How are we supposed to appreciate art? It may seem a dumb question, but art historians and critics tend to tie themselves into knots sometimes when answering it. It is the belief of many commentators that society has got it wrong by focusing on the technical elements of a work of art, or its provenance or its historical context.
Sure, these issues are important, but what we are not encouraged to do is to connect up works of art with the trials and aspirations of our daily lives. “It is quickly deemed vulgar, even repugnant, to seek personal solace, encouragement, enlightenment or hope from high culture” ALAIN De BOTTON. To put it simply, we are not encouraged to appreciate art as a means of instruction on how to live and die well.
The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon remarked that the paintings of Howard Hodgkin were a rebuttal to the dry academic puritanism of much art criticism these days that can’t relate to a work of art until it’s been reduced to a set of abstract concepts. I recall having an art teacher at RMIT who was embarrassed by the display of emotion in art.
Photographer Elliott Erwitt was born to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, and as the war clouds loomed, his family emigrated to America. He felt being an émigré helped him in his job – being an outsider looking in. He is regarded as a humanist and humourist.
Eve Arnold’s photograph could be considered a modern day version of those moralizing images that characterised Christian paintings of the past. In a secular world and with considerable skill, Arnold brings us face to face with the consequences of letting ourselves and others down.
This photo was specifically commissioned for the book Art As Therapy, written by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong. The rationale of this exercise is that art should start serving our psychological needs as effectively as it served theological and state needs for centuries. We are asked here to consider what impact viewing this image might have on a couple whose own relationship is going through some difficulties. They may realise that other people have the same sorrows and troubles as they have. They may connect with something that is universal and unashamed. They are not robbed of their dignity but are learning the deepest truths about being human.
Even in a secular world it is still possible to feel the emotion pouring out of this painting. It transcends the perhaps narrow Christian context to touch the viewer in ways many other paintings of that era can’t. It is a technical masterpiece for sure, but its psychological power goes far beyond.