Art is not mere entertainment. Alongside philosophy
and religion, it has been humanity’s chief
source of consolation. It is what we should
turn to in our very worst moments.
Here are seven of the most calming works of
art ever produced.
We are very poor at retaining perspective.
Art can help by carrying us out of present
circumstances and reframing events against
a more imposing or vast backdrop.
This is a move being made by the Japanese
photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto through his
gigantic empty photographs of the Atlantic
ocean in a variety of moods. What is most
notable in these sublime scenes is that humanity
is nowhere in the frame. We are afforded a
glimpse of what the planet looked like before
the first creatures emerged from the seas.
Viewed against such an immemorial scene, the
precise discontents of our times matter ever
so slightly less. We regain composure not
by being made to feel more important, but
by being reminded of the miniscule and momentary
nature of everyone and everything.
In Ansel Adams’s photograph, a row of aspens
have been surprised by the photographer’s
light and stand out as strands of silver against
the blackness of night. The mood is sombre,
but elegant. There is a consoling message
within the artistry that can appease our raw
grief and anxiety about our mortality and
the fleetingness of time. The image invites
us to see ourselves as part of the mesmerising
spectacle of nature. Nature’s rules apply
to us as much as they do to the trees of the
forest. It’s not personal.
Leaves always wither and fall. Autumn necessarily
follows from spring and summer. The photograph
is a reframe device. It invites us to think
of our own deaths, is having a natural order,
nothing to do with individual justice . The
photograph tries to take the personal stink
out of what is happening to us.
- Ludolf Bakhuysen, Warships in a Heavy Storm,
In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a
tradition of painting that depicted ships
in violent storms. These works, which hung
in private homes and in municipal buildings
around the Dutch republic, had an explicitly
therapeutic purpose to them: they were delivering
a moral to their viewers, who lived in a nation
critically dependent on maritime trade, a
message about confidence in seafaring and
life more broadly. The sight of a tall sailing
ship being tossed to a twenty degree angle
in a rough sea looks – to an inexperienced
person – like a catastrophe. But there are
many situations that look and feel much more
dangerous than they really are, especially
when the crew is prepared and the ship internally
Bakhuysen’s Warships in a Heavy Storm looks
chaotic in the extreme: how could the people
in the picture possibly survive? But the ships
were well-designed for just such situations.
Their hulls had been minutely adapted through
long experience to withstand the tempests
of the northern oceans. Bakhuysen wanted us
to feel proud of humanity’s resilience in
the face of apparently dreadful challenges.
His painting enthuses us with the message
that we can all cope far better than we think;
what appears immensely threatening may be
The highest selling postcard of art in France
is Poppies by Claude Monet.
Sophisticated people could be tempted to scorn.
They are afraid that such enthusiasms might
be evidence of a failure to acknowledge or
understand the awful dimensions of the world.
But there is another way to interpret this
taste of pretty things: that it doesn’t
arise from an unfamiliarity with suffering,
but from an all too close and pervasive involvement
with it – from which we are impelled occasionally
to seek relief if we are not to fall into
despair. Far from naivety, it is precisely
the background of suffering that lends such
beauty and dignity to this work of art. Claude
Monet hasn’t just made a pretty picture;
he has bottled hope.
Caspar David Friedrich shows us a striking,
jagged rock formation, a spare stretch of
coast, the bright horizon, far away clouds
and a pale sky, all carefully designed to
induce us into a mood.
The picture does not refer directly to the
stresses of our day to day lives. Its function
is to give us access to a state of mind in
which we are acutely conscious of the largeness
of time and space. The work is sombre, but
not despairing. And in that condition of mind,
we are left, as so often with works of art,
better equipped to deal with the intense,
intractable and particular griefs that lie
The Japanese have an artistic tradition, known
as kintsugi, wherein the broken pieces of
an accidentally-smashed pot are carefully
picked up, reassembled and then glued together
with lacquer inflected with a luxuriant gold
powder – to create a beautiful ode to the
art of repair. In kintsugi, there is no attempt
to disguise the damage, the point is to render
the fault-lines obvious and elegant. The precious
veins of gold are there to emphasise that
things falling apart isn’t unexpected or
panic-inducing: it creates an opportunity
for us to mend – and mend redemptively.
‘Fernando Pessoa’ is a beautifully dark monumental
work by Richard Serra, named after a Portuguese
poet with a turn for lamentation.
The work does not tell us to cheer up or point
us in a brighter direction (what people often
do when we tell them our troubles). The large
scale and monumental character of this intensely
sombre sculpture implicitly declares the normality
and universality of difficulty. It is confident
that we will recognise the legitimate place
of solemn emotions in an ordinary life. Rather
than leaving us alone with our darker moods,
the work proclaims them as central features
of life. In its stark gravity, Richard Serra’s
‘Fernando Pessoa’ creates a dignified home
Too many books have been written trying to
explain what art might be for. In moments
of great crisis, the answer becomes only too
obvious: art is there to help keep us alive.
Our book, “What is Culture for?” , helps us find passion, hope and perspective in the arts.