An art of gold: against ‘smart thinking’

There are too many people trying to tell us what the arts mean.

The idea that art should be for art’s sake: a ridiculous idea. The idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble and should not try and DO anything with this troubled world! I couldn’t disagree more … Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society, art should be didactic.

Alain de Botton argues that the legacy of the ‘art for art’s sake’ movement is alive today, discernible in the attitudes of museum and gallery curators. Curators are regrettably reluctant, he says, to get in there and tell the public what paintings mean.

De Botton is treading on dangerous territory: the use of art by authoritarian regimes to ‘teach us how we should live’ (a phrase de Botton uses beamingly, assured of the rightness of his project) haunts the leftist imagination like a Stalinist spectre. We are rightfully suspicious of anyone who seems too eager to point to a Titian and tell us how it should make us feel.

Perhaps we could overlook this if the spirit of de Botton’s teachings (his captions are now affixed to paintings at the NGV and the Rijksmuseum) was a bit more feisty. But his interpretations tend to encourage complacency: readers are told to show patience, and to bear burdens with grace. As Terry Eagleton quipped, de Botton invites us ‘to contemplate St Joseph in order to learn “how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper.” Not even the Walmart management have thought of that one.’

In other words, de Botton’s project seems to be to resign the disappointed sections of society to their fate (he has spoken of ‘the advantages of pessimism’). Is this a worthwhile mission? There is a strand of revolutionary thought that argues the petit-bourgeois concerns he addresses are best left to fester.

If the prospect of an unpleasant workplace culture sparking new waves of social change seems to you to overstate current problems, consider this: it’s not just art and the 8-hour work day that are overseen by corporations anymore. Frederic Jameson’s images of global capitalism sneaking its tentacles into the final frontiers of life – from the targeted ads next to your private email messages, to the Chinese workshop products filling everything from supermarkets shelves to stuffed-toy prize mountains at fun parks – are more relevant than ever. Theories of creativity – the very concept of what it means to be creative – are being colonised and commodified at increasing rates.

Take the ‘smart thinking’ genre, which has popularised the work of academics like Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman. Consider the case of Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Lehrer’s book argues that artists have consistently preempted scientific findings:

We now know that Proust was right about memory, Cezanne was uncannily accurate about the visual cortex, Stein anticipated Chomsky, and Woolf pierced the mystery of consciousness; modern neuroscience has confirmed these artistic intuitions.

The idea is very beautiful, and I can see why the book sold well. Lehrer elevates the status of creativity to something almost divine, suggesting that – just by following their inspirations –  Cezanne and Proust were able to see in an instant what scientists took years to discover.

Lehrer’s idea may be beautiful but it’s wrong and he cuts many corners to make his case: he mangles and misattributes quotes, and invents lengthy anecdotes about historical figures. And the implications of the idea are just as grim as Lehrer’s methods: his thesis demotes the status of the scientific method, suggesting that there are alternative (actually, quicker!) routes to making discoveries about, say, physics. All you need to do is think hard and wait for the creative muse to pay you a visit.

Needless to say, this is a dangerous idea to promote – but from the point of view of the publisher, Lehrer’s success speaks for itself. Before the scandal about his exaggerations broke out, he was one of the golden children of smart thinking, delighting both credulous readers and greedy publishers, and filling his own wallet.

The intentions of TED – the chirpy video site, favoured by busy, educated people – are likewise predictable: the goal is to sell books and fill coffers by any irresponsible means necessary. Speakers promise great rewards after you unlock your creativity, often focusing on career advancement (as if innovative employees are what managers want to see). The talks are notorious for their distortions: academic research is simpified, and the conclusions are often downright misleading. The whole smart thinking genre, which tries to package academic findings for popular consumption, seems like a rather cynical exercise: an attempt to cash in on people’s interest in creativity.

At a time when a collective illusion about freelance money-making (especially internet money-making) has taken hold, and creative writing programs churn out politically apathetic graduates, the last thing we need is more creativity ‘experts’ fanning all the wrong sorts of enthusiasms. There is not that much scope to cash in on your creativity, as most freelance writers and artists are painfully aware. As for the corporate environment: do managers really want creativity? Do bosses want workers to show initiative? Generally not. They want employees to do as they are told: no more, and no less. Your extra work is unlikely to be rewarded and in some cases might even get you fired.

To understand the nature of institutions, Frederic Jameson proposed, one must look at their effects. What are they doing? What ‘problems’ are they being asked to solve? Why do they come into being and then disappear once their purpose has been served?

The illusion that there is space to show creativity at work is a helpful one for companies to promote. The drudgery and exploitative character of much office work is glossed over, and responsibility packed onto the shoulders of employees: if you are not advancing it’s because you are simply not working hard enough and not showing enough creativity. The new rhetoric also allows business leaders – those billionaires who give Ted talks – to coopt and claim the language of creativity. We are asked to believe that they rule the world because they possess the same qualities as Yeats or Poe.

The Left should resist this colonisation of the arts and creativity and the new breed of speakers trying to mislead audiences, to appeal to aspirations that are usually doomed from the beginning. We do not need Alain de Botton in galleries telling us which paintings we should appreciate, and what elements should make us swoon. In the words of Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz:

You think that you are getting close to art voluntarily, enticed by its beauty… In truth, a hand has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck, has led you to this painting and has thrown you to your knees. A will mightier than your own told you to experience the appropriate emotions.

Let us not be thrown to our knees by the likes of TED, Jonah Lehrer and Alain de Botton.

Sandra Hayda

Sandra Hayda’s work has appeared in Killings, Lip Mag, Clash Magazine, Interpreter, Idiom 23 and Pickled Politics.

More by Sandra Hayda ›

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  1. Yes, de Botton’s ‘The News’ is a lemon for sure, and him discussing it makes it no better, but the place of revolutionary art within social upheaval is worth debating still, and I’m not quite sure or all that confident about didacticism when it comes to art (what does it mean even?) as it seems to be a coverall for so many ills.


    When I was researching this piece I read the Poe essay where he rages against didacticism (mentioned here). Poe mainly talks about poets and argues that they should not compose with a moral message in mind because it makes the writing flat and unappealing. Alain de Botton is obviously saying something a bit different, he wants museums and curators to take on the didactic task, sort of imbuing other peoples work with moral content. It’s an interesting issue.

  3. A highly cynical perspective, in itself.

    Alain De Botton does tread a fine line between genius and tosh, but usually with aim of bringing high minded academics down to the level of the lay person. This is to be commended. Why do you need a degree in art history to appreciate art? He might not be feisty enough but it seems like a good thing to attempt to help people get interested in a rich culture that to many often seems abstract. De Botton’s interpretations are his, but should help others to think about the art in question.

    Admittedly Lehrer’s ideas must largely be conjecture, taking noise for signal, and his fall is well documented; and as pointed out by another commenter, Gladwell is a journalist, and one who has used other’s academic research, not all of which was to the research’ s benefit – his interpretation of the 10,000 hour rule is different from the psychologists who actually did the research. However it is exceedingly unfair to taint Kahneman with the same brush. He is one of the most respected psychologists of the recent era, whose work is grounded in research and experimentation. This doesn’t of course mean that he is right, but it does give his ideas somewhat more validity than Gladwell’s or Lehrers.

    The commodification of creativity is perhaps to be lamented, but in an educational climate that tends to suppress creativity it seems like a good to promote it.

    TED is becoming more commercial but in 20mins, simplification of ideas is necessary – one shouldn’t view them as an end points but a starting point for the viewers further inquires. My main contention however is that these views and opinions are little supported by anything factual – admittedly this article is labelled “polemic”.

    Nonetheless this an interesting perspective.

    1. I agree that Kahneman’s work is interesting and Thinking, Fast and Slow was good. I didn’t say otherwise, I just said that he is one of the authors in the ‘smart thinking’ genre (he’s usually lumped in) when I introduced it. This piece is critical of smart thinking so I suppose you could argue I ‘tainted Kahneman with the same brush’ as Lehrer. Is that a stretch, though? Not sure. I agree that Kahneman is one of the good ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to cite his work for dubious purposes in a future smart thinking title. I think the genre and the exaggerations it encourages are problematic. I’m a fan of Kahneman. I’d also say that there is a difference between ‘simplification’ and ‘over-simplification’ of ideas and Lehrer and Gladwell are great case studies

      The Gladwell correction (not an academic) is really important, thank you. I originally wrote that smart thinking popularises the work of ‘people’ like Gladwell and Kahneman then I changed it to ‘academics’ and forgot to fob Gladwell off and replace him with someone else.

  4. Taleb – is he one of the good ones? – has remarked that there is trouble these days with academics trying to be journalists and journalists trying to be academics. Perhaps the latter particularly is part of the problem. I can certainly understand why you take issue with Lehrer especially, although I am not directly familiar with his work – which is probably a good thing. Glad we are in agreement over Kahneman; perhaps my misreading and the fact he was mentioned in the same breath as Gladwell got him “tainted”…


    Haven’t read Black Swan but my husband says it’s excellent 🙂 He is a maths grad (as am I) so he should know. Taleb’s comment sounds right on. Also now that I think about it the word ‘taint’ is gentle enough that I can understand why you’d apply it to what I did. Just slotting Kahneman’s name into a piece that is so critical of this genre could be called a ‘taint’, though I definitely wasn’t criticising him.

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