Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book Art As Therapy begins with an extended reflection on their central question: What is the point of art? Practically, what is its use?
De Botton and Armstrong write from a therapeutic perspective but they propose therapy for the whole population. This therapy is not an intervention for illness but has the aim of mass self-actualisation. They mean that engaging with art can help us lead better lives and they argue that if art has the power to do this it is because art can correct or compensate for a range of psychological frailties that are normal, as good as universal. These are:
- We forget what matters.
- We have a proclivity to lose hope.
- We incline towards feelings of isolation and persecution because we have an unrealistic sense of how much difficulty is normal.
- We are unbalanced and lose sight of our best sides.
- We are hard to get to know; we are mysterious to ourselves.
- We reject many experiences, people, places and eras that have something important to offer us because they come in the wrong wrapping and so leave us unable to connect.
- We are desensitized by familiarity… we are gnawed by the worry that life is elsewhere.
In relation to those frailties, De Botton and Armstrong write that art as therapy is:
- A corrective of bad memory.
- A purveyor of hope.
- A source of dignified sorrow.
- A balancing agent, displaying the good side of our natures to us and directing us towards our best possibilities.
- A guide to self-knowledge.
- A guide to the extension of experience, containing ideas and attitudes that, while initially unfamiliar or alien, we can recognise and make our own in ways that enrich us.
- A re-sensitization tool… we look at the old in new ways.
Per Art As Therapy, art assists us to live better, more in tune with our potential and our truest selves. I find their framework useful. It’s intuitive to me that music teaches you how to live; I once offended my Dad by arguing in a piece on The Pixies that ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ was responsible for the development of my adult personality, rather than, you know, my parents. Though it makes sense at face value that art is instructive I haven’t really looked at how specific songs teach specific things.
Re-reading Art As Therapy this week coincided with my discovery of a song by Sophie Allison, Soccer Mommy, called ‘Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes’. Yellow eyes are not good; they are jaundiced eyes, like you might find in liver cancer, and the woman at the centre of this song is dying. The song inches closer to the dying woman as the verses progress. Allison sings about her firstly in the third person and continues until the concluding verse, when she moves to address her directly; you feel an increasing urgency, like time is tight.
Allison doesn’t declare who the dying woman is and I have avoided any back story; I must say the devastation and pained intimacy makes me picture a mother. Allison is 22 years old and the song sounds autobiographical. That is very young to lose your mam.
As the song begins the woman has not died, but it sounds like she has died by the final verses: “Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done“. This isn’t definitive but the “still” is ominous. There are a few minutes of an outro and the last sound is a solo guitar playing ever-lengthening, quieter notes. It has the air of lingering, like they are up to trickery like The Last Leaf, not wanting to stop the song, because as long as the song goes on, life goes on; poignant musical magical thinking.
The song feels full and replenishing; simultaneously agonising and healing. So I wondered about ‘Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes’ in the light of the seven parameters of Art As Therapy. It’s not that easy to think how the song or any song could manage all seven of the challenges Art As Therapy sets, but then it shouldn’t be easy; you should have to pay close attention to a song to imagine all of the possibilities within it.
A corrective of bad memory. At its most fundamental, the song is a recollection of the dying woman and of what it felt like when she was still alive. It remembers for the the narrator of the song and for the audience. While the song exists, this woman can’t be forgotten. You imagine the narrator of the song in a year or five year’s time, remembering how it felt to have her mother with her, even cherishing those last moments of illness, because hours in a terminal hospital room are better than no time at all. Allison sings of the bright August sun that you picture streaming into the room, and she evokes memories of easier, less oppressive times: I’m thinking of her from over the ocean / See her face in the waves, her body is floating. If the song were only this act of remembrance, it would still be worthwhile.
A purveyor of hope. Tricky. Songs that end with You’ll still be deep in the ground, then I’ll feel the cold as they put out my sun aren’t obviously inherently optimistic. So why does the song not feel bleak? I think it is the emotional richness. Anything so fully felt feels fiercely alive. It is the tenderness of the words, the singing, and even the quiet guitar as the song ends. We all die; acknowledging this, maybe the hope comes from the love and respect at the heart of the song. The enormous grief Allison describes is proportionate to the love she feels for this woman. Is it something to hope for that we might all, in the end, be in receipt of such a star-sized love?
A source of dignified sorrow. Dignity pervades the entire enterprise. The vocal is warm, grave, compassionate, lacking melodrama. The pace is stately, standing tall, saluting. I love how the song rhymes “yellow” with “yellow” in its jolting opening couplet – like Hey Jude rhymed “shoulder” with “shoulder”. (The bright August sun feels like yellow / And the white of her eyes is so yellow.) You are signalled that there is no poetic tomfoolery in the offing. This is straight; serious; sorrowful; a direct message is being communicated.
A balancing agent. For a song to be a balancing agent it must reveal aspects of the listener that are positive that might not be obvious. I think the song does this in giving the listener the opportunity to mourn along with the singer. Listening to songs can be selfish – art as therapy is arguably selfish. How does this song help me? But I like to think that every time someone plays this song, engages with it, sings it, imagines a scene from it, every time her Spotify count tops up, Sophie Allison feels happy that someone out there is remembering the woman that she loved so much and wrote the song to remember.
A guide to the extension of experience. This needs work. Art As Therapy argues here that art objects that are initially distasteful can reveal important things to the viewer or listener in spite of or even because of their initially strange or distasteful nature. I think of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or John Cage or John Lydon or squalling free jazz – how confusing it must have been to encounter them, and how the confusion was the point. But this song is utterly relatable and played with an aching beauty. There’s nothing off-putting about it.
A guide to self-knowledge AND A re-sensitization tool. Not to over-simplify, but: you hear a song like this and you appreciate the hell of everyone around you and the simple stupid stuff that makes up your life. This is a bit of a theme for me in the last year; songs I’ve instantly connected with on albums I’ve loved have been ‘Funeral Sessions‘ by ALS, ‘Killer‘ by Phoebe Bridgers, and the grief-stricken ‘When The Family Flies In‘ by Julia Jacklin. There’s something about my stage of life here but there’s also the observation as in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal that awareness of death focuses you on the aspects of your life that their potential absence reveals to be the most important – love, connection, family, friends, music, nature. Songs like ‘Yellow Is The Colour Of Her Eyes’ perform a priceless service as they awaken you to the technicolor intensity of the humdrum here and now.