Should art tell us what to think?

Alain de Botton argues that art should be less ambiguous. Is he right?

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at London’s Tate Modern.
Are art galleries the new churches? Alain de Botton seems to think so. In an online article for The Guardian, he implies that galleries have become a contemporary congregation point for atheists and agnostics. Is this really true? I’m not so sure. But de Botton is keen to stress the point, arguing that art museums as they currently stand are inadequate to their newly appointed role: ‘The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture.’ This, we are told, is a bad thing: ‘Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of.’ So what is he suggesting?

First of all, is de Botton correct when he says that art galleries lack an instrumental approach? I would suggest the opposite. Galleries are under a great pressure to pull in visitors and generate revenue. A lot of thought and care goes into the venue, layout and presentation of exhibitions. Each gallery is designed with visitor pathways in mind: we wander through galleries in a suggestive state, and are gently persuaded to form judgements and opinions. Names we recognise are placed next to names we don’t, to suggest connections, similarities, or even differences that we might not have thought about ourselves.


To me, it seems clear that art galleries enact an instrumental approach to culture. From the labels that imply the value of a work with a caption, to the signs reading ‘Modernism’, ‘Postmodernism’ or ‘Expressionism’: all signs generate narratives that guide our understanding, and, perhaps more importantly, our opinion. Meanings are generated by these signs, by the position of the artworks, by the swell of crowds, and our attitudes are generated accordingly. Everything is by design. Even the classic debate about the value of modern art is, to some degree, a masterwork of the galleries themselves: artworks are acquired to generate discussion, even controversy, and are arranged to guide the spectator’s thoughts and feelings.

“Ambiguities allow us to think for ourselves, they allow us to daydream about the world without restrictions or external limits.”

But de Botton might be right when he says that the art gallery privileges a certain kind of ambiguity. It resists telling us what art is for in the most direct terms. But isn’t that what we like about art galleries? If we don’t like what we see, isn’t it more fun to be able to mock the exhibitions and feel entitled to our opinion? If we have a special connection with a work of art, is it not special because we feel we have found it for ourselves? To me, art is something that can be fun to talk about, but it’s also something private, something I can connect with on a personal level. I find that being told what is important about an artwork is the same as being told what artworks to like, which ones we should value and which ones we should ignore. Why do I want to be told what to love, what to be afraid of?

As de Botton raises the subject of religion, why don’t we think about the word ‘spiritual’? It is a word that defines the religious beliefs and inclinations of millions of people, but it can also signify something private and otherworldly, something rare and mystical, something ambiguous. Ambiguities prompt us to think for ourselves, they allow us to daydream about the world without restrictions or external limits. Ambiguities can open up new possibilities, they can challenge politics, morality and public opinion. Ambiguities might be art’s greatest gift.

This review was first published at A Piece of Monologue in 2012.


  1. The question remains: should Alain de Botton tell us what to think?

    ‘Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of.’

    Which is why Modernism offered such a life-giving escape, from stultifyingly Normative Christianity, for so many Bohemians, Beatniks, Free-Thinkers and Artistes of the 20th Century. Leave it to a NeoCon to want to roll back such progress.

    “the art gallery privileges a certain kind of ambiguity”

    Much like the color of the wall the Art is hung on. There’s a reason for that, de Botton…! (I can’t say I wasn’t pleased when he blew his Olympian pose by wishing cancer on that certain thumbs-downing critic… remember? The curtain was yanked off with the comedic zest of a flying toupee in a Marx Bros flick. Delightful.)


  2. I agree about the benefits of ambiguity and this is a virtue particularly appropriate to thinking about modern art. However, I think you also make some unsubstantiated assumptions. The first is that you seem to assume it’s possible to form an artwork for yourself without being told what’s important about it. Whether we like it or not, we’re always being told what is and is not important about art, we just aren’t always aware of those influences. We never approach a piece of art in a vacuum. So, while I think we may have a very personal relationship with a work of art, it is never private – it’s always embedded in larger social structures and in that sense it’s public. A lot of modern/postmodern/contemporary art is intentionally political for that reason.

    Second, I’m not sure what your definition of spirituality is based on. Again, spirituality is arguably not private but communal, not otherworldly but thisworldly, not rare but a particular kind of approach to the commonplace. I think this piece has played into certain assumed binaries like private/public, religion/spirituality that contemporary art works to deconstruct.

    Finally, I don’t really care if it’s more “fun” to mock exhibitions and feel entitled to our opinions, it may still be a more impoverished approach to art, as is the case with many things that are considered “fun.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lexi!

      Thank you for your comment! I am largely in agreement with what you say: the observations could be more detailed and substantiated.

      The comments were written some years ago. And while I am not sure I would defend every word, I still stand by it as a basic rejection of de Botton’s didactic and neoliberal approach to the arts.


      Liked by 1 person

    • “Whether we like it or not, we’re always being told what is and is not important about art…”

      And we should almost always (if not always) ignore such authoritarian input. Not even the Artist her/his self is qualified to intervene in the personal process of assimilating Art, IMO. The academic judgements of the Art World’s stock market are not stable, in any case. Just compare what they said was “important” in Damian Hirst’s work to what they have to say about it now, not even ten years later…! Too much of that is advertizing masquerading as knowledge.If the work doesn’t speak directly to you without an added narrative, either you, or the Art, has failed (again: IMO). Which may or may not be twaddle but it’s the twaddle I live by! laugh.


Add Your Comments, Links, and Recommendations

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.