On a recent weekday evening in London’s literary Bloomsbury quarter, a group of mostly white thirtysomethings gathered for a seminar called “How to Be Creative” at the School of Life, a London-based “social enterprise” founded by U.K. public intellectual Alain de Botton. Housed in a boutique space between a waxing salon and Gay’s the Word bookshop, the School of Life offers seminars and talks led by authors, Oxbridge academics, and psychologists; it’s also a retail space selling books and quirky products aimed at “developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture” and alleviating the banalities of bourgeois life.
The seminar kicked off in the school’s boutique with gravlax buns and glasses of pinot; the atmosphere hovered between a singles mixer and a corporate workshop. Clad in a pencil skirt and Nike Airs, our group leader was Cathy Haynes, a professorial type whose latest project is Stereochron Island, an interactive public experiment that imagines East London’s Victoria Park as “a tiny territory campaigning to be recognized officially as a State Without Clocks.” Spotting me standing alone, she brought over José, a copywriter from Rio visiting his brother; Mark, a primary school teacher; and Elise, who had just joined the School of Life’s marketing department after leaving her job as curator at the British Library. We all had book projects in various stages of gestation. At Cathy’s prompting, we discussed our creative blocks, ranging from day-job exhaustion to paralyzing self-doubt.
Eventually, the group was called downstairs to the seminar room, a plush-carpeted, softly lit space with a wall mural by British artist Charlotte Mann. We heard definitions of creativity (“bringing something into existence that wasn’t there before and that has meaning or value for the creator”); learned about corporate self-help guru Edward de Bono’s four steps in the creativity process; and were instructed in the “countercultural” value of futzing around. Many of de Botton’s mantras were woven into the evening’s content. Artists aren’t a special breed; we are all at least potential artists; all of our work, however rote it may seem, is creative. De Botton’s vision of “enlightened capitalism” was prominent as well: in his recent book, Art as Therapy, coauthored with cultural critic John Armstrong, he describes his vision for “an economy that harnesses the magnificent productive forces of capitalism to a more accurate understanding of the range and depth of our needs.” He cites Lego in children’s toys, All Nippon Airways in aviation, Innocent Smoothies in fruit juice (and, presumably, the School of Life in adult education) as examples of “businesses that have successfully reconciled an idea of the good with capitalist strictures.” The seminar urged us to be artful in our everyday lives. Imagine you’re in a video game, we were told, when navigating your way through the Central London rush-hour masses. Be grateful for periods of boredom—they can be productive “incubation phases” for creative output.
Most of de Botton and the school’s ideas fall within the penumbra of what one might call “instrumental humanism,” devoted to bringing the Western tradition—encompassing art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and religion—into the service of enhancing one’s ability to grapple with existence and find beauty and substance in daily life. De Botton’s growing cultural presence, especially his recent forays into museum curation with his Art as Therapy project, has inflamed long-standing antipathy toward him from critics, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. Critics on the right attack him for diluting the purity of his sources, while those on the left accuse him of fashioning meaning where there is only historical contingency and politics. Ultimately, though, de Botton’s varied initiatives are best seen as a mostly salutary, if wildly ambitious and sometimes misfiring, effort to ennoble modern urban life.
Born to a wealthy Swiss Jewish family and educated in the U.K. at a prestigious boarding school and Cambridge, de Botton, 44, is a reedy and earnest fellow with a massive U.K. public presence. After abandoning a literature Ph.D. at Harvard, de Botton began a prolific writing career, beginning with Essays in Love, which charts a young couple’s early courtship. Ranging from the illuminating to the prosaic, his books deal with practical questions of how to live better and how to integrate daily life with wisdom from the Western canon—as in The Consolations of Philosophy, in which de Botton consults the works of thinkers ranging from Socrates to Nietzsche to help readers deal with problems of modern living (Schopenhauer for a broken heart, Epicurus for not having enough money). His books include examinations of how Proust can sensitize us to life’s tragedies and triumphs (How Proust Can Change Your Life), why companionate marriage has been problematic for conjugal passion (How to Think More About Sex), and how nonbelievers might draw upon religious practices, such as the Jews’ sitting shiva to mark the death of family members (Religion for Atheists). His latest, 2014’s The News: A User’s Manual, argues that media are the primary form of education for post-university adults and a touchstone for developing democratic opinion. Unfortunately, the news operates in a dysfunctional manner, transmitting the same types of stories over and over again and feeding our low impulses for gruesome details, repetitive narratives, and salacious babble. Reporting fails to provide the contextualizing necessary to foment the enlightened views required to support a healthy free society. De Botton’s books sell by the truckload in the U.K. and, increasingly, in the U.S. as well.
Yet for all his publishing success, de Botton is probably better classified as an entrepreneur. His portfolio spans an eclectic range of projects. In 2006, in Architecture of Happiness, de Botton argued that buildings and spaces embody characteristics and states of being that we aspire to. “In essence,” he writes, “what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. . . . They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people.” In 2008, de Botton founded a nonprofit, Living Architecture, which commissions world-class architects to build vacation homes in England offering guests balance and clarity. Living Architecture’s homes include a Dutch-designed “balancing barn,” with plywood interior, perched 100 feet above the Suffolk countryside; and a stark, monumental “shingle house” on the stony shores of Dungeness. Peter Zumthor’s glass-walled “secular retreat,” atop a wooded hill in South Devon, will host “secular” monks, beginning this year. The houses stand in ethereal contrast to the musty and cramped thatched-roof cottages one typically finds in rural Britain.
In de Botton’s 2012 book, Religion for Atheists, he laments the lack of fraternity offered by existence: “In the lonely canyons of the modern city, there is no more honored emotion than love. However, this is not the love of which the religious speak, not the expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind; it is a more jealous, restricted and ultimately meaner variety. It is a romantic love which sends us on a maniacal quest for a single person with whom we hope to achieve a life-long and complete communion, one person in particular who will spare us any need for people in general.” He proposes the establishment of urban “agape restaurants,” where guests would be provided with copies of a “Book of Agape,” which he describes fancifully as a guidebook that would be “somewhat reminiscent of the Jewish Haggadah or the Catholic missal.” Guests would be steered away from the usual conversational platitudes about occupation and status and toward inner sentiment, such as “What do you regret?,” “Whom can you not forgive?,” or “What do you fear?” The goal would be to foster compassion and self-reckoning: “Our conversations would . . . reveal to us the extent to which, behind our well-defended facades, most of us are going a little out of our minds—and so have reason to stretch out a hand to our equally tortured neighbours.” An agape restaurant would permit “our fear of strangers to recede,” as “the poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced.” But do the rich and the poor in any city have enough intimate dark fears in common to find gratification in sharing them with strangers—and to do so without the language of a common faith?
De Botton’s most ambitious and visible project is the School of Life. In addition to its original London location, open since 2008, the school now has outposts in Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam, Rio, and São Paolo, and is actively looking to continue its expansion with yearly “International Partner Summit” meetings, in which new proposals are tendered. In addition to seminars called “How to Be Creative” and “How to Face Death,” it offers “How to Be Better at Online Dating,” “How to Fill the God-Shaped Hole,” and—its most frequently sold-out offering—“How to Find a Career You Love.” It runs two weeklong summer-school intensives: one for adults (Monday: “Expanding Your Potential,” Tuesday: “Work and Conversation,” Wednesday: “Creativity & Curiosity,” Thursday: “Calm & Balance,” Friday: “Making a Difference”); and another for teenagers (similarly programmed). The courses are expensive. A three-hour seminar costs £40; the five-day intensive, £700. Another recent addition is “The Curriculum,” a series of classes that “introduce the vital ideas in a given field”—literature, philosophy, art—and “examine how we can apply these concepts to everyday life.” Among the works studied are Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Hobbes’s Leviathan.
The School of Life also produces special events around London. Last year, for example, de Botton hosted evenings in conversation with Arianna Huffington about nurturing “human capital” and a discussion and performance with the singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant. The school offers a range of one-on-one sessions, including consultations in “bibliotherapy,” in which an advisor prescribes a custom list of classic texts to help you grapple with life’s problems—“Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust.” Career, life, creativity, and relationship “MOTs” (Britspeak for “assessment,” per Ministry of Transport inspections) are also available: for £100, a School of Life–affiliated psychologist will “engage you in an enlightening one-to-one conversation marked by curiosity, respect and kindness.” The school also works with corporations, producing a “minibar for the mind” for Morgans Hotel Group (including a Dreams and Fears notebook and a Seduce and Relax reading list) and leads classes on creativity and confidence at Microsoft’s annual sales conference.
The exhortation to pursue freedom, fulfillment, and self-actualization coexists with blatant consumerism. The School of Life’s shop includes tote bags printed with “Emotional Baggage,” aphorism postcards (“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears”; “The best vaccine against anger is to watch others in its throes”), and “utopia” candles: for £35, customers can choose between candles scented to evoke, among other choices, the “reason, calm, and order” of Plato’s Republic or the “nature, beauty, and harmony” of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Last autumn, the school ran a popular series of workshops on imagination and creativity at the luxury department store Selfridges; the seminar turned out to be a preliminary for an afternoon of fashion consumption. The school also conducted a breakfast series, “How to Realize Your Potential,” for American Express, triggered by the financial recession and its resulting “renewed emphasis on living a more rewarding and authentic life.” The popular series is now a monthly offering at the School of Life (its Amex logo is discreetly clipped from the workshop materials).
In 2014, the school published a new series of how-to books, including: How to Be Alone, How to Connect with Nature, and de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex. My favorite, though, is Australian philosopher Damon Young’s How to Think About Exercise: in lively language, Young explains the intellectual and physical rewards of movement, examines cultural archetypes of the “dumb jock” and “muscle-head,” and argues for a dynamic paradigm of thinking and moving, critiquing Descartes and offering readings of, inter alia, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Plato along the way. He sees exercise as a palliative for existential ambiguity: “Sport and exercise give us a chance to be something specific for a short time; to grasp and possess ourselves like a thing; to say ‘I am this now.’ ”
In founding and developing the School of Life, de Botton has raised questions concerning the social role of education, particularly in relation to the market. This explains both the school’s popularity—in an era in which humanities departments scarcely teach the Western canon, the courses it offers meet a powerful demand for meaning—and the rancorous criticism it has garnered for tailoring its offerings to upper-middle-class urbanites.
What de Botton’s critics object to most, even more than the slick marketing and commercialism he excels in, are his ideas themselves. The media reacted harshly, for instance, to de Botton and art historian John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy exhibit, an “intervention” featured in 2014 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and in 2015 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The exhibitions followed de Botton and Armstrong’s 2013 publication of Art as Therapy. A lavish coffee-table book, Art as Therapy argues that while cultural dogma tells us that art is, somehow, vital, our encounters with it in museums and galleries leave us confused and uninspired. The fault, de Botton and Armstrong say, lies not in our own shortcomings but in the art establishment’s refusal to answer the question of what art is for. (See “What Is Art For?,” Autumn 2013.) Armstrong and de Botton argue that art is a therapeutic medium that compensates for our human failings, enhances and preserves our virtues, and aids us along life’s stations of love, marriage, death, desire, and power. The point of visiting a museum is to expose oneself to beautiful objects that can make us good and wise; de Botton wants to demystify this.
Art as Therapy depicts both canonical and unknown artworks and architecture, ranging from Korean dynastic-period sculptures to Banksy prints, all framed by pithy commentary and essays. Next to Nan Goldin’s photograph of a cross-dressing lesbian, “Siobhan in My Mirror, Berlin,” the authors write: “Sublimation: the transformation of suffering into beauty.” Next to Poussin’s post-Flood landscape Winter or the Deluge, they observe: “Clinging to the wreckage: our usual lot in life.”
Last spring, I spent a few days inside the Art as Therapy exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s leading scholarly art collections, with holdings spanning eight centuries, from Romanesque aquamaniles through rich oil paintings of the Dutch Golden Age up to De Stijl and Yves Saint Laurent’s mod fashion. A flashing neon sign reading ART AS THERAPY was affixed to the Rijksmuseum’s majestic Renaissance-Gothic façade, tempting the censure of seemingly every English-language art critic. The exhibit added de Botton and Armstrong’s marginalia in the form of giant Post-its, offering commentary in a narrative mode pointedly distinct from standard museum captions. Most of the notes link the art to de Botton and Armstrong’s argument that the museum should be an apothecary for the soul. Art historians usually praise Rembrandt’s giant masterwork, The Night Watch, for instance, for depicting its Dutch militiamen in a dynamic composition rather than a static tableau: the painting’s eclectic figures (including children and dogs) are rendered with both comic and somber expressions and are mysteriously dappled by golden light. De Botton’s note on the opposite wall takes off from the fact that the room housing The Night Watch is the museum’s busiest. “Here we are in this room, in a crowd, yet without purpose. They—in the picture—are what we should be, and in times of honesty, we could be—a band of brothers, a true team, people who will bring out the best in one another. Strange though it sounds, this picture is about loneliness.” Coorte’s A Bowl of Strawberries on a Stone Plinth is, in its meticulous attention to the common berry, the antidote to feelings like, “I want to get divorced, I’ve fallen out of love.” De Botton writes: “Coorte wants to sensitize us to the extraordinary beauty of strawberries. . . . We need to do with many other things what Coorte did with a bowl of simple strawberries. Starting with, at the very least, our partners.”
The commentaries are often thoughtful, if anodyne. Yet Art as Therapy—the book and the exhibition—has provoked vitriol on a level not seen since Chris Ofili smeared an image of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. In Britain, where de Botton is a perennial whipping boy of the intelligentsia, the right-wing Spectator and left-wing Guardian shared a rare moment of concord, lambasting de Botton and scorning the individualist culture that Art as Therapy celebrates. The Spectator’s art critic, Fisun Güner, called de Botton a “moron,” saying that the Rijksmuseum should be “frankly embarrassed.” The Guardian’s Adrian Searle derided de Botton’s “evangelising and huckster’s sincerity.” The distaste may have more to do with the self-effacing English temperament than with de Botton himself; his earnestness and entrepreneurialism would fit better in Northern California than in North London. Still, the reaction against Art as Therapy is remarkably far-ranging; even the New York Times accused de Botton of “patronizing the arts.”
For all their protesting, the critics avoid the important question of what art is for. The Spectator’s Güner snorted that “the power of art . . . resides in formal relationships.” That suggests that Güner is a formalist, though other schools of thought are available—stressing, variously, social-historical, symbolic, psychoanalytic, spatial, semiotic, and feminist theories of art, in addition to humanist ones. The critics seem to scorn the idea that a discipline’s highest aim could be to organize and edify human nature. Yet classical Greek philosophy begins from this premise: “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated,” as Epicurus tells us. The notion of art as rightly serving some instrumental end has been in circulation throughout Western recorded history. The Greeks saw the aim of tragic theater as provoking fear and pity, while medieval Christian Europe valued art insofar as it inspired love of Christ.
The media’s rejection of de Botton’s ideas reflects queasiness at a mass culture organized around solipsism. But this ire is misplaced: the ironic, detached stance, with which they seem most comfortable, is ultimately more vacuous—so self-absorbed as to fall short of asserting anything. His detractors accuse de Botton of being addicted to individual enchantment, but they are addicted to cynicism. Determined to eject him from their art-world clique, they fail to address his central claims: that museum attendance is declining, that museums are badly underfunded, and that the public finds art intimidating and inaccessible, even as secular, atomized human beings need art more than ever. De Botton aims to render our relationship with art more intimate and direct, to nudge us toward sensitivity and attention. We should seek a more transcendent experience of art, he suggests, than merely observing art’s “formal relationships.”
This is not to say that de Botton always hits the mark. In Religion for Atheists, he praises the ability of religions to form enduring communities. He notes that secular moderns yearn for human connection, but they misguidedly project that desire into a fantasy of a single salving romantic relationship. Describing the capacity of the Catholic Sunday Mass to “mend some of the endemic fractures of the modern world,” de Botton envisions a secular mass. The gathering would be held in a “venue which ought itself to be attractive enough to evoke enthusiasm for the notion of a group” and involve “rules to direct people in their interactions with one another.” Modeled on such premises, the School of Life’s Sunday sermons have proved a roaring success. In punchy and emotive morning sessions, presenters discuss new ways to think about aging, explore introversion as a positive force, or describe the misery wrought by rampant consumerism.
Whether the sermons can foment lasting community bonds, though, is doubtful. At a recent packed sermon in Camden Town Hall, entrants were handed a “parish newsletter” listing the morning’s order of service: “Come and be seated,” “Welcome,” “Stand to sing Hymn 1.” We were asked to turn to our neighbors, shake hands, and wish them a good morning. The sermon, by U.K. celebrity psychologist and Night School author Richard Wiseman, was titled “The Science of Sleep.” Wiseman had us listen to what he claimed was the world’s most relaxing piece of music (I dozed off). Attendees received blue-light-blocking glasses to take home and got other tips for creating “the perfect night’s sleep.” The sermon was bookended by musicians leading cheeky sing-alongs of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” But I saw no evidence of fraternizing among the “parishioners,” as de Botton would have hoped—just an orderly queue of middle-class Londoners snatching up Night School–themed half-moon biscuits and cups of tea on their way out. De Botton writes: “To ensure that profound and dignified personal bonds can be forged, a tightly choreographed agenda of activities may be more effective than leaving a group to mingle aimlessly on its own.” But something more than intelligent choreography seems required to foster such bonds. I observed a similar dissolution of community after the “How to Be Creative” seminar.
De Botton’s argument that secular people should draw on religious practices in creating their own traditions—a technological Sabbath to replenish the mind, a festive bar mitzvah–type celebration to mark the transition of one’s offspring from child to adolescent, a cult of motherhood to address our psychological scarring from maternal separation—prompts the charge that he doesn’t understand what makes true religious faith meaningful and is merely picking and choosing the bits that conform to a modern individualist consensus. After all, the Latin root of the word, religiaire, means to bind, and it is this aspect that has always given religious practices the power to transmit the contents of various faiths across generations and order human life.
So far, de Botton has refrained from promoting his ventures in America, while extensively touring Australia and Canada to promote the School of Life and Art as Therapy. One can imagine residents of San Francisco, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles doling out for School of Life classes. However, America is uniquely polarized between its intellectual elites, who scoff at ascribing a self-help role to the Western canon, and its Oprah Nation mass culture, rabidly interested in self-help but generally reluctant to take it with de Botton’s ironic glaze. In 2005, David Brooks argued that American middlebrow culture was killed off by a combination of attacks from intellectuals and the transformation of pop culture from being “character-oriented” to “personality-oriented”—that is, less interested in how great books and art can improve one’s character, as was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s, and more concerned with the pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment. On the other hand, Brooks himself is a thoughtful stalwart of the American middlebrow, with his own advice-peppered New York Times columns and breezy “Bobos in Paradise” mode of culture critique. Perhaps the dearth of others like him indicates an opportunity for de Botton in the U.S.
What de Botton, a clear heir to this tradition, is up to is similar and ultimately worthy. He subjects the institutions of modernity to interpretation and inquiry: the media, the companionate marriage, the art museum, the retail strip, the Internet, the church. The heavy criticism that de Botton has received conveniently obscures the fact that too many scholars and intellectuals have abandoned this work, getting lost in labyrinths of specialization and adopting impenetrable theoretical jargon. And the best response to the charge that such populism risks dumbing-down culture comes from de Botton himself, in his Twitter feed: “Better to run the risk of ‘dumbing down Hegel’ than give up any ambition to brain up the public sphere.”