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AGO’s Art as Therapy: It's more experiment than exhibition

Combing your hair in a washroom at the Art Gallery of Ontario today is not quite the simple act it usually is. The same goes for pitching that wad of gum you've exhausted into a garbage can there.

Those previously unthinking moments are now thinking moments, thanks to the intervention of British-born philosophers/authors Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, curators of a new … well, exhibition isn't quite the right word. How about "experiment" or "experience"? "Project"? "Argument"? Whatever it is, they're calling it Art as Therapy and it officially starts at the AGO this weekend for a run lasting until next spring.

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

Washing my hands in a gallery bathroom the other day, I noticed a yellow cross affixed to the mirror and immediately adjacent to it this sentence: “Art makes suggestions for how the world should be, but it doesn’t itself know how to change the world.” Strolling past some garbage receptacles a few minutes later, I observed each had on its exterior the yellow cross found in the bathroom, again accompanied by an aphoristic or exhortatory sentence. Read one: “Use art as you already use music: to deepen, enlighten and confirm your innermost feelings.” Read another: “Art is advertising for what is good.”
Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

Supposedly all this – and there are at least 20 more like-worded examples elsewhere in the gallery – is to get you in the mood for visiting the five pods or salons that de Botton and Armstrong have set up throughout the AGO – three on its first floor, one on the second, the last on the fifth. Each has been installed with a selection of works – paintings mostly – gathered under a particular theme: politics, love, sex, money, nature. The works, 40 in total, have been culled from the AGO’s own permanent collection.

The “politics” pod, for one, includes Tintoretto’s sprawling Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (painted circa 1545); an untitled minimalist wall installation by Donald Judd (1968); Gerhard Richter’s photo-based oil portrait, Helga Matura (1966); an 1885 van Gogh, Woman with a Spade; a 1919 Toronto winter scene by Lawren Harris and, well … you get the picture(s): a buffet concocted with no regard to historical, genre, national or stylistic categories or to the celebrations of individual genius that have long defined art-museum presentation. Instead, there’s what de Botton calls “this deliberately slightly chaotic/some-stuff-we-found-in-the attic feel.” True, there are text panels – but they’re free of the art-speak usually denoting the idiom, written rather, as de Botton claimed earlier this week during a preview, “in the language of an intelligent 12-year-old.” The Tintoretto panel, for example, begins: “Here is a picture about friendship and kindness. The men are going to be doing something important and difficult in the next few days, but right now they are just enjoying one another’s company … as a close-knit team united by their desire to change the course of history.”
Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

A similar ambition seems to be at work, in utero, at the AGO. In the last 17 of his 44 years de Botton has earned an international reputation – in some quarters, disreputation – as an intellectual gadfly with a relentless, often irritating propensity for prescribing improvements to seemingly everything under the sun – the news business, airports, architecture, hierarchies of prestige, the practice of atheism and, yes, the appreciation of art. It’s his thesis (and that of sidekick Armstrong) that the art museum is in crisis, its presentation strategies, though accepted by “the artistic elite,” are largely “frightening,” “boring,” “intimidating,” “underwhelming” to the common viewer. Art can be good for you, ennobling even.

Indeed, as de Botton and Armstrong state in Art as Therapy, the $39.95 hardcover manifesto (published last year) that underpins what they’re up to at the AGO, “the true purpose of art [is] ‘the reform of life.’” Too bad art professionals have made such a muck of it, particularly in the last 150 years or so. Pshaw on “art for art’s sake”! Art’s a tool, like a good sharp knife, and if wielded properly can relieve all manner of what de Botton calls “psychological frailties.”

The AGO is the first North American art museum to let de Botton and Armstrong loose, albeit modestly so. (An iteration of Art as Therapy recently opened at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and another is set for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where Armstrong is a university professor.) It’s because the AGO, since reopening in expanded digs in November, 2008, has striven to recast itself as “a visitor-centred institution,” says David Wistow, the gallery’s interpretive planner. While the gallery has had several successful shows in the past five years, its annual attendance has yet to cross the one-million threshold various parties have hoped for, believed in and argued for as achievable. (Attendance in 2013-14 was 862,000.) The big question, says Wistow, is “What role do we want the AGO to play in the cultural life of the city?” And to answer it the gallery is willing to entertain all sorts of “experiments.” Giving Art as Therapy a year-long residency, he said, should generate some interesting data on audience engagement.

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

De Botton was asked just how big his ambitions are for realizing the therapeutic art gallery. In Art as Therapy, there’s an axonometric drawing of London’s Tate Modern reorganized “according to a therapeutic vision,” with floors containing galleries devoted to themes such as fear, compassion and suffering. Is he interested in seeing an entire gallery based on the therapeutic model? Or would he be content to just see parts of it adapted that way?

“Look,” he replied, “I can see the real value in having the standard collection, as it were, arranged on library shelves in a pretty ordinary way. You kind of know where to find it on the library shelf. But I can also see the virtue of occasionally picking works out and laying them out in a different way, playing with the collection. I think you almost need both.” So there won’t be an Alain de Botton Museum of Art?

“I don’t know. Who knows? We’re playing. Let’s see how this goes. Let’s see what people enjoy looking at thematically. [Each pod is equipped with interactive panels and digital pens for the audience to write comments.] Let’s see what the AGO thinks.”

Art as Therapy opens May 3 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and continues through April, 2015 (

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