Art as Therapy: Sorrow

According to Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, there are Seven Functions of Art:

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self Understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

Art can teach us how to suffer more successfully. Consider Richard Serra’s Fernando Pessoa. It is encouraging a profound engagement with sadness. The outward chatter of society is typically cheerful and upbeat – confess a problem to someone and they tend at once to look for a solution and point us in a brighter direction. But Serra’s work does not deny our troubles; it doesn’t tell us to cheer up. It tells us that sorrow is written into the contract of life. The large scale and overtly monumental character of the work constitute a declaration of the normality of sorrow. Just as Nelson’s Column in the centre of Trafalgar Square in London is confident that we will admit the importance of naval heroism, so Serra’s Fernando Pessoa, named after the Portuguese poet who knew about sorrow (O salty sea, how much of your salt / is tears from Portugal) is confident that we will recognize and respond to the legitimate place of the most sombre and solemn emotions. Rather than be alone with such moods, the work proclaims them as central and universal features of life.

Richard Serra, Fernando Pessoa, 2007-08.

More importantly, Serra’s work presents sorrow in a dignified way. It does not go into details; it does not analyse any particular cause of suffering. Instead, it presents sadness as a grand and ubiquitous emotion. In effect, it says, “When you feel sad, you are participating in a venerable experience, in which I, this monument, am dedicated. Your sense of loss and disappointment, of frustrated hopes and grief at your own inadequacy, elevate you to serious company. Do not ignore or throw away your grief.

We can see a great deal of artistic achievement as ‘sublimated’ sorrow on the part of the artist, and in turn, in its reception, on the part of the audience. The term sublimation derives from chemistry. It names the process by which a solid substance is directly transformed into a gas, without first becoming liquid. In art, sublimation refers to the psychological process of transformation, in which, base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine – exactly what may happen when sorrow meets art.

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