The Museum as Church: A Response to Alain de Botton

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.

 

15 Comments

  • Elizabeth Roberts says:

    I would push the argument back a stage and say that Christianity is first and foremost a completely satisfying explanatory conceptual framework within which to live one’s life. There are many Christians such as myself who rarely take part in communal worship in a church. When I experience art, (music, galleries, museums, books, poetry)) which I do far more readily and often than I go to church, I believe I am participating in a valid act of worship. Art – whether overtly or ostensibly ‘Christian’- is a powerful expression of wonder and creativity, celebrating (God-given) life in all its variety.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Elizabeth,

      I agree that Christianity is “a completely satisfying explanatory conceptual framework within which to live one’s life”. However, it is not only a conceptual framework, but a relationship, with God and with one’s fellow Christians. The necessity of gathering with others to worship God through shared prayer (liturgy) has always been part of Christianity, and a part which is not optional. I agree that one can worship through the experience (and creation) of art, and to do so is a very good and nourishing thing. I’ve been known to use The Lord of the Rings for lectio divina. However, one’s personal, individual experience of God through artistic contemplation is a supplement to shared worship with one’s church community, and ought not be a a replacement of it.

  • Tim SJ says:

    I though Terry Eagletons review of De Botton’s book was spot on. – ‘”Hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. ”

    In my opinion authentic religion – which is always rooted in a believing community – can lead to an encounter with God which goes much further than the therapeutic – it is transformative.

    • Cole Matson says:

      AMDG

      Tim,

      Nice to get a comment from a Jesuit, especially one who’s a fellow friend of the Moff!

      I agree that it is a misunderstanding to think one can take parts of Christianity that one finds valuable and seek to “redeploy them” for other purposes, however noble, while thinking that they’ll maintain their same power. Prayer and contemplation, for example, are not life-giving if approached as a means to that end, as if as long as one prays in a certain way or for a certain amount of time one is guaranteed “results”. Any benefits that arise from prayer and contemplation only arise because the relationship with God that is the heart of prayer is the goal – or, rather, because God Himself is the goal. When you remove God from the equation, prayer and contemplation lose their ability to confer benefits, except perhaps the trace benefits that come from any attempt to settle the mind and reach out to something deeper (which actually brings God back in, whether or not the person is aware of it).

      However, I admire de Botton for his ability and willingness not to dismiss religion, as so many of his fellow atheists do, but to acknowledge and seek to promote the good he does find in it – even when his attempts to promote this good are uncritically dismissed. Even though I think his project of creating a kind of “secular church” removed from a belief in God is ultimately self-contradictory, and can’t work in the way it seems he would like it to, I think he is one of those “men of good will” whom we pray for in the liturgy (and, in a way deeper than they know, in some sense pray with).

      Blessings on your tertianship!

  • Michelle G says:

    Great response to a thought-provoking article. I was struck by de Botton’s recognition of the ‘inner needs’ for the ‘consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption’ and his observation that the answering of these needs were previously the domain of churches. Sad emphasis on “previously.” There are a great many churches – which Matson correctly defines as communities – that have abandoned beauty in general and art in particular as “distractions” or “uneccessary luxuries.” The former completely misses the role visual reminders play in the spiritual life and the latter falls into the Judas trap of “not wanting to ‘waste’ money on seemingly useless expressions of beauty.”

    • Cole Matson says:

      Michelle,

      Right on! I also wonder whether our culture’s denigration of art that is used for something, as opposed to merely contemplated (like in a museum), is a factor in the decline of art used for worship. After all, art has always been a part of Christian worship, as well as the worship of Israel preceding Christianity. I don’t want the liturgy interrupted by moments of artistic contemplation, as if the only way art can be helpful in the church’s worship is when a moment is taken to focus on the art for itself. However, I do want us to worship through art – through music, vestments, vessels, images, and architecture that are some of the ways that the people of God worship – all brought together in the service of the liturgy.

  • Eric J. Kingsepp says:

    Cole, thanks for posting this worthy response to a thought-provoking article. Your discussion of community is spot on, and fills in the large gap in de Botton’s portrayal of Christian art.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of art centers serving the role that churches do for the faithful.

    De Botton is right that those who go to galleries and museums (atheists and faithful alike) would be better served if, as he says, the “veneration of ambiguity” made way for presentations that allow art to provide “consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption.” The fact is, good art can offer this, and if modern secular people perceive that they need something in their lives analogous to a “church”, centers of art may play that role as well as anything else outside an actual church. At the least, it is a sincere attempt to acknowledge and address their needs as best they choose.

    In addition, allowing art to speak to human needs can benefit churches as well. Galleries (taken broadly) speak to one important part of the human experience. Churches speak to other aspects, but could speak to this one as well if they chose. In fact, until the Church really gets back into the business of engaging society through art and culture, it is effectively saying to all those content with galleries alone: we have food for hungers you don’t even know about; but we’re not listening to you speak of the hungers you do know about.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Eric,

      I don’t have much to add other than you’re correct that museums do a good job of trying to fill this need for “consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption”, and since this need is part of the human soul, churches ignore it at our peril. I don’t want to see churches deciding to be museums, either, as if all churches need to have art galleries in their parish halls and theatrical performances and concerts in their sanctuaries. But the church can support those who have a vocation to artistic creation – whether they’re makers of sacred art or workers in the secular sphere – and remember that there is an aesthetic dimension to our worship, whether we acknowledge it or not. To decide to ignore aesthetics is itself an aesthetic decision.

  • jfutral says:

    (As a quick aside, the notion of modern galleries grouping art by period reminded me briefly of movies in the movie _The Invention of Lying_.)

    Seems the author of the referenced article has been reading or listening to Suzi Gablik and/or her book _Has Modernism Failed?_. Certainly what some postmodernists/ism is responding to is the hyper-individualism that has been pushed in the 20th century. And rightly so.

    However, one cannot counter or attack that without remembering a large part of what drove that, particularly the World Wars and nationalism, and to various degrees before that similar attacks on the individual by institutions, whether monarchy, tyranny, or -isms like Socialism or Communism, or other forms of nationalism. Even within Christianity, many of the divisions occurred over seemingly undue power of an individual or institution over everyone else.

    While it is true enough (as another respondent posted) “authentic religion – which is always rooted in a believing community…”, it is also true from scripture that the individual is as important. The community does not exist without the individual, as I think is an especially clear teaching from the Trinity. There is a symbiotic balance that cannot allow one to overrule the other.

    So Modern art evolved to remove dictating what the viewer should experience and interpret, as the counter to representational art, even or especially Christian art. Even here in this discussion, people seem offended that the Crucifixion should be interpreted as an act of courage, beyond its strict religious representation. Which strikes me odd since it is very much that, even when it is everything else mentioned.

    In this regard Modern art isn’t so much that it doesn’t _want_ anything of us. Rothko would say Modern Art only lives _through_ the viewer, it requires us. Modern art is just not willing to impose on us. It is the prior form of representational art that does not require anything of us and lectures us.

    This is not to say that as we moved into later 20th century that Modern artists did not take on this bent. As mentioned, Suzi Gablik bemoans this attitude as why Modernism has failed. In as much as Modern Art has taken this hyper-individualistic view—to the point of removing even the individual or “other”—I agree with both the referenced article and this post.

    In a post-Christian world, what the article wants to find outside the church should be taken to heart _by_ the church, not attacked or countered, as churches are even now meeting in museums and theatres beyond the walls of traditional church structures, both physical and authoritative. When the system takes on more importance than what the system was created to support, we should always be concerned. Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

    Just my thoughts. I could be wrong.
    Joe

    • Cole Matson says:

      Joe,

      Thank you for your excellent comment. I agree with you that it would be equally wrong to seek to subsume the individual in the communal. The danger in the suggestion that private contemplation in a museum can provide the same thing as the experience of church, to me, was partly in its emphasis on the individual at the expense of the communal, so that’s where I placed my focus in this post.

      I know that Modernism often sees traditional art as oppressive, as dictating a response from the viewer, but I don’t see it that way. Even the most didactic of medieval art, for example, is trying to give a good to the viewer – to teach him more about God, for example. I’d hope we can value the lessons such art tries to impart as a gift, not as an imposition.

      I also wondered if making the main point of my post an area in which I disagreed with de Botton would make it seem as if I thought his ideas had no value. I think we in the churches need to listen to people who say, “I need beauty and contemplation and sanctuary, and I can’t find it in the Church”. That’s a big problem. But de Botton also seems to be advocating (in a part of the article I didn’t directly address) a return to the understanding that art does form us in certain ways – its meaning is not just created by the viewer. As I said, I would love to visit a museum that had created an exhibit based on his suggestion to arrange pieces not by time period or culture, but by their effect on our spirit.

      • jfutral says:

        I don’t see pre-Modern art that way either, but I understand what they are saying. Or that this is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Iconography is supposed to present a very specific message. I do not believe that strips the work of its inherent beauty and artistry. I do think it is important, within analysis of art and the effects and possibilities, to remember the origin of such things, what the artists were responding to.

        Ultimately the work has to speak for itself, and good art always does. But Christians in particular get caught up in some mysterious non-Christian propaganda of art that often does not exist when critiquing art, especially Modern art. Not that you have done this. I have simply come across this myself, even participated.

        How much of particularly Western evangelical Christian ecclesiology has become the focus of the individual? Personal saviour, Personal relationship with God, God loves _you_, personal spiritual growth. We may gather collectively, sing collectively, but we wait for God to speak to _me_, seek a puncticular experience. We gather to hear the same message (often from a singular person) in pretty much the same way we go to see art in a museum or see a movie at a theater. And just as often the same results occur.

        And how much of what we seek from the church experience is similar to what we seek from art? Relevance, approachability, some way to help us understand the world we live in, the issues we face day to day, sometimes even to simply be challenged. In some ways the museum is freer. I can feel joy or sadness or tragedy without form of guilt for being superfluous or not spiritual enough.

        The only thing I really disagree with you about is to qualify your comment—art _can_ form us, but not really form us except in as much as the work gives us some level of insight into something we may be facing or struggling with, or the chance to remove ourselves from that struggle, if only for a moment, and experience or be reminded of something else, something within the work we can respond to, individually or communally.

        Joe

        • Cole Matson says:

          Joe,

          I’d agree with you that art doesn’t form us necessarily, in that anyone exposed to the same piece of art will be “formed” in the same way as a result of that exposure. However, I think art can form us in more ways than just giving us insight or reminding us of something else. For example, I stopped watching the TV show Family Guy (which I would consider art, though it wouldn’t come under the category of fine art made for contemplation that would be at home in a museum) because I found that, after a couple years of watching it regularly, my sense of humour became more coarse and sarcastic, and often I found jokes and cutting remarks coming to my mind (and to my lips) that came from the show. I found that being exposed to that work of popular art was forming my imagination and language in ways that were not healthy, so I stopped watching it. So I think there can be a level of unconscious formation, which can either be helpful or harmful.

        • jfutral says:

          Good point, and I certainly did not mean my list of possible affects to be construed in anyway as exhaustive. I think there is an important aspect to your point and that is, being open to being formed. I don’t think simple exposure to a work forms on its own. We have to be open to the work. For him who has ears, kind of thing.

          Joe

        • jfutral says:

          Also, less we feel somehow apprehensive, Paul exhorts us to examine (test, prove, whatever) all things and hold fast to the good. This is not “examine only the things you think are good” or “only the things someone else says are good”.

          Taste aside (not a Family Guy fan, but I do like The Simpsons and King of the Hill. Call me old school!), what you do with what you watch is on you-ish (I’m a free willer with pre-determinist sympathies). Find the good. Hold fast to that.

          Joe

        • Cole Matson says:

          Joe,

          Agreed that the responsibility to discern is on us, and that we should hold fast to the good we find and discard the rest. (And I also prefer The Simpsons!) That self-knowledge about what will harm us and what will help us, and the will to choose the latter, is part of wisdom, I think.

          Cole

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