Alain de Botton, master patronizer, ruins the Rijksmuseum

April 26, 2014 • 9:58 am

As if it weren’t enough that Alain de Botton tells atheists that we need atheist church-equivalents, and how to set them up, he’s apparently now doing the same in the art business, at least according to the Guardian. Their new piece, “Art as therapy review—de Botton as door-stepping self help evangelist,” by Adrian Searle, bascially takes de Botton apart like a house of cards.

I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago, and had a great time seeing what few Rembrandts were on display (it was being renovated).  Now, however, the museum has reopened, but there’s a skunk in the woodpile: a Mephitis mephitis named de Botton.  For some unaccountable reason the Rijksmuseum has agreed to allow de Botton (below) to put up giant Post-It™ style notes next to the paintings, telling the viewer how he/she is supposed to react to the paintings.

Alain de Botton at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
de Botton at the Rijksmuseum. Photo by Vincent Mentzel

Read for yourself:

A flashing neon sign hangs over the grand entrance to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Art Is Therapy, it reads, mirroring the cover of Alain de Botton’s recent book Art as Therapy, written with the philosopher and art historian John Armstrong.

The Rijksmuseum reopened last year after major reorganisation and restoration, to almost universal acclaim. It had more than 3 million visitors in 2013. They thought they had a museum; what they have is a crammed-to-the-gills tourist attraction. It’s the Tate Modern effect.

Perhaps troubled that 3 million visitors was not quite enough, Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes invited De Botton and Armstrong to make an “intervention”. The authors have filled the place with loud, intrusive labels – giant Post-it notes that often dwarf the exhibits – along with a number of thematic displays.

Art Is Therapy, De Botton, Armstrong, Rijksmuseum
Photograph: Olivier Middendorp

And oy, what the notes say!

“You suffer from fragility, guilt, a split personality, self disgust,” reads a note next to Jan Steen’s 1660s genre painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas. “You are probably a bit like this picture,” the label goes on. “There are sides of you that are a little debauched.” The labels tell us what’s wrong with us, and how the artworks and artefacts they accompany can cure our ills.

In front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the crowning glory of the collection, another big yellow label tells us what it believes we are thinking: “I can’t bear busy places – I wish this room were emptier.” De Botton sees the Night Watch as an image of communality, which I suppose it is. There’s not much fellow-feeling in the audience around it, and I guess that’s the point, too.

Can you believe that?

Here’s another one, completely superfluous. Perhaps it went next to a Mondrian.

De Botton, Armstrong, exhibition label

More from Searle’s piece:

Next to Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter and his quiet Delft street scene, beside teapots and Chinese gods, alongside an Yves Saint Laurent dress and aRietveld chair, the labels proliferate. De Botton is trying to mend what he sees as a disconnection between art and life, between past and present. This is an unexceptional ambition. Artists and designers do it all the time. Why do we need De Botton? In a display of 19thcentury daguerrotypes, under the curatorial theme of memory, we are told we are in “one of the saddest rooms in the museum. You might want to cry.” Why? All the people in the pictures are dead. They generally are in photographs this old.

Banality and bathos are the stock-in-trade here. De Botton’s curatorial rubrics – as well as memory, there’s fortune, money, politics and sex – are anodyne, his insights and descriptions shallow and obvious. De Botton insists that art can tell us how to live: “It should heal us: it isn’t an intellectual exercise, an abstract aesthetic arena or a distraction for a Sunday afternoon.” His petulant tone is wearing. I also dislike the self-improvement shtick. In front of an athletic bit of statuary, a label inquires why, if we can accept going to the gym to improve our bodies, we don’t visit the museum “to work on our character”.

. . . De Botton’s evangelising and his huckster’s sincerity make him the least congenial gallery guide imaginable. He has no eye, and no ear for language. With their smarmy sermons and symptomology of human failings, their aphorisms about art leading us to better parts of ourselves, De Botton’s texts feel like being doorstepped. But art contains concentrated doses of the virtues! You could coerce any art at all into his cause of mental hygiene and spiritual wellbeing. De Botton reduces art to its discernible content. He doesn’t make us want to look at all.

But tell us how you really feel, Mr. Searle!  All I can say is that I’m very glad he had the temerity to call this bovine guano exactly what it is.

de Botton has an obdurate streak of both pedantry and self-styled superiority that we’ve learned about from his interaction with the community of nonbelievers. Do we really need someone telling us how we’re supposed to feel in an art gallery? And who has the right to tell us how we’re supposed to feel? The good thing about art is that each person brings his or her baggage and history to each work of art, imbuing it with different meanings. Imagine what would happen if de Botton went next door and got his sticky fingers on the Van Gogh Museum!

What baffles me is why this man has any reputation at all.  I suppose it’s because Brits, like Americans (and now presumably the Dutch) like self-helpy stuff, too. And apparently de Botton runs a “School of Life” in London whose purpose is to teach students the way to lead a meaningful life.

In short, he appears to be Britain’s answer to Deepak Chopra, without the quantum stuff and merchandise. I’ll take my art straight, thank you.

Professor Ceiling Cat has arranged a demonstration of what would happen were de Botton to get hold of literature in the same way. We’d likely see stickers in bookstores like this:


Picture 2

69 thoughts on “Alain de Botton, master patronizer, ruins the Rijksmuseum

  1. What with this guy, the deadbeat Nevada rancher, and so many others, it’s like Andy Kaufman never died.

      1. He was. At times.

        But I think it would be very Kaufmanesque to try to seem as much as possible like a legitimately smarmy self-help doofus, right down to purposely avoiding humor.

  2. This does as much for art as that silly artist giving birth to paint-balls in the nude.

    Both display an unfathomable level of self-absorption and a narcissistic appreciation of their own vain intellect.

    1. …”that silly artist giving birth to paint-balls in the nude.”

      Boy, I learn something new every day here.

  3. Leave it to those who claim to be art experts to get art so wrong, and to confuse and discourage people who might have otherwise enjoyed it. I’m speaking not so much of De Botton but of the curator who agreed to this.

  4. I’ll take my art straight, too, Jerry. A work of art is ultimately an interaction between the artist and the viewer. A lot of art that I like is the product of less well-known artists; while some of the art from well-known/famous artists just leaves me cold.

  5. Granted that this exhibition is terrible and takes away from the experience of the artworks on display, I think that his ideas are a little more interesting than is let on here.

    While we don’t need someone to tell us how each artwork relates to psychotherapy, many members of the general public do need assistance in understanding the meaning that artists intended their pieces to evoke. de Botton’s method of telling us that the work exposes some inner flaw in us is ridiculous, but a method consisting of explaining the artist’s mental state at the time, the themes of their works and the meanings of symbolic imagery invoked could definitely add to people’s experience in a museum.

    de Botton had another idea, to group paintings based on the emotions they portray, rather than the time they were painted or the style that they are categorized into. Exhibitions based on themes of love, isolation, fear, awe, etc., would be definite improvements on the current academic presentation of museums.

    I think he has good ideas marred by really terrible execution.

    1. In fact, the kind of information you’re asking for exists on the little labels next to paintings in many museums–precisely the labels that de Botton says are useless. And, of course, one can often buy audioguides, or books in the Museum shop.

      He hasn’t had a novel idea at all; he’s taken a conventional one and stamped his ego all over it.

    2. “Exhibitions based on themes of love, isolation, fear, awe, etc., would be definite improvements on the current academic presentation of museums.” That would be true if art could be reduced to a theme, which happily is not the case. Exhibitions based on themes, the horror, the horror!

  6. It’s like a Tom Wolfe nightmare – “The Painted Word” fully incarnate, crawling from the earned obscurity of the critic’s writings and actually oozing up the walls.

  7. So, I would be fine with the museum officially offering de Botton’s notes as a printed guide or an audio tour or the like, but the whole thing with the giant yellow stickies is over the top, obnoxious, and a curatorial disaster.

    It does, however, tangentially remind me of the last time I was at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They had some modern minimalist works in one room, including a blank canvas several feet big with just a 1/4″ black border painted around it (or some variation on that theme). The curator who did up the little labels on the walls next to the paintings either was the most PoMo of the PoMos or, as I suspect, had a good sense of humor about it and was trying to inject as much snark as possible into the labels as he or she thought she or he could get away with. In other words, there were a few paragraphs of existential angst for said blank canvas.

    It was the closest I’ve ever encountered in real life to this:



    1. Depressingly, I would bet quite a lot of money that those angsty paragraphs were entirely sincere.

      I’m beginning to think that most of the art in “modern art” is not actually the painting/sculpture/etc in question. It is instead the “art” of eisegesis.

    2. If I didn’t already knew Nietsche was beat up by life in his youth, I could have sworn he had been visiting one too many art galleries later:

      “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

      1. Couldn’t have been a picture gallery, or else it would have been, “And when you glaze long enough in an abyss in Soviet Russia, the abyss glazes you!”


  8. How ironic. We see an empty resonance in de Botton.

    “… de Botton as door-stepping self help evangelist”

    That explains so much.

    At the same time, no one will notice de Botton’s “evangelising” on account of “his huckster’s sincerity” anymore, right? Like Deepak…

  9. Professor Ceiling-Cat is a great essay-writer, but I am not in accord with him this time. I had published two modest books on Art History many years ago. Both the ‘expert’ view and the ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like’ view fall short. But this ‘emotional guidance’ presumption has something going for it. De Botton set himself up and has been dutifully knocked-down by the usual suspects who contribute to this website. By putting his own neck on the line he has allowed us to express our own superior sensitivities, and reveal our own deep belief in our innate superiority when confronting great art.
    I read some of de Botton’s comments, and they really do add depth to our experience of the work.

    The French do this all the time on their classical Music radio channels where Beethoven sonatas, Schubert and Chopin are interrupted by swooning voices telling you what is happening and how you are supposed to feel, bar by bar. At first I used to sneer; but then I kinda liked it. I am all for ‘critics of gesture’

    If you hike out of Yosemite towards the falls on the John Muir Trail, there used to be plaques along the way telling to to break and sniff a leaf off a denuded bush, or how to smell pine-needles under the sun. All good clean fun to experienced hikers.

    Incidentally, I once spent time in the L.A. Museum of Art on Wilshire. The great names were familiar, but not the paintings. And they seemed so, well, amateurish. I suspect a lot of them are fakes. Did Rembrandt really use felt-tips?

    1. It’s fine for you to take issue with my ideas, and I welcome your comments about “emotional guidance.” However, it is not fine for you to call denizens of this website “the usual suspects”, or to accuse us of expressing “our innate superiority.” In fact, I don’t see any expression of innate superiority; what I see is people trying to let other people have their own reactions to art, which, as I said, are diverse.

      You owe us an apology, then, for this kind of mass insult, which is a violation of the Roolz.

      You could have made every point you made without being rude.

      1. I find de Botton’s comments denude art (or encourage others to do so) just as surely as plaques in the Yosemite encouraged and perhaps, alas, still encourage hikers to denude bushes. And if you can’t enjoy the smell of pine-needles in the sun without being told to do so and how to do it, then there’s something a bit odd about you, don’t you think? De Botton’s bottonizing (lobottonizing?) approach to things is just another example of the creeping verbalisation and banalisation that can more and more be found on the backs of bottles of whisky & bottles of ale, in wine-merchants’ catalogues and in mainly American menus, telling us what the liquor or the dish tastes like (‘blackcurrant notes’), as if one can’t taste anything without being told how whatever it is should taste. The approach derives almost certainly from the philistines and cynics who pullulate in the advertising industry and who know how a pretence to ‘expert’ knowledge can help sell things.

      2. It was meant light-heartedly, and not in any way insulting, and so I am sorry for that. By ‘usual suspects’ I simply meant the many familiar, (and much-loved!)voices echoing near identical sentiments. The joke is, of course, the irony that we all believe that we are capable of deep and personal responses to Art-works, and resent it when others presume to guide us. I know. I have written on artworks and have learned to choose my words carefully, to allow for all opinions, and to suggest rather than guide; which is, what I feel, de Botton is doing. A little background knowledge is sometimes useful, but not indispensable.
        The many posters, far from exhibiting a range of opinions, often seemed to express the same indignation concerning de Botton’s presumption, often using the same words! If I were the tenth post in a row expressing identical indignation, I might become a little self-conscious about my lack of originality.

        1. I think you must realize that the comments section does not exist for everyone to express an ORIGINAL opinion–just THEIR opinion. And if they’re often similar, well, people have had their say. I recall an old explanation of what peoplle really say to each other on the telephone, which goes something like this:

          Person 1: I’m ALIVE!
          Person 2: I’m alive, too!

          Also, I prefer to take my art at first on my own, and see my own reaction. But I do read a lot of art criticism or analysis–always AFTER the fact. I don’t like to be told what to see before or while I’m seeing it, and that is what de Botton is doing. It’s like a server standing over you while you eat a fancy meal and tell you what you’re supposed to be tasting. Afterwards, you can discuss it, read the critics, etc., but I think impressions of art should come to one untrammeled. Otherwise you see it not freshly, but conditioned by someone else’s views.

          1. I always put a value on originality. For me the new media, and WEIT in particular, is not just about everybody expressing themselves, but also about the possibility of reading original, novel and challenging ideas. I would have expected Professor Ceiling-Cat to have called for originality over more indignation. Otherwise the WEIT is simply hosting a free self-help group. And so I am disappointed when I cannot read quirky and original takes on things. And that is why I attempted to diversify to discussions, on Yosemite, French radio and the L.A. Museum of Art.

            I have always been wary of joining any group anywhere, which is what kept me out of religion, and also out of academia. I see a awful tendency to conformity, and worst of all a tendency of group members to angle their opinions to flatter the boss. And there is a tendency for group expressions of indignation designed to silence original thought.

            I have a number of interesting hypotheses:- on Human Sub-Set Theory; of the fact that what we see as exclusively human personality traits are also seen in other mammals, but most surprisingly in birds such as ducks and geese (which surely would have implications in speciation theory) And the idea called the ‘Astonishing Specificity of genetic inherited traits in belief and behaviour’ What I have observed in WEIT is that such original ideas do not prompt disagreement so much as anger. Why?

            As to being told in advance what to expect, I find it to be most helpful. Having read an admirable dissection of the iconography of a painting, especially twentieth century painting, then the pleasure is enhanced. It would be a brave man who goes to an unknown opera with no idea of the plot or the key moments. So why not be prepared with great painting? If I told you of the background of Chaim Soutine, (assuming you did not know), then you would love his work instantly.

            Finally, humour of the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ variety is often and usually lost in emails.

            1. Well, thanks for telling me what you expected me to post, and how I let you down. I am sorry that the readers do not avidly embrace your original ideas, and that our readership is, to your mind, an echo chamber. I really do think that you should frequent other websites so as to avoid this kind of disappointment in the future. You clearly don’t need a free self-help group.

              Your apology was not an apology so much as a touting of your own originality and a criticism of both me and the readership for not appreciating it.

              Sorry, but I like things the way they are here, and I don’t like rudeness and arrogance.

              1. I am afraid to post now.
                Georgerumens posts were welcome (whether I agree or not). I am slightly taken aback at the hostility (strong word, but the tone made me uncomfortable) to his very mild comments.
                As can be seen from his previous posts, he is a thoughtful contributor, respectful, and, like me, probably feels safe expressing his opinions in the WEIT family forum.
                He does not need to apologise to me.
                (For the record, I think ‘The Bottom’s’ thoughts are vapid and add nothing).
                I love this site, love reading Ben Goren and Diana MacPherson comments especially, and spruik the site to everyone I know.
                Just feel that turning on the ‘faithful’ is less than helpful. We can take a bit of robust discussion – keeps us on our toes.
                (I really feel a bit tentative, as if THIS post will be rounded on. I just feel that georgegrumens post was fine – so ‘non-apology-worthy’ that it moved me to only my second post! It is not my site, and I don’t make the roolz – but I speak as one of the (mostly silent) gang who truly loves WEIT and what it is part of).

                ps: (Perhaps, in future, for lesser offenses, three Hail Mary’s and a Lord’s Prayer…or is that for greater offenses!)

                pps: I have a d*g – perhaps that is making me sensitive this morning (here is Oz)…

            2. Chaim Soutine – you know, I liked his works ‘instantly’, as soon as I saw them, and I hadn’t heard about the bed-bugs nesting in his ear at the time, and I don’t think hearing about the bed-bugs or his background made me like his paintings either better or worse… and the experience of reading about Poussin and seeing reproductions in no way prepared me for the way I was bowled over by one of his paintings in an exhibition of European art here in Japan before I had looked at the plate beside the painting and realised that it was Poussin’s. Yes, I agree entirely that it’s a good idea to find out what a noh play is about before going to see one, and I agree also that good and great scholars and critics like Wittkower, Gombrich, Baxandall and Cahill can contribute hugely to one’s appreciation of art, but, really, the vapidities of de Botton – what insights are there???

  10. Of course, Searle’s best dig is not to say anything at all about John Armstrong. Hey, aren’t I a twit deserving of notice, too?

  11. I’m glad of these notes. I HATE having to think for myself what a painting mean for me. And I certainly wouldn’t want the notes to tell me anything interesting or useful, the techniques used to make the painting, or the painting’s history. That would just interfere w/ what de Botton wants me to feel/

  12. Don’t knock it! De Botton is a master of showing how even the most thoughtful art and philosophy can be reduced to something everyone can easily understand and feel comfortable with in their everyday lives, so that none of us need to feel daunted, or to suffer the pain of thinking too hard; and surely in that respect he fills a much needed gap.

      1. Originally from a review by Moses Hadas – ‘This book fills a much-needed gap’.
        Another of his was ‘Thank you for sending me a copy of your book – I’ll waste no time reading it.’

    1. de B appears to be from the Malibu Stacey school of philosophy: “Thinking too much gives you wrinkles!”


  13. Although most of us can agree that this particular approach by de Botton is somewhat crass, there is an argument for using new ideas of presentation in museums to better engage the viewers. I can remember a re-arrangement of the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam by Robert Wilson in 1993 that used stage lighting and presentation techniques, together with unlikely juxtapositions: the visitor really did experience the collection in an exciting new way.
    There is a discussion by Professor Julia Noordegraaf on the use of creative artists in museum presentation here

  14. It’s difficult to believe that a museum of this stature would welcome this imbecile and then allow him to festoon their walls with this disgraceful, insulting display of arrogance and condescension. Talk about a presumptuous little nitwit!

    1. +1

      What a pretentious prat! Presuming to tell us how we should feel about works of art while demonstrating (judging by the examples quoted) less artistic insight than an advertising executive. As someone observed, they read exactly like horoscopes.

  15. As if it weren’t bad enough that the place is usually so crowded that I can’t appreciate the large paintings from a suitable distance nor get close enough to see details, but Ol’ Bottoms is defiling the place with self-promoting rubbish.

  16. I’m sure this subversion of the personal subjective experiences which are an essential part of artistic appreciation could itself be seen as a form of meta-art in itself, but only by the most dedicated faux-intellectual dilettante two-fisted wanker.

    So, I’m guessing this is exactly what de Botton thinks he’s doing.

  17. I’ve made my own note to myself not to visit the Rijksmuseum again until after the 7th September, when de Botton’s golden shower of musings will have been removed.

    1. Thankfully I won’t have the opportunity to return before then and will miss this abomination. I am indeed looking forward to seeing the newly remodeled museum as it has been about 5 years since I was last there.

  18. I wonder if the notes are still there. I was in the Rijksmuseum last Tuesday and I do not recall having seen these silly notes.

  19. Even as a philistine when it comes to most art (I tend to look at it and wonder how the artist did it, or how technically proficient they are), I don’t want some twerp telling me how I’m supposed to feel…

  20. I think I like this, but only if we all can leave post-it’s around telling people what to think and feel. And why stop with art? Why not open it up to all museums? How about aquariums and zoos? Will someone please tell me how magical and deeply moving, that masturbating dolphin is.

  21. The only museum I have returned to visit more often than the Rijksmuseum is the NY Museum of Natural History.

    This saddens me as it cheapens a great experience. Yes, it can be interesting and informative to know what the *artist* may have wished to evoke or convey with his or her art (e.g. Guernica), but I could care less what some random pompous nozzle thinks it should convey or evoke and even less to tell me what it should evoke in *me*. The reason I go *back* to the same museums (besides special exhibits) is precisely because I get something *different* from it each time. I new detail comes to light, a new experience I’ve had since the last time evokes a new emotion or understanding, and often I go with people who have not been before to see *their* reactions and perceptions to lend even further thought from a perspective I may not have been able to attain myself.

    The fact that it is de Botton makes it only that much worse. It could have been Dawkins or Professor Ceiling Cat himself writing them and I still would have the same feelings, despite my deep respect for them.

    1. The principle would have been equally bad but at least the execution wouldn’t have been so inane.

  22. Just returned from a trip to Amsterdam, and several days at the Rijksmuseum. I enjoyed the museum AND the Art is Therapy post-it notes immensely. Having no preconceptions, I found them entertaining and cheeky fun. They seemed extensions of the already somewhat unserious official description cards.

    The picture used in the Guardian hate-on and reproduced here is unfairly taken out of context. It is in fact next to:

    (my pic)

    It’s appropriate they are a temporary installation, but the attacks are quite over-the-top.


  23. Oh, removable sermons then? I am fine with that as they are easier to bin. Wannabe priest de Botton could diversify and put up some indulgences too.

    Once I thought that he made some sense, but now, he has gone too far and has damaged himself beyond any repair, regardless how expensive. Professor Ceiling Cat did suss out the deep wonkiness in Father, oops, Mr. de Botton from the beginning, unlike moi. 🙂

    Sheesh. The curator needs to be smacked. And not that gently either. 🙂

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