Alain de Botton

Dealing With Imperfection by Geoff Harrison

“Always look on the bright side of death…..just before you draw your terminal breath”.  So sang the Monty Python crew in the film Life Of Brian.


A recurrent theme in Alain De Botton’s School of Life is the concept that life cannot be perfected, and the sooner we acclimatize to this the better off we will be.  This is not to say we should be dismissive of the pain of others.  I could get into deep depressions over the state of the arts in Australia, how governments seem to ignore the benefits the arts can bring to a nation in terms of creative thinking, mental health and economic activity.  But is this going to prevent me from painting?  Never.

I only have to visit my father at his nursing home to make me realize that I have to make the most of my remaining years in spite of everything that has happened in my life.  Perhaps there is nothing sadder than to listen to a 90 yo talk about the regrets in his life.  The question I ask is “now what?” 


Vincent Van Gogh knew all about pain yet he was still able to engage with the beauty of nature.  The light of southern France captivated him, as became clear in his many letters to his brother Theo and to Gauguin, who he hounded to join him.  De Botton argues Van Gogh’s paintings of Arles “express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair”.


Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob Van Ruisdael knew that the sun needn’t be shining to make fine art.  “His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality.”  He made a case for overcast skies, muddy river banks and infinite gradations of grey where he saw a special kind of beauty.


The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are prone to folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, fantasies and delusions.   After several cost overruns and an almost complete re-engineering during development, the DeLorean DMC-12 was finally released onto the market in 1981.  The car was made famous in the feature film “Back To the Future” starring Michael J Fox.  But for all the hype, the DMC-12 was sheer folly.  Only 9000 were built and in 1983 the DeLorean Motor Company went bust.

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

Do we really need a 24 hour news channel?  Do we need a torrent of bad news from around the world (about which we can do little) to assail our ears?  As De Botton asks, what impact would knowledge of an earthquake in Peru have on Australia’s aboriginal people?

When I produce my images of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, I’m not running away from reality, I’m seeking some solace within it.  The appreciation I get is that there are places like these where we can regain some sanity in a world seemingly full of tumult.

The Importance of Home (and of not having one) by Geoff Harrison

In a recent article in The Book Of Life, author Alain De Botton discusses the psychological importance of home. “One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home.” We spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on furniture, crockery, pictures even door handles to create the right atmosphere that reflects “us”.

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

It is argued that having spent time traveling or spending too much time in other people’s bedrooms, we often feel a strong urge to return to our own furnishings, our own environment. “We need to get home to remember who we are”.

De Botton refers to our need to anchor our identity, and that is what the ancient Greeks sought to do with the Temple of Athena which was erected on the slopes of the acropolis.


“The Greeks took such care over Athena’s temple-home because they understood the human mind. They knew that, without architecture, we struggle to remember what we care about – and more broadly who we are. To be told in words that Athena represented grace and balance wasn’t going to be enough on its own. There needed to be a house to bring the idea forcefully and continuously to consciousness.”

Finding objects to furnish our homes that correctly reflect our identity can be an arduous process. We may have to go to enormous lengths to track down the right object for a particular purpose. Although there is the temptation to go overboard.

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

“The quest to build a home is connected up with a need to stabilise and organise our complex selves. It’s not enough to know who we are in our own minds. We need something more tangible, material and sensuous to pin down the diverse and intermittent aspects of our identities.”

Which begs the question, what if a person has never experienced a stable, secure home environment during their childhood or adolescence? How are these people supposed to create a stable home environment of their own? Where are their reference points? These people often tend to move from place to place (as I have done) and thus have never felt grounded in any location. This can often lead to a sense of not belonging which can create anxiety. The sky-rocketing cost of housing has resulted in people staying in the insecure rental market for far longer than planned.

Then there is the growing tendency these days for families to be constantly on the move. There is the common practice (especially during the housing price boom) for people to buy, renovate and sell over and over again. For them, the home is simply a money making venture. If home is meant to be the place where “our soul feels it’s found its proper physical container”, does that mean these families are leading a soulless existence? I think so.

A Different Form of Advertising: Art by Geoff Harrison

Mass media advertising has a tendency to skew our priorities.  It has us yearning for the unattainable, it glamourizes exotic locations by only showing them in perfect weather conditions.  It convinces us that owning a luxury SUV will transform our driving experiences regardless of our congested roads.

But most of all, the insidious nature of advertising is that it has us valuing objects rather than feelings and ideas.  As argued by author Alain de Botton, advertising has us losing sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much.  “We are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.”

And here, art can act as a corrective to our skewed values.  In 1503, Albrecht Durer asked us to have some appreciation for some grass.

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Thanks to advertising, what we call glamour is so often located in unhelpful places: in what is rare, remote, costly or famous.  And yet, the artist Chardin asks us to consider the value of a modest moment in a domestic setting.

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Art can teach us the value of a walk down a quiet country road during a stormy evening where we can contrast the peace of a rural setting with the drama taking place overhead.

Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

It’s unlikely a travel brochure would wax lyrical about the frozen north, but I would argue that when the ice and snow has melted during the arctic (and Antarctic) summers, these regions have their own unique beauty.

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

De Botton argues that it lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life. It may teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances.

Conceptual Clap Trap by Geoff Harrison

This piece is called "Between A Cabbage And A Basketball", by Jan Nelson and is included in an exhibition called "Every Brilliant Eye - Australian Art Of The 1990's", currently being held at Melbourne's Federation Square.  Nelson was one of my lecturers at RMIT University when I was studying Fine Art and trying to major in painting during the 90's.  Do you perceive a problem?

In a recent article called "Art For Art's Sake", author Alain De Botton argues that during the 19th Century the "usefulness" of art was called into question for the first time due to industrialization and scientific discovery.  'Those who wished to attack art and its values asked what it really ever achieved, and therefore whether it still deserved the respect it had traditionally enjoyed'.

In response, the artistic community became brittle and defensive and argued that art was too lofty and important to be merely useful.  Art became a cult of "inutility" best loved and accomplished when devoid of purpose.  It was a deeply flawed, even tragic misunderstanding of what art can do for us and it survives to this very day.

A video of 2 guys sawing through surf boards.                                     I can't remember the artist

A video of 2 guys sawing through surf boards.                                     I can't remember the artist

To lead good lives, we not only need electricity, money and telecommunications, we also need consolation for our griefs, guidance towards wisdom, relief from anxiety and a path to hope and broader horizons.  Art can provide these things.  Art is a very practical tool that can help us live and die well.  "Only under a desperately narrow vision of usefulness could art ever be dismissed as useless."  

I see the artistic community committing self-sabotage with this doctrine of art for art's sake in relation to gaining wider acceptance in the broader community and gaining additional funding from government.  "The phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ was born to defend art from unfair attack, but it ended up fatefully weakening it, blinding us to its real role in society."

From the exhibition "Every Brilliant Eye = Australian Art of the 1990's"

From the exhibition "Every Brilliant Eye = Australian Art of the 1990's"

Travel And Thought by Geoff Harrison

One of my favourite authors writing about one of my favourite artists, I couldn't resist this.  "Journeys are the midwifes of thought", argues Alain De Botton.  Introspections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.   

Edward Hopper, "Compartment C, Car 293".

Edward Hopper, "Compartment C, Car 293".

Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks such as listening to music or following a line of trees.  The changing landscape distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness and which runs scared of memories, longings etc. and focuses on the impersonal and administrative.

You only have to think of what happens when you've forgotten the pin number at an ATM.  You take yourself off on a walk, viewing shop fronts or whatever it takes to distract the practical mind.  And sure enough, the pin number is remembered.

According to De Botton, Edward Hopper enjoyed train travel, the dreaminess fostered by the noise and the view from the window, a dreaminess in which we seem to stand outside our normal selves and have access to thoughts and memories that may not arise in more settled circumstances.

What Are Art Galleries For? by Geoff Harrison

Author Alain De Botton has been arguing for some time that there is something inherently wrong with the way art is presented in museums.  Not for him the notion of art-for-arts-sake.  It is a question of curatorship to some degree, but also an inability on the  part of administrators to define exactly what purpose an art museum is meant to perform.

Architecture Way Ahead Of Its Time by Geoff Harrison

This is the Barcelona Pavilion designed by Mies Van Der Rohe for the 1929 World Expo.  According to author Alain De Botton he was frustrated with the clutter and fussiness of domestic architecture.

Mies Van Der Rohe wanted something that was simple yet elegant.  It's difficult 86 year on to appreciate what an impact this architecture must have had on audiences at the time.

Intimate Interiors by Geoff Harrison

The understated, yet intimate paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916).  In an article published in the Guardian a few years ago, Julian Bell describes the artist as a master of demure conservatism who hit upon a modernist way of looking.  There is mystery, the viewer is being beckoned to enter these scenes, yet there is nothing to hold on to.

"Your curiosity is lured into that enclosed hall, yet your attention is held back - left dangling over the bare floorboards with their scuffed varnish, which is the nearest to an indicator of commonplace living and everyday usage that the picture is prepared to provide. A tantalising juggle with emptiness."

Author Alain De Botton argues that Hammershoi was selling an appreciation of the everyday.  Yet we are being "seduced by the nape of a lovely female neck, the delicate strands of unruly hair and the carefully calculated angle of the head, to get us to like a person and enter their imaginative world."

Hammershoi enjoyed great success with sellout shows in Berlin and London in the first decade of the 20th century.