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Being Alain de Botton
March 25, 2014 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Why Alain de Botton is a moron. Alain Botton on why he is not a moron.
posted by shivohum (91 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
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;

I have wept and witnessed other people doing so in museums, so...no? Also, what's with the using museum and gallery interchangeably?

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.

I'm trying to remember the last time I was in a museum that displayed its collection strictly chronologically, and except for some special exhibits, and I can't think of such a time or museum.

tl;dr: Dunno if he's a moron, but I disagree with what he says in that piece almost completely.
posted by rtha at 12:11 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


I mean, the guy weirdly worships Plato, so it's no surprise that he equates art with a certain religious type experience, or think it ought to be. Art for the ancient Greeks was one and the same with religion.

I think 'moron' is a bit harsh, but I do wish we would stop engaging Alain de Botton as if he were a serious philosopher in any regard. He's a sort of philosophical guy who quips. Nothing wrong with that as long as you know what you're getting into.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:16 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I've read part of one of this guy's books and I'm going to have to weigh in on the moron side.
posted by mikeh at 12:17 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


I guess, Lutoslawski, it's fine as long as you know you're not getting into very much at all.
posted by mikeh at 12:17 PM on March 25


Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?
posted by RogerB at 12:17 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Here is the New York Times review mentioned in the first link.
posted by bjrn at 12:20 PM on March 25


My favourite tweet ever, by @ms_fry: "there isn't a single tweet by Alain de Botton to which the most appropriate response isn't 'u ok hun?'"
posted by howfar at 12:22 PM on March 25 [11 favorites]


These folks are what gives "intellectuals" and thoughtful criticism a bad name. I would just as soon they stop writing, do something beside write criticism and perhaps take up a useful trade or profession. Words. words, words--and a few more words.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:22 PM on March 25


Alain de Botton was one of those parasites sniffing around New Labour, a purveyor of pseudophilosophy justifying some of its more odious policies.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:26 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


The striking thing about de Botton is the sheer vapidity of his take on life and philosophy. I think it must be utterly lovely to be him. I would say that he seems the very essence of the happy pig, if that weren't an insult to the glory of pigs.
posted by howfar at 12:34 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Got about halfway into The Architecture of Happiness and had to abandon it because I realized that up to that point he had not yet said anything. It was about as deep as my head can smash into a brick wall and just as joyful. Unless you're counting the pseudo-philosophical bullshit it contained and, in that case, it was neck-deep.
posted by GrapeApiary at 12:35 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I just stopped upon his twitter:

"Always useful to assume that the most outwardly cheerful person may inwardly be fighting catastrophic anxiety & an urge to end it all."
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:48 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


I'm trying to remember the last time I was in a museum that displayed its collection strictly chronologically, and except for some special exhibits, and I can't think of such a time or museum.

Bingo. Well, there are places like the National Gallery (U.S.) where the upper floors are dedicated to X location, Y century, but I feel for every collection like that there's also an exhibit like the delightful pairing of Byzantine and contemporary works at the Menil last year.

My only previous familiarity with de Botton was reading How Proust Can Change Your Life--which was light but amusing--but to say he "makes[s] Paulo Coelho look like Dostoevsky" is as damning as I can think of.
posted by psoas at 12:53 PM on March 25


From Alain de Botton's article:

"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."

You have got to be shitting me. Did Jerry Seinfeld write this? "What's with these people going to art museums?! Walking around with confused stares -- Do they even know why they're there?"

I go to art museums because I'm interested in experiencing the art, and because I know that some art resonates with me and creates interesting thoughts and feelings. And I enjoy learning about the history of art and the more general human history that art often depicts.

Anyway, his whole article reads like bullshit. Mr. de Botton is welcomed to try to curate an exhibit in the way he describes -- that could be interesting and worthwhile -- but he needs to switch away from universally condemning how art museums display art. I suspect their curators spend way more time thinking about this stuff than he does.
posted by chasing at 1:01 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


He's not a moron, but he's pretty weak sauce, and annoying as hell. Whenever I read any of his recent stuff, words like "vacuous drivel" and "simpering ninny" seem to positively fly into my consciousness.
posted by Decani at 1:06 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Ugh, I listened to this guy recently on NPR, and he really does sound dim and self-satisfied. Is there an aural equivalent to Backpfeifengesicht? Because he definitely has a voice that cries out to be, if not punched, at the very least pantsed.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:08 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Moron? I dunno. The Art of Travel was a decent read. Religion for Atheists had its moments. I am sure I have read other of his stuff, but it has made a somewhat delible impression on me. However, I am aware that this is the blue and my favourite band sucks.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:11 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I remembered liking Status Anxiety (the documentary not the book) and then bought one of his books. I can't remember which one but it was him driving around and everything was sad or something. Basically he was saying nothing and made no conclusion. If he is a philosopher he is the slate.com of philosophers trying to sound as if he has some contrary opinion on something but he's just trying to make it to the next chapter.
posted by Napierzaza at 1:13 PM on March 25


The second link is all I have ever read by the guy, so I'm tentatively calling it for the moron side.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:15 PM on March 25


Am I the only who feels misled because de Botton's article is not titled "Why I Am Not A Moron"?

No? Ok, then.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:16 PM on March 25 [16 favorites]


I'm not outraged by the notion that art should be instrumental, but rather that the way to make it so is to write fucking inspirational quotes next to it.

But *of course* he wants to change the world through inspirational quotes, the fatuous, small-minded middle manager that he is.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:16 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


Moron.
posted by arnicae at 1:21 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Kinda surprised nobody's linked to an artist statement generator yet. Still my favorite.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:23 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Wow, I just read one of Botton's recent tweets linking to an article where he mocks my university's philosophy department for studying the work of supposedly irrelevant eggheads like Derek Parfit when they could be doing his brand of practical, self-help philosophy to inspire celebrities. Derek Parfit writes about really fundamentally important questions of ethics and identity with vast implications for how we live our lives and organise our societies.

What a blockhead.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:25 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Oh my God his is the only twitter I "hate follow."

Every single thing he says is such blatantly wrong, un-thought-out, sub-Sophmore-year-on-the-Quad "philosophy" that a parody of him would be indistinguishable from the actual stuff he posts. I've seen more depth and critical thinking in those image macros with quotes attributed to Marilyn Monroe.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:29 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


I have no great love for Alain de Botton, but Güner's article didn't impress me, either. Is there a deeper point that she would have like to have communicated? Or, am I supposed to be an extremely easily impressed reader, somebody so simple and inexperienced that I would be blown away to read the very dangerous and rare and not at all typical opinion that Alain de Botton is a middlebrow non-philosopher?
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:29 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


I suppose Alain de Botton was destined to jump the shark but his videos on Seneca and Epicurus and Montaigne are great stuff. He is the man who taught me that Montaigne had philosophy takes regarding his dick. Did any of your teachers cover that? Mine most certainly did not.
posted by bukvich at 1:37 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


So... the original url for the second link

.../culturehousedaily/2014/03/alain-de-botton-why-i-am-not-a-moron/

now redirects to a differently-titled article:

.../culturehousedaily/2014/03/alain-de-botton-we-need-art-to-help-us-to-live-and-to-die/

Was there originally a different article there that has since been removed? Or is this just a reeeealy super-duper-oblique response?
posted by ook at 1:44 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I'm going to reserve judgment.
posted by Naberius at 1:45 PM on March 25


Also, what's with the using museum and gallery interchangeably?

I always thought "art museum" and "art gallery" were fairly close, possibly interchangeable. Wikipedia says the main difference is ownership of the art.
posted by Hoopo at 1:50 PM on March 25


From The Telegraph: "Alain de Botton may be pretentious, but he's a philosopher in the tradition of Bertrand Russell."

Populizers get into trouble from both ends, from the yobs and the snobs (sometimes, of course, these are one and the same).
posted by No Robots at 1:50 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


As far as twitter hate-follows go, this fellow is popular for that purpose among some friends.

I just can't get over how authoritatively trite he is!
posted by mikeh at 1:57 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


As far as twitter hate-follows go, this fellow is popular for that purpose among some friends.

Holy hell. I wish I'd heeded the implicit warning and not clicked that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:08 PM on March 25


mikeh,

From that twitter account:

Can we all agree as a society to stop using PowerPoint?

This was unironically written in 2014!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:08 PM on March 25


....sure is easy being a critic, innit?
posted by GhostRider at 2:21 PM on March 25


I KNOW, RIGHT?
posted by mikeh at 2:28 PM on March 25


Dear rmhsinc
words words words and you want them to stop writing criticism? Ok.But then bother reading critics and why add even more words about their words?
ps: reading tweets as meaningful is much like reading bumper stickers for insights into life.
posted by Postroad at 3:00 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I thought his Consolations of Philosophy was actually quite a good book and it helped me through a difficult period in my early 20s. I haven't read anything of his since then, but that is enough to keep me thinking well of him.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:05 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


I read the Proust book. It was ok. I read the Consolations of Philosophy and thought what a superficial and lame book that was. Thus I ended my time with this guy. But thanks to this FPP I did some searching. He has a whole school that will change your life!
posted by njohnson23 at 3:18 PM on March 25


From The Telegraph: "Alain de Botton may be pretentious, but he's a philosopher in the tradition of Bertrand Russell."

So what's de Botton's "On Denoting"? What's de Botton's Principia? What's de Botton's Russell's Paradox?

Even if we restrict ourselves to popular writing, this is just an absurd comparison.
posted by kenko at 3:48 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Botton to NYT reviewer: "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make."
posted by ultraversetransit at 4:03 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


reading tweets as meaningful is much like reading bumper stickers for insights into life.

So would that be stripped of meaning if you tweeted it?
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:11 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


I just want to mention that two nights ago I fell asleep listening to an interview with Alain de Botton and subsequently dreamed that I flew to England and kidnapped him. I can't remember exactly why, but he was terribly nice about the whole thing and we had a very pleasant conversation. I haven't read any of his books, but I can attest that dream-Alain is a kind and understanding fellow.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:13 PM on March 25 [10 favorites]


From The Telegraph: "Alain de Botton may be pretentious, but he's a philosopher in the tradition of Bertrand Russell."

So what's de Botton's "On Denoting"? What's de Botton's Principia? What's de Botton's Russell's Paradox?

Even if we restrict ourselves to popular writing, this is just an absurd comparison.


Well, no because you're providing a false construction. Russell would not have defined his tradition in terms of "write influential books". More than that, the Telegraph author made very clear in the final paragraph what he actually meant by tradition, and it's something completely different than the sense you describe. I haven't read Alain de Botton much or recently, but even I can see this.
posted by polymodus at 4:38 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


What justification is there for calling de Botton a philosopher?
posted by kenko at 4:45 PM on March 25


I've always found his stuff suffers inestimably from the mantle-thick layers of wealth, education and privilege that have all too obviously insulated him from the vicissitudes of life as it pertains to normal people.

It's comically obvious he has never worked a day in his life, and his outlook is so circumscribed - thin and depressingly consistent demographic gruel - his wan insights could only apply to an anxious bourgeois set.

I'm usually the first to defend the middle brow, but not in this case.
posted by smoke at 4:48 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


> I've always found his stuff suffers inestimably from the mantle-thick layers of wealth, education and privilege that have all too obviously insulated him from the vicissitudes of life as it pertains to normal people.

Yeah but in one of those videos of his public talks he says with total apparent sincerity that among his family and friends and peers (i. e. one-percenters probably in near every case) that nearly all of them are miserably unhappy and that nearly all of them who have relationships are in relationships that totally suck. So, yeah he has limits but still he may have some value.

(If you had his dough and his friends don't you think you would have it totally made? I sure would. Now, why might we think that? It's downright absurd and still I cannot talk myself out of this idea.)
posted by bukvich at 5:14 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


An internet lynching - yay. Most of the responses here are snobbish and elitist, and collectively its a pretty unattractive look for Metafilter.

He's written a number of pop philosophy books on different subjects with the general aim of getting people to enjoy life more [how self satified! what a moron!] No they're not rigourous intellectual texts but they are readable and to some, helpful - that's exactly why his books sell and he is well known.
posted by meech at 5:16 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


He's written a number of pop philosophy books on different subjects with the general aim of getting people to enjoy life more [how self satified! what a moron!] No they're not rigourous intellectual texts but they are readable and to some, helpful - that's exactly why his books sell and he is well known.

You're wrong. The problem with de Botton's take on philosophy is that it fundamentally neglects, and rejects, the real consolation of philosophy. Philosophy doesn't make life easier. Art doesn't make life easier. Love doesn't make life easier. These things make life harder. And they make life worthwhile. De Botton is pernicious, idiotic and destructive because he is fundamentally wrong about the purpose of doing anything at all.
posted by howfar at 5:26 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


Another example:

He has a whole school that will change your life!

Well, no because the website clearly states: "The School of Life is a cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life."

To have a statement A that is distorted into a statement B, that's pretty unfair.* It tells me there's an intellectual disconnect going on, rather than any substantial disagreement about philosophical content or approach. Another sign is when people say shitty things about a person without even giving concrete evidence, actually analyzing what s/he actually said or wrote. It's more a sign that people are reacting to someone's (apparent) politics, rather than attending to what the person has to say.

What politics could that be? Well in this case the person's proposal to slightly re-architect the information content of a museum. That's not even an outlandish idea. But that it so easily ruffles feathers should not be surprising. Because—in short—at stake is the supposed ideological neutrality of the contemporary museum, and there are vested interests all around, and de Botton's ideas pose a threat.

I also just went to Art as Therapy website and it's actually kinda nice and mellow there.

This writer is not even on my radar of books I want/should/care to read, but I'd point out to the first author and other similar critics that their lack of empathy/solidarity combined with flawed criticism is probably a sign of something.

*(Even the first article does this. I found the actual article by de Botton, written 3 years ago. The moral instruction/prompt quoted "remember to be patient" is framed as almost insidious, when in the original context it's clear it's not even a literal illustration of what de Botton would have intended. This level of failing to read properly is just stupid.)
posted by polymodus at 5:29 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I remember reading his travel book and finding it a pleasant read. His twitter account, though, is trite.
posted by flippant at 6:09 PM on March 25


Well in this case the person's proposal to slightly re-architect the information content of a museum.

To slightly what the what of the where?

The information content of a museum? The what?

He asserts a thing about museums that is not universally true by any stretch and then advocates doing something that they already do. Revolutionary.
posted by rtha at 6:24 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Guys, I really liked his architecture book. I read it when the US was at the height of the real estate bubble and my wife and I were living with my in-laws for two years. Looking at one cynical, droningly bad suburban McMansion after another, his book really hit home for me.
posted by newdaddy at 6:43 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


He made some very relevant points about art curating. Art isn't just about history. It's about how it makes us feel. The idea that we place more value in the Artists name or identified movement is a completely valid observation. It shows that we aren't making an effort to really identify a feeling or thought when we spend our average of fifteen seconds looking at these paintings.

I'm sure that to some people Alain seems to be stating things so obvious that it's "stupid." But there's a lot of idiots in the world and having a think on some of these things is an attempt to bring people together. I see him as a religious apologist and I'm incredibly thankful he isn't a giant overwrought self righteous penis like Richard Dawkins.

In a way, he's got the same self hyping ego of Wolfram. That's what it takes to sell today and I'm willing to forgive him that where I'm less inclined to forgive Wolfram.

Long post shortened, I'd rather have a million Alains than one forum troll.
posted by varion at 7:29 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Huh. I'd never heard of this guy before. At least in terms of art criticism, he seems like a bit of a moron.

The main reason, for me, that his bit feels like weak sauce is that his questions aren't very interesting, and I'm of the belief that you can't do good philosophy without asking good questions. He also doesn't seem very familiar with art history at all, which includes kind of important things to his project, like how cathedral experiences actually functioned for people of the time. It seems a little addle-pated to treat El Greco's counter-reformation work as genuinely helpful therapy — a lot of it was about terrifying people back into the loving arms of Rome. Likewise, there's a lot about, say, the penis of Jesus in religious art and how it was emblematic of earthly concerns that would play against this weird notion he has of cathedrals as anodyne, affirming places. I mean, it doesn't sound like any of his rooms at the Rijksmuseum are going to be about terror or lust, or even catharsis.

It's frustrating, too, because I do think that art is probably the best contemporary way to access feelings of transcendence, and I think that's an important experience to maintain — Rothko's color fields can be positively transformative to get lost in, for example. But perhaps I'm just too enthralled with the hero's journey to embrace a notion of art that makes us better by making us nicer, rather than by forcing us to confront ourselves and grapple with terror and pain. Maybe we would be better served by anodyne psychic Hallmark bandages.
posted by klangklangston at 7:31 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.--Spinoza

But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.--Spinoza
posted by No Robots at 8:31 PM on March 25


I find him trite and pleasant, but I am so grateful he exists for the sheer pleasure of Roger's link to the hit piece why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young? For scathing vicious delight.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:19 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Here's my Alain de Botton story.

Ages ago I had the idea of writing a Twitterbot called 'Alain de Bot' using some kind of Markov chain type randomly generated text and the corpus of the real Alain's existing tweets. After sitting on the idea for quite a while I decided that it would be wrong to go ahead and do this without at least the approval and perhaps even the cooperation of real Alain, so I emailed him about it.

A couple of days later I got a polite reply from a flunky explaining that Alain was an extremely busy man who did not have time to so much as consider any new projects of any sort.

So I dropped it.

Naturally (and thankfully) someone else had the exact same idea as me, and @alain_de_bot now exists. Makes about as much sense as he does.
posted by motty at 9:25 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


howfar: "Philosophy doesn't make life easier. Art doesn't make life easier. Love doesn't make life easier."

I'm guessing music isn't art, then, because music makes life much easier.
posted by Bugbread at 11:54 PM on March 25


Ah, the ever reappearing sort of thread where, if the target of the pile-on was to suddenly show up, the critical tone would suddenly shift toward a more polite, better-reasoned direction. I like that direction. This loud-mouthed dickheadery? Not so much.
posted by jklaiho at 12:54 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


ITT: the same people who piled on the bloke who thought maybe a Bible that wasn't written in Latin would be a nice idea. Heaven help that somebody make some bits of philosophy more accessible to lay people. By God, if you're not regurgitating some tired PhD thesis, you're just wasting everybody's time. I mean, how very undergraduate.

You'd think publishing his stuff in popular books, magazines and newspapers would give you a hint that maybe his is not the Oh So Terribly Serious And Ever So Fucking Deep analysis you're looking for so you can impress your very clever but utterly miserable friends, but obviously not.

Here's an idea. Let's close the galleries to the hoi polloi altogether. None of them get art the way you lot do. They're just embarrassing themselves.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:32 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


That is a distortion. Mefi's own Oliver Bourkeman treads similar territory with far more nuanceand even depth. I would not deride him as middlebrow - I love middlebrow - and he is also very bourgeois. Botton is not a populariser except for a very small group. I find he lacks relevance and lacks the awareness or experience to get it.
posted by smoke at 2:31 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


jklaiho: "Ah, the ever reappearing sort of thread where, if the target of the pile-on was to suddenly show up, the critical tone would suddenly shift toward a more polite, better-reasoned direction."

I think if I were a mod, whenever a thread pillorying someone was formed, I'd drop in and say, "By the way, X is a MeFi member". People would still point out any problems with X, but they'd do so with the maturity that, as a kid, I assumed adults had.
posted by Bugbread at 4:20 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


What's de Botton's Russell's Paradox?

Is a set of all of de Botton's terrible self-help pseudophilosophy books itself a terrible self-help pseudophilosophy book? Luckily for us, the answer doesn indeed provide philosophical consolation: if it is, then it is, but if it isn't, then it is.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:42 AM on March 26


obiwanwasabi, I would not at all mind philosophy restated for laypeople. I'd appreciate it, actually, and I've read a number of articles and books that do so. I've also read or discussed a few points of view explaining how those works missed this nuance or that and did so in a reasonable manner.

I love art, and to be honest, my knowledge of art history is pretty rudimentary and I can often give or take the way particular museums are organized. What I appreciate more than anything is simplicity in presentation, and that really isn't what I got out of de Botton's writing at all.

The ideas mentioned in the "art as therapy" articles are, to me, somewhat indicative of the problem I have with his writing. With an interviewer, he sits at an art museum and notes that the majority of people walk from painting to painting, read the descriptive text, and wander on. That is exactly how tourists view art museums, and while it might be indicative of the majority of people in a museum at any one time, it's not how people who go to galleries for personal enjoyment approach it.

If you're looking at life's pleasures as consumables and acting accordingly, then yes, his writing might be for you. But I really haven't noticed much more than a thin layer of introspection and very little referring back to philosophy in what I've read of his work.
posted by mikeh at 9:53 AM on March 26


Seems like The Philosopher’s Mail is getting in on this: posted by No Robots at 9:55 AM on March 26


"Here's an idea. Let's close the galleries to the hoi polloi altogether. None of them get art the way you lot do. They're just embarrassing themselves."

You're rather embarrassing yourself, arguing from some odd defense of what you want de Botton's writing to be, rather than what it actually is, in some sort of paroxysm of anti-intellectualism.

Like I said, I'm very sympathetic to the notion he's grounding this in. However, the way he's chosen to go about it is dumb, and since other people are able to approach the same thing (e.g. Rothko's cathedral in Texas) in a way that's not dumb, I don't feel a particular responsibility to defend the dumb.

He's wrong about art overall, in a pretty cliche way, and doesn't even know that he doesn't know what he's talking about. It's the very essence of shallow self-congratulation, and we already have a surfeit of that in the popular press.
posted by klangklangston at 10:11 AM on March 26


And to elaborate a little bit further: He's wrong about art in a particular ideological manner that was hugely popular in the 1800s, through the early 1900s, the view that art is for edification. (For all the talk of him being a Platonist, it's a bit of a fundamental departure from the similar aims Plato held for art, poetry especially, see: Joshua Reynolds.) It was deeply bound up in notions of Christian morality, and had a lot of consequences with Bowlderization, censorship, etc. It's a view that was cataclysmically thumped by World War I, more than anything. Many of the masterworks of Modernism were explicitly reacting against that view, and even a fair number of proto-Modern works were too (see: Impressionism, Fauvism, etc.). So it's a weird, anachronistic ideology, less like objecting to vulgar Mass, and more like a revanchist Latinate partisan arguing that the words of Mass are less important than the sounds in Latin, therefore we should restore the Latin Mass.

I don't necessarily expect any regular member of the public to know about that, but if you're going to write about art, you should damn well be familiar with its history to at least know that much — it's, like, the major break of the 20th Century, art's attempts to grapple with the absurd horror of mechanized war. de Botton's advancing an argument with the credibility of homeopathy, and it's not wrong to call that profoundly dumb.
posted by klangklangston at 10:24 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


For Botton, a moment of clarity struck with Mark Rothko saying, “life’s difficult for you and for me. My canvases are places where the sadness in you and the sadness in me can meet. That way we have a little less grief to deal with.” Poignant. This relationship between artist and viewer is partly what Art As Therapy sets out to establish. Or rather, through understanding this connection, art’s remedies can be unlocked.--Alain de Botton’s ‘Art as Therapy’ Will Change How You View Art
posted by No Robots at 10:34 AM on March 26


But *of course* he wants to change the world through inspirational quotes, the fatuous, small-minded middle manager that he is.

Here, let me try: "Hang in there, baby."
posted by octobersurprise at 10:55 AM on March 26


I read Pleasure and Sorrows of Work while transitioning from journalism into fundraising and found it useful for how to approach special subjects in a questioning, philosophical manner. Now, de Botton has really weakened himself by taking up the cathedral alternative phasing of atheism and he really failed when he decided to trivialize how people read the daily newspapers and newspapers' content. I worry de Botton has taken as his role the Public School Teacher and that is where he aspires to be with School of Life. I have submitted numerous applications to School of Life and have even tried to license it. I wonder how well the school would do without its celebrity philosopher. When I was a teenager, I hoped Jedediah Purdy would take up the philosophical cloak and continue writing about language and irony but that is not going to happen.
posted by parmanparman at 12:29 PM on March 26


Re: "Alain de Botton’s ‘Art as Therapy’ Will Change How You View Art"
To Botton, the aforementioned ‘powers of art’ have all but been abandoned. Nowadays, we often struggle to discern semblance from the art we’re viewing. Admit it. Remember the last time you visited a museum? Then you surely remember thinking, “what… The… Hell… Am I supposed to make of this..?” We know we’re supposed to feel something in art’s presence, but that something isn’t always easy to distinguish.
The last time I visited an art museum was a week ago Saturday. I do not remember thinking, "What… the… hell… am I supposed to make of this…?" because I have ONE SIMPLE TRICK to view art at museums: I think about what the art is made of, what it looks like, and what kind of feelings I have about it, and then try to think about things that are similar that I've experienced. It's pretty easy, and can apply to pretty much any art. Usually, by thinking about the subject, the medium and the form, you can have intelligent thoughts on art, even if it's unfamiliar or challenging! So, yeah, we're supposed to feel something, and that something isn't always easy to distinguish, but if you think about what you're feeling, you can think about what you're feeling. That's it. All I try to do is not dismiss something out of hand because I'm unfamiliar with it.

I make no bones about having preferences — I didn't even bother looking at a lot of the Byzantine or pre-Renaissance collection, because it's often hermeneutic in a way I don't appreciate, but you know what? I don't really care about the deep allusions of Bob Dylan and the Beatles either. Hell, while I appreciate a lot of Rauschenbergs, I don't really try to decipher them either. I think about how they connect for me, and don't worry about what Bob's relationship with his second cousin is just because she's in some pasted corner, half-obscured by paint. (It would be different if I was going to write about the piece, but I'm not.)

I dunno, maybe it's because I've gone to too many student shows, but I bristle against the other side of "art as therapy" too — art made as therapy generally bores me to tears.

(And as for the repeated beef about chronology, since most artists were at least moderately conversant with each other, there's a lot of call and response there that you miss by lumping everything into "love" or "anxiety.")
posted by klangklangston at 12:57 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Admit it. Remember the last time you visited a museum? Then you surely remember thinking, “what… The… Hell… Am I supposed to make of this..?”
I spend a lot of time in art museums and sometimes I do encounter something that makes me say "What the hell?" But that's okay. There's nothing wrong with saying "What the hell?" But I feel like "Admit it. You said 'WTF?'" gets trotted out in these kinds of conversations about art as a way of preying on the art-less reader and making him or her even more fearful of encountering it without being told how to feel. No, it should be "Congratulations! You said "WTF?" Now, let's think about this." Or "Well, what do you think about this? How does it make you feel?"

Also, I dislike the treacly spirituality de Botton likes to pour over art. Moving as it may be, art isn't a religion it's a techne. Art works are objects. Only people who want to be popes try to make museums cathedrals.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:59 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Only people who want to be popes try to make museums cathedrals.

Like Rothko?
posted by No Robots at 2:21 PM on March 26


Why you should be more like Warnie.

Jesus!
posted by Wolof at 3:37 PM on March 26


Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?

Maybe he read this thread.

But if he is a MeFite, he's using a sock puppet.
posted by homunculus at 12:50 AM on March 27


from his homepage:

"We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which 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 which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good."

Clearly he's not a philosopher, because a) he takes a stance (gasp!), and b) he actually wants to try something.
posted by polymodus at 2:34 AM on March 27


Like Rothko?

Well, A) I think the difference between producing site-specific art for a spiritual space and remaking presently constituted art museums as "cathedrals" is significant here; B) if the point is to see Rothko rather than, say, meditate in a quasi-religious enviroment, then the Chapel isn't necessarily superior to the Rothko room at the Phillips for example; and C) much as I love and am moved by Mark Rothko, in fact, I actually find some of the more oracular pronouncements that surround his work sort of equally eye-roll worthy. Because, ultimately, the aesthetic experience and religious experience are different things. They might produce similar feelings, they may be equally desirable, but conflating the two doesn't make an encounter with a piece of art more intelligible or more moving.
"We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which 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 which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good."
I want to know who is "we" here. Because it isn't 1955. Clement Greenberg is dead. The idea that de Botton is swinging at hasn't been hegemonic in decades. If de Botton has been to a museum lately he will know that museums routinely exhibit "bad" art, kitsch art, outsider art, academic art, political art, etc. next to the Modernist classics that "want nothing too clearly of us." And that's not to mention the shows of commercial art, design, fashion—all art that definitely aspires to change us—which are exhibited in the world's most established art museums and attended by millions each year.

No, de Botton's vague populism is conjuring a boogy-man that doesn't exist in order to sell solutions that no one needs. Which brings us back to popes and cathedrals.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:08 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


One of de Botton's greatest projects is Living Architecture:
Living Architecture is a social enterprise dedicated to the promotion and enjoyment of world-class modern architecture. We have asked a series of great architects to design houses for us around Britain and are making these available to rent for holidays all year round.
I'm sure the quacks would like to take torches to these buildings.
posted by No Robots at 8:31 AM on March 27


""We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which 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 which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good."

Clearly he's not a philosopher, because a) he takes a stance (gasp!), and b) he actually wants to try something.
"

Clearly, he's not a good philosopher, because a) he's attacking a straw man, and b) he doesn't know what he's talking about.

If applied to medium, he'd be saying, "Why can't museums only have paintings? We've gotten too bound up in the idea that photographs, sculpture, video art, etc. is equally valid."
posted by klangklangston at 9:11 AM on March 27


The only way for the proletariat to free itself from bourgeois scholastic control is to work with prometheans like de Botton. de Botton cuts out all the bourgeois scholastic sophists and reaches right down to the proletariat.
As philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapon, so the proletariat finds in philosophy its spiritual weapon.—Harry Waton

~~~


But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in; and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter.
posted by No Robots at 11:19 AM on March 27


I'm sure the quacks would like to take torches to these buildings.

I have no idea who you are referring to here. Certainly no one in this discussion, I think. I wasn't aware of Living Architecture. Based on the website alone, it sounds like a lovely idea. I don't know that I'd call any of his houses "world-class" architecture, exactly, but they look like they range from the appealing to the appealingly nutty. (The Dune House is my favorite. The Balancing Barn seems the most impractical. The Room For London looks fun but uncomfortable.)

But fine! If de Botton can construct cool little houses around the UK for people to rent, then I say that's the best use of his talents yet.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:39 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


"The only way for the proletariat to free itself from bourgeois scholastic control is to work with prometheans like de Botton. de Botton cuts out all the bourgeois scholastic sophists and reaches right down to the proletariat."

Bullshit! De Botton is pushing bourgeois aesthetics, in fact he's pushing the very essence of bourgeois aesthetics through his return to the edification aesthetics of the 19th-century, which were explicitly favored and of a piece with the bourgeois morality!

We've gotten to the point where the defense of de Botton not knowing what the fuck he's talking about is made by not knowing what the fuck you're talking about. Dressing up your paroxysms of petit bourgeois aesthetics with populist anti-intellectual rhetoric about the proletariat is like arguing that car ownership is really a revolutionary act for the working class, instead of a reification of the bourgeois notion of property ownership as freedom!

Like I said, I'm sympathetic to de Botton's general aims, but that doesn't mean I have to take the Dr. Phil of art criticism seriously.
posted by klangklangston at 12:48 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


If de Botton were bourgeois, he’d be buying Rothkos and hanging them in his Knightsbridge citadel. Instead, he is looting the tomb of the dead bourgeosie and giving its cultural treasures to the poor.
posted by No Robots at 1:05 PM on March 27


Now I'm imagining one of those huge paintings by Leighton, this one titled "Alain de Botton looting the tomb of the dead bourgeoisie and distributing its treasures to the poor." I would dig that.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:19 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


"If de Botton were bourgeois, he’d be buying Rothkos and hanging them in his Knightsbridge citadel. Instead, he is looting the tomb of the dead bourgeosie and giving its cultural treasures to the poor."

I do not think you actually know what the word bourgeois means. It does not simply mean "rich." Arguing that displaying the emblems of bourgeosie status to the proles is somehow effective in subverting their cultural power is inane, wishful thinking. Unless, of course, the counter-reformation (whose cathedrals de Botton thinks are a model) was a radical atheist moment.
posted by klangklangston at 1:59 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


I do not think you actually know what the word bourgeois means. It does not simply mean "rich." Arguing that displaying the emblems of bourgeosie status to the proles is somehow effective in subverting their cultural power is inane, wishful thinking.

Bourgeois means subscribing to the values of the bourgeoisie. There are individuals who belong materially to the class of the bourgeois, but who do not subscribe to its values:
[S]o now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movements as a whole. These individuals, who ordinarily would not identify themselves with the proletariat, gladly throw themselves into the struggle, and together with the proletariat exert themselves to effect the desired change. This was in substance the answer that Jesus gave to his disciples when they asked him "Who then can be saved?" With man individually it is almost impossible that he should forsake his material possessions and betake himself to the propertyless and together with them work, not only for the future, but also against the present, with which he is so firmly bound up. According to the ordinary run of things, Moses should have remained in the house of Pharaoh, enjoying princely honors and pleasures; or Marx should have remained with the bourgeoisie, achieving material success. But, such is the order of things that, when the material conditions of existence are ripe for a change, and the proletariat manifests a spirit of discontent and a readiness to rise against the upholders of the existing order, such men are summoned to the front — men, who, by virtue of their great gifts and rare opportunities for the acquisition of knowledge and experience, have attained to great light and deep truth, and who, therefore, are most able to lead the struggling masses out of darkness into light, and out of bondage into freedom.— The Philosophy of Marx / Harry Waton.
To at least some degree, de Botton belongs to this illustrious group.

Unless, of course, the counter-reformation (whose cathedrals de Botton thinks are a model) was a radical atheist moment.

Funny you should ask. I just read a rather interesting passage that applies:
The Protestant Reformation in Europe was an attempt to ‘purify’ the Catholic Church of its contradictions and compromises with paganism. It sought to suppress the cult of the Virgin Mary and reestablish the supremacy of the Father—to make Christianity a more perfectly patriarchical religion ad de-sacralize ‘Mother’ Nature…. The result of this new purity was to weaken popular commitment to Christianity altogether. Atheism and secular humanism grew rapidly, and European churches never again held the sway over public life they’d once had.— Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture / Philip Slater, p. 33.
So, yes, the process of democratizing culture undermines existing power/ideology structures.
posted by No Robots at 3:18 PM on March 27


"So, yes, the process of democratizing culture undermines existing power/ideology structures."

Counter-reformation, which was also populist (many of the quasi-pagan rites and panoply of saints were much more popular than austere worship) reasserted the transcendent nature of cathedrals, specifically with art like El Greco's, as well as the spiritual authority of the church. The Reformation both stripped cathedrals and emphasized austere places of worship, often outside of established churches and hierarchies altogether, e.g. local presbyters. The Counter-Reformation used cathedrals as popular hedonic instruments to reinforce specifically Catholic authority. It's not a coincidence that the Counter-Reformation form of art coincides with the Inquisition.

You're confusing populism with democracy, as well as ignoring that the way that bourgeois ideology is propagated throughout the proletariat by exactly the same means as de Botton here (see also: The New York Times). Another example of populism that reinforces existing class power structures would be the Tea party.

One sign your argument is up its own ass? When you start positing a middle-brow aesthetic as part of the vanguard party.

Feel free to google "cultural hegemony" and browse Gramsci in your own time.
posted by klangklangston at 4:11 PM on March 27


"Alain de Botton: Organic Intellectual of the Proletariat" has to win a prize for originality, at least.
posted by RogerB at 4:22 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]


His stated objective is to do for the mind what Jamie Oliver has done for cooking. Knowing this, can anyone be truly surprised at the utter tosh he comes out with?
posted by Wolof at 12:13 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


His stated objective is to do for the mind what Jamie Oliver has done for cooking. Knowing this, can anyone be truly surprised at the utter tosh he comes out with?

I don't think that de Botton is doing anything like what Oliver does.

The problem with Jamie Oliver is that he is an expert who mistakenly presents the complex as if it were simple, without appreciating the gap in technique and prior knowledge between a restaurant chef and the home cook. He is like a philosopher who thinks if he insists that reading Hegel is easy and fun, everyone else on the planet will appreciate in a few hours what has come to him after years of study.

The problem with Alain de Botton is that he is a moron.
posted by howfar at 7:44 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


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