Alain de Botton wrote a nice piece for the Wall Street Journal this weekend, evidently adapted from a book I have not read: Art as Therapy. The essay makes the rather bold claim that Art with a capital A might actually have a purpose, rather than simply existing for its own sake. It offers up "therapy" as a purpose, but perhaps not in quite the way one might suspect.
The essay in the WSJ goes on to examine a few pieces and the kinds of therapeutic results one might get by looking at them, but largely seems to take introspection as therapy. This is fair enough. I think it's more interesting to just stop at the idea of introspection.
The interpretations de Botton proposes strike me as very personal and specific. He presents them, I think, as generally applicable and this is the weakest element of the essay. Who cares if we struggle with a piece, and find something very specifically personal in it? Isn't that a good thing? Why must the result be general? My idea here is to look at a piece of art and then to consciously reach for some sort of reaction to it, to consciously cast about for something one might take away from it. Mostly we seem to feel that it's the artwork's job to reach out to us, to poke and prod us, to make feel or think or something. Why not turn this around?
This isn't quite deconstructionist. I don't mean to dismiss the artist's ideas as irrelevant at all. Insofar as the artist's ideas are clear, they will surely color our reaction to it, no matter how we struggle. We could strive to understand the artist, or we could simply free-associate, or, or.. the point is simply that we actively strive to make something of the work.
I'm not sure I buy into the idea of art as "therapy" per se, but I'm pretty interested in this idea that we can consciously bring our selves to bear on a piece of art, that we can try to pull from it, that we can be an active participant from the moment we open our eyes. Photography, as usual, stands a little apart. That this was a real thing, a little slice of reality, connects us already to the work. What if, instead of demanding that the picture pose the question "what was out of frame?" or "what is she thinking?" we consciously posed these questions to ourselves?
Would it be reasonably to walk around a gallery with a notebook of questions, and to interview each picture? Possibly out loud? Why not?!