Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, published an article in the Guardian last week in which he argued that art museums, in their role as the ‘new churches’ of today’s secular society, should take on the role of serving the inner psychological needs of their visitors.
De Botton envisions a world in which art museum curators fulfil their patrons’ ‘inner needs’ for the ‘consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption’ that were previously the domain of churches. They carry out this task by presenting their collections not according to time periods or schools of influence, but according to experiences the viewer will have of love, courage, and other virtues and consolatory emotions. De Botton writes, ‘‘We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art”…and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good’. …What if [museums] decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so?’
De Botton is aware of the power of art to affect our psychological health, and to influence our moral formation. He lauds Christian art because it ‘teach[es] us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of’. Modernist art, on the other hand, ‘wants nothing of us’, and therefore results in ‘confusion’ as ‘a central aesthetic emotion’. There is no attempt at communication between artist and viewer, and so there is no community. Christian artists communicate experiences of ‘tenderness’ and ‘courage’ through their works, to teach moral lessons. De Botton suggests that museums can become churches if viewers can learn these lessons through art. I personally would be interested in visiting a gallery arranged according to his suggestion, and I applaud his suggestion that curators can help their patrons become more loving and virtuous people.
Christian art, however, is effective in teaching these lessons because it is viewed as part of a community. De Botton writes that, ‘Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as:…“Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage”’. First of all, artists paint the cross for much greater reasons than to provide an example of courage. A painting of the Crucifixion can also be an invitation to love, and an offering of praise, for example. Second, a painting of the Crucifixion can only provide a ‘lesson in courage’ if the viewer is aware of the story of the Crucifixion, and these stories are handed on by a community – partially through art, but primarily through the sharing and enacting of the stories in church, in the central activity of worship. De Botton is aware of the story of the Crucifixion because of the presence of churches in society, which not only teach the meaning of the story, but also live it, and so can respond to and be formed by depictions of the story in art more thoroughly than can those outside the story’s community.
Churches are places of consolation, meaning, sanctuary, and redemption, but not because they aim at providing these experiences directly. Churches are not self-improvement centres for the individual believer. Instead, they are centres of communion – vertical communion with God, and through Him horizontal communion with other church members. They exist for a community to love – and be loved – by God.
Visitors to the de Botton art museum may experience, and by experiencing learn, virtues and receive consolations through art. But only the further, outward-directed response of worship and the living of the story, in community with other worshippers, will make them into the communion of God that is Church.