Alain de Botton on How Art Can Open Our Eyes & Help Us Appreciate More Deeply

Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others?  Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco?  British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels.  The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms.  A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.

In many ways, artists help us see more clearly.  Different artists are guides to different things.  Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies.  Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen.  But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.

In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply.  At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees.  Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”

It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings.  Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.

Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence.  One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses.  Why had he never noticed them?  And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?

Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation.  Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape.  In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them.  The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk.  And the green has such a quality of distinction.  It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”

Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century.  His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely.  With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony.  Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it.  With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.”

Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape.  In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:

“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white.  At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate.  With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”

In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns.  Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.”  “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.”  Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity.  Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s.  He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England.  But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant.  “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat.  The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky.  Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”

All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist.  More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice.  In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers.  But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious.

Alain de Botton on How to Overcome the Boredom of Sightseeing

Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality.  Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies.  We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe.  As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche.  With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.

Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality.  Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy.  In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels.  And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.

Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy.  In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting.  Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring.  Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers.  And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.

No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton.  In his indispensable volume The Art of Travel, which explained why we travel and how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad.  After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing.  But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments.  His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness.  How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?

Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city.  As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.”  Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity.  De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary.  After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements?  As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve.  There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing.  There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco—  but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”

Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring.  Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city.  Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame.  Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas).  Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.

De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.”  No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning.  Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally.  What can it teach us about how to live?  How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience?  We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive.  As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'”  From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.

Lesson?  For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it.  Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.

There’s Always a Plane Taking Off Somewhere: Alain de Botton on the Airplane as a Symbol of Hope & Possibility

No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread.  To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines.  If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself.  Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules.  As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors.  Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart.  Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us.  When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport.  “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves.  Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.

We eventually arrive.  Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time.  If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board.  With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours.  To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones.  When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope.  In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.

Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are.  Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow.  But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people.  The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds.  In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable.  If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef.  Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business.  Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten.  Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:

“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure.  Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul.  Warsaw, Seattle, Rio.  The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’  The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names.  How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”

Alain de Botton on How Traveling to New Places Can Inspire New Thoughts

Why travel?  The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting.  The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV.  The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting.  Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany?  What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places?  Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning?  Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?

In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently.  Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being.  At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages.  Travel makes us realize we can change our lives.  Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over.  On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados.  As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”

Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell?  how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill?  what should we make for tonight’s dinner?  why hasn’t our package arrived yet?  did it get lost in the mail?

We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale.  A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes.  “How can my husband not wash his dish right away?  He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him.  He’s a selfish pig!”  If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.

But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective.  In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist.  As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.

Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion.  In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting.  We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck.  Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor?  If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner?   A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill.  At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.

In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual.  Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one.  “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit.  Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places.  Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.

“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket.  The destination we select should remedy our affliction.  If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet.  On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon.  Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts.  How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?

In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves.  In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.” 

Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm.  With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle.  Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world?  What do we imagine is our purpose in life?  What have we always wanted to do?  Learn Italian or do the tango?  Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.

With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking.  Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying?  Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality.  In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate.  Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets.  A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing.  So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.

Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go.  Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels.  The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.