What if art museums stopped being dead libraries for the great works of the past and decided they might be able to change our lives?
It’s often said that ‘musems are our new churches’: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religions. It’s an intriguing idea, but Alain de Botton suggests that in practice museums abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches through the way they handle the precious material entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, museums nevertheless seem incapable of adequately linking these objects to the needs of our souls. They don’t do enough with the treasures they have, because they present them to us in bland academic ways that fail to engage with the real potential of art, which is – de Botton argues – to change us for the better.
Museums are notoriously bad at telling people why art matters. Christianity, by contrast, never leaves you in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach you how to live, to remind you through the use of colour and beauty to be a healthy-minded, good and godly person. Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like. Look at that painting of the cross if you want a quick lesson in courage. Look at that Last Supper and train yourself not to be a coward and a liar.
This leads de Botton to a radical thought: what if we kept the didactic function of Christian art and museums, but just changed the message? A secular way to use art like religion does is to put before us pictures, photographs and statues that try to change us, that propagandise on behalf of ideas like kindness, love, faith and sacrifice. The museum shouldn’t be a neutral space for laying out the artworks of the past like a giant library or catalogue. It should be a place to convert you to something.
It’s this effort at conversion, at change, that interests de Botton. Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose - to make us good and wise and kind - and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? What if they gave up on the neutral, bland captions they tend to use, and put beneath each picture a really directive set of commands, telling us, for example, ‘Look at this image and remember to be patient’ - or ‘Use this sculpture to medidate on what you too could do to bring about a fairer world?’
Perhaps art shouldn’t be ‘for art’s sake’, one of the most unambitious of all slogans: why couldn’t art be - as it was in religious eras - more explicitly for something? And what if it was for making us kinder and better, more thoughtful and more generous?
Modern museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as ‘The Nineteenth Century’ and ‘The Northern Italian School’, which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. However, this arrangement is no more responsive to the inner needs of museum-goers than is – to readers – the scholarly division of literature into such categories as ‘The American Novel of the Nineteenth Century’ or ‘Elizabethan drama.’
A more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls. Museum tours would take us through spaces which would each try to remind us in a sensory way – with the help of unapologetic labels and catalogues – of important ideas related to a variety of problematic areas of our lives. There would be galleries devoted to evoking the beauty of simplicity, the curative powers of nature, the dignity of the outsider or the comfort of maternal nurture. A walk through a museum would amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things which are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.
The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our museums so that art can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, it served those of theology. Curators should dare to reinvent their spaces so that they can be more than dead libraries for the creations of the past. These curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and to stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet. Only then will museums be able to claim that they have properly fulfilled the noble but still elusive ambition of becoming our new churches).