Alain de Botton & Desmond Morris discussed art on Radio4 Today programme. Any comments? I do!

9th october
Desmond Morris and Alain de Botton talking on Today programme about what art is for. When I first heard the conversation it seemed to be about art being a substitute for religion, servicing the need of the psyche. That was de Botton talking, of course.

Desmond Morris referred to rules and patterns in art, about art being an ‘exaggeration of nature’. De Botton also referred later to symmetry, kharma and pleasantness. Morris pointed out that chimpanzees inclined towards symmetry and balance.

De Botton spoke of art being about things we want to hold onto, like photos of moments, acting as a memoir or memorial. He believes the art establishment is ambivalent about giving people access to art – and suggested museums most favoured rooms are the shops and that maybe the whole gallery museum should be a shop in some way. 

Desmond Morris referred to a pebble with a face on, providing ‘evidence’ of apeman art. Hmmm, without understanding why it was collected that sounds a bit random to me.

De Botton ended with the conclusion that when we seek out art that is calm or balanced it is because we seek that in our lives, that art provides a counterbalance.

I am struggling with these understandings of art. They appear to be very limited in their analysis, centred on the pictoral, illustrative, literal images of a certain genre of art. I find it hard to equate all this pleasantness and balance with contemporary art – works that evoke emotion, enquiry, curiosity and wonder. They speak of art as if it is simply a record of the real that has been modified or adjusted in some way. Meddled with simply for aesthetic reasons.

My questions arising therefore are:

What if we seek chaotic crazy works that are disturbing? Does that mean we live sedentary, boring lives and seek art that changes our gear?

If they propose that art is merely a record of those times we want to celebrate, what about the art that takes months, even years to process conceptually, to distill, to reflect, to consider, that finally presents a rigorous work that is subtle, evocative and thoughtful…..political, challenging, disruptive, even disturbing?

De Botton suggested that because museum and gallery shops are the most popular part of museums, that the museum itself should provide some way of people taking away things too. Now that sounds interesting – but does the thing they take need to be material/object, or can it be memory, emotion, knowledge or reflection?

(My toes curl at the thought of museums and galleries becoming glorified shops with no other intention than to make money.)

Do they really believe art is as functional as they suggest? 

It is a shockingly simplistic assumption

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