Art has always had a very close relationship with religion. Either art had overtly religious themes, taking stories from the Bible or classical myth; or it was used for mystical purposes, as altarpieces and devotional relics; or it was, in some way, an expression of “the spiritual quest,” as Camille Paglia has put it. (Gauguin captured the questions art asks and seeks to answer in the title of his famous painting of Tahitian women: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) Though we live in an age in which religion has been increasingly pushed out of public life, art itself continues to be a source of transcendent meaning for many people. Two new influential books, The Goldfinch and Art as Therapy, illustrate the role art plays in an irreligious age—and each comes to different conclusions about why art matters.

Several months after its publication, Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch continues to sit on top of the fiction bestseller list, and with good reason. On the surface, it is a Dickensian tale full of interesting and compelling characters. And there is a deeper reason why the novel has resonated so strongly with the public. Unlike many of the works of fiction released today, Tartt’s novel is traditional in many senses, especially and most importantly in its themes. The salvation of a lost soul, the redemptive power of beauty, and the search for meaning and order in a fallen world are all brought to life in the story she tells about Theodore Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy whose life plunges into chaos when his mother dies in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eventually, Theo’s deadbeat dad meets his end too, leaving the boy orphaned, lonely, and helpless in a hostile and disordered world. Over the ten years that we follow him, Theo aimlessly moves through life with nothing much to live for—nothing, that is, except a small, enigmatic painting of a goldfinch by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius that, through a strange twist of fate, Theo has in his possession.

The story begins as Theo and his mother are on their way to his Manhattan school for a disciplinary meeting. When it starts raining, they seek refuge in the museum and Theo’s mother—who, we learn, is an art lover who would have received her doctorate in art history had she not married Theo’s father—takes her son to see a show of Dutch masters. In the confusion that follows the blast, Theo searches through the dust and debris for her body when a dying elderly man, whose identity later becomes important, implores the boy to save the precious Fabritius painting, a mysterious work thought to be the “missing link” between Vermeer and Rembrandt.

Theo, in a daze and not realizing he is about to commit a major crime, leaves the museum with the painting in hand and returns to his apartment where, he hopes, his mother will also return to meet him. It is not to be. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” Theo says early on in the book. “As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.”

As the story unfolds over nearly 800 pages, Theo’s life goes from bad to worse. He becomes an alcoholic and a drug-addict. He lies and cheats. He falls into and out of suicidal despair. But the painting remains as a constant source of comfort for him. There are certain images, we learn in the novel, “that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find.” For Theo, “The Goldfinch” becomes such an image. It pulls him back from the edge of the abyss. Theo guards his object of beauty—this final connection to his mother, this one authentic source of meaning in his life, this symbol of hope—obsessively. But the painting, like Theo, undergoes its own harrowing journey. Theo eventually loses it, a tragedy of existential significance: “Intentionally or no: I had extinguished a light at the heart of the world.”

“For humans—trapped in biology—there was no mercy.”

With the work of art gone, Theo’s fragile hold on life starts to slip. Tangled up with Russian mobsters, implicated in murder, guilty of art theft, withdrawing from drugs in an Amsterdam hotel room (it’s a long story), and separated from the painting, Theo’s life has bottomed out. “For humans—trapped in biology—there was no mercy,” he says in this beleaguered state. “We lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage. . . . But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing,” he says of the painting, “to break bonds stronger than the temporal—was a metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.” Theo decides to kill himself. It is Christmas Eve.

But that very night, he dreams of his mother for the first time in years. The dream is not just a dream. It is a mystical vision, “a flame leaping up in a dark room,” he says. “It was a gift,” Theo explains, “and if she had only one visit, if that’s all they allowed her, she saved it for when it mattered.” He wakes up on Christmas Day with the “sweetness of the dream washing quietly” about him. Though his depression lingers on, the urgent need to end his life subsides. He has been, one could say, resurrected. As for the painting, it too finds its way to safety.

The Goldfinch is a novel well-suited to our modern age. Theo is alienated from those things that make life worth living for most people. He does not have a family. He does not have a home or a community. He has no religion, no belief, it seems, in God. But he has art. “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important,” he says, “whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.”

Throughout the novel, Theo tries his best to understand the deeper significance of The Goldfinch. What are its origins? Why was Fabritius moved to paint the bird? Why is this image so emotionally evocative? What does it mean? Theo reaches and reaches for the higher truth to which it points, but it’s not clear that he fully grasps its essence. He doesn’t seem to realize, for example, that goldfinches are, as the novel’s Roman Catholic author surely knows, a symbol of Jesus and his resurrection—the triumph of good over evil, the promise of everlasting life. The painting’s return to safety similarly promises Theo a hint of immortality against the specter of death that inserts itself again and again into his life: “Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality.”

Art as Therapy is another new work, one of critical non-fiction, that addresses the role art plays in a secular culture. In the handsomely designed oversized book, full of beautiful reproductions of artistic masterpieces, the art historian John Armstrong and the bestselling author of Religion for Atheists,Alain de Botton, argue that art’s chief function is to serve as a guide for how people should live their lives. Like Tartt, they believe art plays an important role in our culture—and, specifically, that art should serve the role religion once played in human life: as a guide to living well. But unlike Tartt, they strip the transcendental element away from art. The folly of their approach becomes clear. To the authors, art amounts to little more than self-help.

They argue that art’s purpose is to “offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life.” They write that the consequence of this view is “the conviction that the main point of engaging with art is to help us lead better lives—to access better versions of ourselves.” Art is a “tool,” they say, to “correct or compensate for a range of psychological frailties,” including our poor memories, our lack of self-awareness, and our tendency to lose hope. How can art help us overcome grief and sorrow? A broken heart? How can it make us more sensitive? “A work can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on how well it caters to our inner needs,” they write. “The challenge is to rewrite the agenda for commissioning so that art can start serving our psychological needs as effectively as it served those of theology of state ideologies for centuries.”

Engaging with art, in other words, becomes an act of self-obsession.

One of the most radical suggestions in Art as Therapy is to redesign museums so that works are not arranged historically or regionally, but by emotional topics. Rather than dividing a museum into sections of Greek and Roman art and European painting, there should be galleries of “suffering,” “compassion,” “self-knowledge,” “fear,” and “love.” But to experience art in the way Armstrong and de Botton say we should is to turn inward, to focus on healing ourselves, to concentrate on our personal goals and desires. Engaging with art, in other words, becomes an act of self-obsession. Their caption to a painting from Picasso’s “Las Meninas” series (1957) captures the mood of the book: “Remake it to suit your needs.”

Art as Therapy has exerted some influence in the wider culture. It was the subject of a lecture delivered by de Botton at the Frick Collection, one of New York’s finest institutions of art. At his talk, he criticized the curation saying, “Right now, in this city, where people are worried about jobs and money and getting on, we don’t need an art-history lesson about this painting.” Rather, “We need something to get the ideas flowing.”

“Remake it to suit your needs.”

A two-dimensional perspective on art works for a two-dimensional world in which jobs and money are the chief concerns. But most people do not want solely to live in such a world, which is why they turn to art for meaning, for transcendence. “To transcend” means to go beyond, to break the barrier between the profane and often dreary world of day-to-day living into a higher, truer, and more beautiful reality that adds depth to our lives. Yes, art can teach us about ourselves and the lives we want to live, but it also helps us understand and make sense of the bigger world we all inhabit together—a world that exists, has existed, and will continue to exist long after we are gone, a world full of mystery and beauty, a world that “an art-history lesson” can help us understand. To reduce art to a solely therapeutic function blinds us to the higher reality that art can reveal to us all.

To T. S. Eliot, those who substitute art for religion try to “preserve emotions without the beliefs with which their history has been involved.” (On this point, be sure to read Roger Kimball’s forthcoming essay on art and religion in the Portsmouth Review). There is no capital-R religion in Theo’s life, but The Goldfinch is a very religious novel in its recognition of our need for transcendence, specifically the kind of genuine transcendence provided by art or beatific love as opposed to the counterfeit sort offered by drugs or even beauty by itself. “The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap,” Theo learns by the end of the story, “a fast track to bitterness and sorrow.” In order for art to be spiritually restorative, he explains, it “has to be wedded to something more meaningful.” Theo, for all his faults and frailties, understood the transcendent function of art that eludes Armstrong and de Botton. Whatever emotions Theo experiences in the presence of The Goldfinch, they point to more, even if he cannot articulate what precisely that more is.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 8, on page 79
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