For decades, Western culture has been reluctant to assign an inherent value or a purpose to art—even as it continues to hold art in high esteem. Though we no longer seem comfortable saying so, our reverence for art must be founded on a timeless premise: that art is good for us. If we don’t believe this, then our commitment—in money, time, and study—makes little sense. In what way might art be good for us? The answer, I believe, is that art is a therapeutic instrument: its value lies in its capacity to exhort, console, and guide us toward better versions of ourselves and to help us live more flourishing lives, individually and collectively.
Resistance to such a notion is understandable today, since “therapy” has become associated with questionable, or at least unavailing, methods of improving mental health. To say that art is therapeutic is not to suggest that it shares therapy’s methods but rather its underlying ambition: to help us to cope better with existence. While several predominant ways of thinking about art appear to ignore or reject this goal, their ultimate claim is therapeutic as well.
Art’s capacity to shock remains for some a strong source of its contemporary appeal. We are conscious that, individually and collectively, we may grow complacent; art can be valuable when it disrupts or astonishes us. We are particularly in danger of forgetting the artificiality of certain norms. It was once taken for granted, for instance, that women should not be allowed to vote and that the study of ancient Greek should dominate the curricula of English schools. It’s easy now to see that those arrangements were far from inevitable: they were open to change and improvement.
The idea that art’s value should be understood in therapeutic terms is not new. In fact, it is the most enduring way of thinking about art, having its roots in Aristotle’s philosophical reflections on poetry and drama. In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragic drama can elevate how we experience fear and pity—two emotions that help shape our experience of life. The broad implication is that the task of art is to help us flourish, to be “virtuous,” in Aristotle’s special sense of that word: that is, to be good at living, even in challenging circumstances.
This understanding of art has been in abeyance in recent decades, but it is, I believe, the only plausible way of thinking about art’s value. Other approaches, as we have seen, must tacitly assume it, even when they deny it. To consider art from a therapeutic point of view is not to abandon profundity but to embrace it and to return art to a central place in modern culture and modern life.
Original Article: https://www.city-journal.org/html/what-art-13616.html
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