Mike White writes: Almost every word of The Guardian’s acerbic review of Art Is Therapy at the newly renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam rings true to me in my holiday excursion there. Not so much an exhibition as a ‘best of’ guide to the museum’s treasures, speciously curated by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Art Is Therapy sets the wrong tone at the entrance way with its winking neon title set above the long queues of impatient culture vultures. The interior fabric of a beautiful building is then disrupted by the exhibition’s out-sized and corner-curled re-interpretation panels in post-it yellow that are stuck alongside the selected paintings and artefacts to provide a kind of dumbed-down rubric.
Of course it should be an integral part of the curator’s job description to question – and attempt to answer – the purpose of art. Armstrong and de Botton, however, disengage it from historicist meaning by offering an emphasis to the babyboomers “not on where art comes from or who made it, but what it can do for you”. Surely appreciating art’s efficacy to pep us up depends upon the understanding of the context in which it was produced. The end-of-history perspective that informs Art Is Therapy seems whimsical nonsense from some kind of aesthetes’ care-home when compared, say, to John Berger’s inspirational reflections on how unpicking the power relations within art can lead to a contemporary understanding of its purpose, as expounded in his seminal Ways Of Seeing (1972). More attention to context than the rhetoric of homily could have given weight to de Botton and Armstrong’s assertion that “Art matters because it offers us assistance in the project of getting on well with our lives” – a comment they make on The Art Gallery (1794) by Adriaan de Lelie in which they give us a nugget of observation amid their Minecraft of arty posturing. Perhaps an ulterior motive is betrayed in the final sentence of the catalogue introduction which declares that through this ‘alternative approach’ to the gallery guide “the Rijksmuseum will certainly have cemented its place as the outstanding global institution for understanding and engaging with culture”. How puffed up is that?!
Now ‘art as therapy’ I can frequently testify to in my working life, but ‘art is therapy’ seems presumptuous and prescriptive. If you buy in to the conceit of the curatorial approach through its mock post-its catalogue (you try to stop the pages curling even when the text infuriates), over and over we are told that it does not matter if we know nothing about art because we’ll know what we like as art bends to serve us. But what are we like? A truism is performed in this re-vamped museum each day that in crowded and highly cultured settings we now document our experience of art rather than respond to it. As we jostle for the space and distance to view, we are permitted to hold our cell phones aloft, each masterpiece meriting the attention span of a red-light recharge until – flash – off to the next. High or low, Amsterdam appears permeated by a peep show culture and stoned confusion. Now I understand why the mercantile figures in Rembrandt’s Night Watch look so shy or startled, being constantly ‘papped’ in the postmodern glare that their commerce unknowingly begat.
Hardly half-way round, I give up – get me out of the Yikesmuseum. Back outside with my autistic son, we find some shared moments of pleasure and relief, transfixed by the antics of a street-dance crew spinning on their heads. It is this unlikely coda to the ‘gallery experience’ that entrains our bewilderment – now that’s what I call therapy.
(Art Is Therapy runs, if that is the appropriate word, until 7 September, open daily at The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).