul
    smile (Lefties, I am not talking yogurt)
    Leftie philistines with this type of tribble will not get that,
    they prefer cows in glass cages and meaningless blobs
    on a canvas instead of real art.

    • Paul Davison

      Real art being ? …

    • geronimoooo4


      let ‘Kitty MLB’ from the internet, enlighten us as to what ‘real art’ is…..

  • rolandfleming

    Shallow, ignorant drivel.

    • Lewis Sullivan

      care to elaborate?

      • rolandfleming


        It’s ‘shallow’ because the author seems to think that both religion and art are some sort of ‘generation prozac’ self-help exercise.

        It’s ‘ignorant’ because there have been plenty of exhibitions that group artworks not by chronology but by theme.

        • Lewis Sullivan

          Are you suggesting people don’t go to church to get help? Or to see art to be inspired or lift their mood? Clearly they do, clearly some people visit museums (and church) to be comforted, uplifted, excited, soothed or placated – you could call all of those things ‘self-help’ if you wanted to. Is that more shallow than viewing art for its beauty alone? Or church to get into heaven?

          True. And on that I suspect Alain is feigning ignorance to sell his book. Or maybe they are so few and far between as to not be significant. Who knows?

  • andy_gill

    Where do the unmade beds and pickled sheep fit in to your new vision for art? I fear your proposals might upset quite a few luvvies.

  • Alain de Moron

    This article begs to differ.