Great works of art aren’t just for show. Approached in the right frame of mind, they can help us to deal with life’s key challenges

Art for Life’s Sake

Great works of art can help us deal with life’s challenges


In ‘At the Linen Closet’, a modest domestic scene by the 17th-century Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch, we see a couple of women putting the household linens in order. His painting suggests that the big themes of life—the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships—are always grounded in the way we approach little things and ordinary routine. Peter Horree/Alamy


Nov. 1, 2013 8:16 p.m. ET

Art enjoys such financial and cultural prestige that it’s easy to forget the confusion that persists about what it’s really for. Questions like “What is this painting about?” or “Why should this old sculpture matter to me?” have a way of sounding impudent and crass. Nice people generally don’t ask such things, except in the privacy of their hearts, on their way down the concrete steps of white-walled galleries.Meanwhile, the art establishment proceeds under the assumption that art can have no purpose in any instrumental or utilitarian sense. It exists “for art’s sake,” and to ask anything more of it is to muddy pure and sacred waters.

This refusal to name a purpose seems profoundly mistaken. If art is to deserve its privileges (and it does), we have to learn how to state more clearly what it is for and why it matters in a busy world. I would argue that art matters for therapeutic reasons. It is a medium uniquely well suited to helping us with some of the troubles of inner life: our desire for material things, our fear of the unknown, our longing for love, our need for hope.

We are used to the idea that music and (to an extent) literature can have a therapeutic effect on us. Art can do the very same thing. It, too, is an apothecary for the soul. Yet in order for it to act as one, we have to learn to consider works through more personal, emotionally rich lenses than museums and galleries employ. We have to put aside the customary historical reading of works of art in order to invite art to respond to certain quite specific pains and dilemmas of our psyches.

What follows is a selection of works of art juxtaposed with the intimate issues of life which we might fruitfully bring to them.

Work and Abundance

In “At the Linen Closet” (above), a modest domestic scene by the 17th-century Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch, we see a couple of women putting the household linens in order. There are no soldiers, kings, martyrs or divine figures in sight. This is ordinary life as we know it to be even now.

It can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do every day and in the environments where we live. We have jobs to go to, bills to pay, homes to manage, and we often 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.

A linen closet could easily be resented. It could be seen to embody all that is boring, banal and repetitive about running a home. But this picture moves us because the truth of its message is so radiant. If only we, like de Hooch, knew how to recognize the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. His painting suggests that 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 in the painting is a clue: It represents money, love, status, vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen doesn’t stand opposed to these grander hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. This painting is small in a big and noisy world, but its appeal lies in our knowing that, deep down, de Hooch is onto something important.

In a roughly contemporaneous still-life painting by Adriaen van Utrecht, “Banquet Still Life” (at left), we see laid before us the most beautiful fruits and foods of the earth. We are meant to admire this lavish spread. There are lemons, grapes, figs and strawberries; game pies, hams and a lobster.

In our own day, the term “consumerism” has become a stick with which to beat the modern world. But consumerism doesn’t have to be stupid. At its best, the word refers to a delight in human ingenuity and an appreciation of the vast achievements of labor and trade.

Van Utrecht’s picture takes us back four centuries, to a time when abundance was new and not to be taken for granted. He knew it was hard to get that lobster. Europeans of his era were amazed (as we still should be) that human beings can arrange the world in such a way as to make possible so bounteous a feast. They knew that marshes had to be drained and cattle fed through the winter, and they were impressed that lemons could reach a northern table. Perhaps these very fruits were carried by donkey from the Neapolitan hills down to the harbor, onto leaky wooden ships that braved storms and struggled with unreliable winds.

People of that day felt the beauty of trade and understood how easily it could be disrupted by blockades or war. Every pleasure of the table was sending money around Europe—a force for peace and prosperity. The picture remembers all this effort and celebrates it.

Today we are so afraid of greed that we forget how honorable the love of material things can be. In the 17th century, homage was still paid to the nobility of commerce—a concept that boredom and guilt have made less accessible to us. Perhaps we can learn from this picture. A good response to consumerism might be not to sacrifice these pleasures and live without lobster and lemons but to appreciate what really goes into providing them.

Our desire to have luxury cheaply is the real problem. If the route to your table were dignified and ethical at every stage, a lemon would cost more, of course. But maybe then we’d stop taking lemons for granted and find their zest all the keener.

Anxiety and Suffering

In this abstract black-and-white photo, “North Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher,” by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, we find ourselves in a still, undefined vastness made up of only sea and sky.

We should let our eyes wander over the vast gray swell of the sea, which invites an attitude of serene indifference. There is no very definite horizon in the photograph, just a gentle zone of transition where the sea merges with the sky. The black at the bottom becomes the white at the top through a multitude of tiny stages. This has a tranquilizing effect, which can enter into our own being and perhaps adjust how we respond to challenges and anxiety.

A tranquil state of mind is supremely valuable in dealing with the lesser troubles of life. Our capacity to get infuriated (and hence, usually, to make matters worse) is often driven by a refusal to accept how things are. Another person simply isn’t very interested in what we think; the world isn’t going to reorganize itself in sensible ways; the traffic will be maddeningly slow, the train overcrowded. At times, we should know how to close down our hopes and give ourselves over to the contemplation of all that we will never be able to alter, here symbolized by the even, pure tones of an eternal horizon.

Mr. Sugimoto hasn’t just photographed the sea. He has provided us with a work that captures an attitude of mind to be summoned up at times of trial.

Turning now to “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velazquez, the greatest artist of Spain’s 17th-century Golden Age, we move from the mundane to the transcendent. Velazquez shows us the son of God, the King of Kings, bleeding on the cross like an ordinary stricken man. He will be dead in a few moments.

Christianity is upfront about the idea that our lives can be burdened by suffering. It takes the view that loss, self-reproach, failure, regret, sickness and sadness will always find ways of entering life. Our troubles need practical help, of course. But Christianity identifies another need as well: for our suffering to have some honor or dignity.

This picture of the Crucifixion achieves that. It shows a good—indeed, a perfect—man being humiliated, injured and ultimately killed. It is tenderly sympathetic to sorrow without being hysterical or vengeful. It invites us to contemplate the centrality of suffering in the achievement of all valuable goals. Rather than concentrate on our moments of fulfillment, it directs our attention to the times of hardship and sacrifice and says that they are the most deserving of admiration. It strengthens us a little—and offers consolation—for the hard tasks of our lives.

Love and Fragility

In “The Twilight of Life” by the Canadian painter Sydney Tully, who died in 1911, we see an elderly woman. She sits stooped and thoughtful against a stark background. She used to be strong and decisive. She had lovers once, putting her makeup on carefully and setting out with a quiet thrill in the evening. Now, she’s hard to love and maybe knows this. She gets irritated, withdraws. But she needs other people to care for her.

Anyone can end up in her position. And there are moments when a lot of people, at whatever stage of life, are a bit hard to admire or like. Love is often linked to admiration: We love because we find another person exciting and sweet. But there’s another aspect to love in which we are moved by the need of the other, by generosity.

The artist is generous to her. He looks with great care into her face and wonders who she really is.

Most of the time we have to be strong, or at least appear strong. We’ve known this since our days at the schoolyard. There is always a fragile bit of us, but we keep it very hidden.

The glass workshops of Venice became famous in the Medieval period for producing the most elaborate, delicate, transparent glassware mankind had ever known. Yet Venetian glass (above) doesn’t apologize for its weakness. It admits its delicacy; it is confident enough to demand careful treatment; it makes the world understand it could easily be damaged.

It isn’t fragile because of a deficiency, or by mistake. It isn’t as if its maker was trying to make it tough and hardy and then, stupidly, ended up with something a child could snap, or that would be shattered by clumsy mishandling. It is fragile and easily harmed as the consequence of its search for transparency and refinement and its desire to welcome sunshine and candle light into its depths.

One of the duties of civilization is to allow the more delicate forms of human activity to thrive, to create environments where it is OK to be fragile. And we know, really, that it is not glass which most needs this care, it is ourselves.

It’s obvious the glass could easily be smashed, so it makes you use your fingers tenderly. You have to be careful how you grasp the stem. It teaches us that moderation is admirable and elegant, not just a tedious demand. It tells us that being careful is glamorous and exciting, even fashionable. It is a moral tale about gentleness, told by means of a drinking vessel.

This is training for the more important moments in life when moderation will make a real difference to other people. Being mature and civilized means being aware of the effect of one’s strength on others. CEOs, please take note.

Hope and Cheer

Claude Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies” is one of the most popular works at the National Gallery in London. This is deeply worrying to many people of taste and sophistication, who take this kind of taste for “prettiness” as a symptom of sentimentality and borderline stupidity.

The worry is that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: Those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life—war, disease, political error, immorality. But this locates the problem in the wrong place. For most of us, the greatest risk we face isn’t smugness. Few of us are unlikely to forget the evils of existence. The real risk is that we will fall into depression and despair; the danger is that we will lose hope in the human project.

It is this kind of despondency that art is uniquely well suited to correct and that explains the well-founded popular enthusiasm for prettiness. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach…these are the visual symbols of hope. Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate.

When Henri Matisse shows us an ideal image of women linking hands in solidarity and joy in “The Dance,” he doesn’t wish to deny the troubles of the planet. He wants to encourage our optimism, knowing that it is hard to nurture and maintain.

A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life goes as we would like it to. We should be able to enjoy Matisse’s dancers without fear that we are thereby complicit in a dangerous delusion. If the world were a kinder place, perhaps we would be less impressed by, and in need of, pretty works of art.

One of the strangest features of experiencing art is its power, occasionally, to move us to tears, not when we are presented with a harrowing or terrifying image, but when we see a work of particular grace and loveliness. Matisse’s dancers might do this to us.

What is happening at these special times of intense responsiveness to beauty? We are recognizing an ideal to which we are deeply attached but from which we are too often alienated. The work of art helps us to see how much is missing and how deeply we would like things to be better than they are.

None of this is sentimental. Strategic exaggerations of what is beautiful and good can perform a critical function: They distill and concentrate the hope that we require to chart a path through the difficulties of existence.

—Mr. de Botton is the co-author with John Armstrong of “Art as Therapy” (Phaidon), from which this essay is adapted. From March to August 2014, Messrs. de Botton and Armstrong will rehang and recaption the works in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam according to the approach outlined in their book.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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