Despair and the solace of art

What do we want?

To get rich maybe. A homeowner, apparently. A parent, possibly. A collector of experiences rather than things. A collector of things rather than experiences. People long for a wild and beautiful life, or a cozy winter life, or a little peace, a Corgi, or perhaps a return to the entertainment technology of their youth, CDs or jazzy Mac desktops. We live in a world without style, we think.

But it seems that few people get even a fraction of what they want in these dark times. They certainly complain about it.

The curse of the modern age, the online personal essay is a cheap filler for publishers. The most common theme of these awkward bottled messages is despair.

Despair can include shame, perhaps a childhood central wound, an ongoing question of identity, the immigrant’s alleged misfortune, a never-forgotten small remark, an attempt at revenge, the death of love or a loved one. The essays are rarely well written, but their emotions are universal. These writers cry out for help.

In 2008, writer Alain de Botton helped set up what he called The School of Life to help people better cope with the life they had, rather than the life they wanted or were told.

It offers many things: emotional education, classes, online psychotherapy, and most importantly, books, the latest being “Art Against Despair.” Intended as a small wearable art museum to help afflicted readers, it features nearly 100 works of art—inexplicably nearly all by men—with short essays suggesting what each could learn about human pain.

In 1947 Henri Cartier-Bresson chanced upon a balding man in a Brooklyn cafe one evening with his head down on the table, his hat upside down next to him. Perhaps he had left the house hopeful that morning. Instead, the day crushed him. His head hit hard on the table.

No one noticed except Cartier-Bresson, who photographed him with tenderness, and in 2022, we’ll study and feel this man’s post-war misery again. We are less alone.

There is a painting by Gwen John of her room at 87 rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris in 1909. It contains a chair, an umbrella, a table by the window and a few flowers. Light flows in. She has painted this scene many times.

In the 17th century, the philosopher Blaise Pascal lived a few blocks from John’s flat. As the essay points out, Pascal wrote, “All man’s misfortunes arise from his inability to remain alone in his room.” John got it right. Perhaps loneliness is a gift, although no one dares to say it out loud.

And then there’s ‘Cakes’ by the American artist Wayne Thiebaud from 1963. The essay claims that we will think of cakes on our deathbed. The critic Adam Gopnik says no, it’s not a pie at all, but “desire and disappointment, a great American subject, perhaps the greatest.”

Another critic says the paint itself is “rich and smooth,” as is glaze, which Thiebaud called “object transfer.” Thiebaud called the cakes “a ritual preoccupation,” heavily processed rather than raw, like the American approach to food.

At the time, figurative art was ridiculed and out of fashion. Still, Thiebaud, who died last year at the age of 101, continued to make it, believing that the visual and tactile world was crucial to human understanding. And now it’s back, for the most part.

“Art Against Despair” repeatedly urges the reader to look closely at art, at your despair. Maybe you’re crying face down in a Toronto Union Station cafe or you’re out of work in the bleak Medicine Hat. Maybe you live alone and it crushes you. But maybe when you look at John’s small, simple, sunlit room, you feel your soul expand.

And, of course, you may not want any cake at all. It’s good to know it’s there, but of course you can’t eat all the cakes. You would be sick. In despair.

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