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Aethetics, therapeutics, ethics

January 11, 2014

John Armstrong thinks art can only be justified as therapeutic. I think he’s wrong, but not for the reasons he anticipates:

For decades, Western culture has been reluctant to assign an inherent value or a purpose to art—even as it continues to hold art in high esteem. Though we no longer seem comfortable saying so, our reverence for art must be founded on a timeless premise: that art is good for us. If we don’t believe this, then our commitment—in money, time, and study—makes little sense. In what way might art be good for us? The answer, I believe, is that art is a therapeutic instrument: its value lies in its capacity to exhort, console, and guide us toward better versions of ourselves and to help us live more flourishing lives, individually and collectively.

Resistance to such a notion is understandable today, since “therapy” has become associated with questionable, or at least unavailing, methods of improving mental health. To say that art is therapeutic is not to suggest that it shares therapy’s methods but rather its underlying ambition: to help us to cope better with existence. While several predominant ways of thinking about art appear to ignore or reject this goal, their ultimate claim is therapeutic as well.

The problem isn’t that Armstrong wants to connect art with ethics. Of course aesthetic activity doesn’t escape the realm of the ethical. But think about other ethical activities. E.g. being a friend. Friendship is clearly ethical. Is friendship therapeutic?

The list Armstrong gives of ways in which art can be “therapeutic” could be applied to friendship as well: one might well see a friend as “A corrective of bad memory… A purveyor of hope… A source of dignified sorrow… A balancing agent… A guide to self-knowledge… A guide to the extension of experienceA tool of re-sensitization…” (though you probably don’t want to call your friend a “source” or a “tool”). And of course every friendship must be justified ethically–there is such a thing as a bad friendship, and such a thing as a good one, and we ought to cultivate the good rather than the bad. But are the things on Armstrong’s list all, or even primarily, what we care about when we care about our friends? Perhaps more than any of that, we care about the emotional bond forged by spending time together. Spending time with a friend isn’t good for something, it’s just… good.

And more importantly: when we think about the ethics of friendship, we do think about how to know which friendships to cultivate and which to avoid, but we think much more seriously and deeply about a different question: how can I be a good friend to my friends? Might artifacts also be objects towards which we can incur ethical obligations (though of course not the same sort of obligations as towards people)? If so, that would surely make our interactions with works of art opportunities for acting ethically; but surely there would be something perverse about saying “art is good because it gives us an opportunity to act well.”

People dislike applying the word “therapeutic” to art because they intuit what I’ve made explicit: that works of art are like things we can be friends with. Therapy applied to the body is purely instrumental, and so clearly a poor metaphor for what art does, while therapy for the soul does the exact opposite of art: therapists are people we are not allowed to be friends with. Psychoanalysis makes that fact part of its operating principle: the psychoanalyst is a stand-in for the Law of Psychanalysis; they do not respond to you as a person, and so force you to encounter yourself. Priests in the confessional are similar, though not quite the same: they stand in for Christ, who is more a person than we are. Art, however, is neither medicine, nor applied philosophy, nor religion.

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