Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum turned into therapeutic centre

De Botton Armstrong
© Olivier Middendorp

In a surprise move, the Netherlands’ top cultural institution, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has been turned into a giant therapeutic centre designed to help people with emotional issues. The operation has been masterminded by two intellectuals, author Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong. The building has been decked out in banners screaming ‘Art is Therapy’ at the city, 200 works have been equipped with giant captions next to them, detailing the therapeutic benefits on offer, and six new rooms have been created to shed light on such themes as ‘Sex’, ‘Love’ and ‘Money.’ The show is expected to last until the autumn.

This move has, naturally, created outrage among the cultural elite. ‘The idea that art should help people to live is a piece of babyish absurdity we should all have grown out of long ago,’ declared the Guardian‘s fiery chief art critic, Adrian Searle. The New York Times similarly cast off its normal restraints to declare: ‘Reducing art to self-help is the greatest imaginable insult to the masterpieces of culture.’

Nevertheless, the show is expected to attract many visitors, burdened by issues, and keen to seek new insights, and fresh perspectives on them through art. But is it really such a problem to expect that art might help us to live and die? When people want to praise art museums, they sometimes remark that they are our ‘new cathedrals’. This seems an extremely accurate analogy, because for hundreds of years, cathedrals were, just like museums, by far the most significant places in society; they were the buildings people lavished money on and felt proudest of. They were the spiritual hearts of the community.

De Botton Armstrong
© Olivier Middendorp

But there remains a huge difference between museums and cathedrals in terms of our collective awareness of what the two types of buildings should be for. You used to go to the cathedral for some clear reasons: because you wanted to save your soul, because you were looking for comfort, you needed community, you wanted to develop your moral character or you were hoping for consolation and redemption. What do we go to the art museum for? We know that art is meant to be somehow good for us, but to ask simply ‘What is it for?’ may sound childishly naive, impatient or vulgar. Some of our visits therefore bear the hallmarks of an uncertainty about their purpose. There is huge respect but also, somewhere within many of us, a distinct confusion.

De Botton Armstrong

© Olivier Middendorp

Now in truth, art can do for us a remarkable number of the very things that religion once did. Culture is in a position to replace many of the functions of scripture. Art too has the power to console us, it too can bring meaning and purpose, it too can increase our powers of empathy and generate a sense of community.

This is what the show at the Rijksmuseum is really all about. With a different ‘frame’ around them, art collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Once curators put aside their deep-seated fears of a ‘purpose’ for art, works of art can be put to work on a therapeutic mission.

De Botton Armstrong

© Olivier Middendorp

The Rijksmuseum lives up to the claim that art museums can properly fulfill the excellent, but until now elusive, ambition of becoming a substitute for the old cathedrals. Head there now – with your problems.

To see the online version of the Rijksmuseum Art is Therapy show, please visit: www.artastherapy.com/rijks