Can Art Make Us Happy?

Last month, a collective gathered at the Institute of Contemporary Art to discuss whether or not Art can make us happy in this time of socio-economic gloom and if it can provide the imaginative space needed to make us feel better. The panel included the Panacea artists Neil Bromwich, Zoe Walker and Michael Pinsky whose collaborative project explores the notion of artwork as a social cure-all, Nicolas Bourriaud a curator at the Tate, the deputy director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Sian Ede and the editor Jane Wernick.
Sian Ede suggested the pursuit of happiness is an American way of life, where one desires a constant state of guaranteed happiness and due to America’s involvement in several world activities which have not proved as fruitful as they would have liked this dream has been made slightly more difficult in the 20/21st century. Many artists do not set out to make their audience happy and the very few that try to struggle. Here she cited the Hayward Gallery “Laughing in a Foreign Language” exhibition last year which was supposed to explore the role of humour and laughter in contemporary art but instead led to many straight faces and unimpressive reviews.
The Panacea collective, who have managed to pull off several rather interesting projects, including a floating plastic iceberg hot tub, intend to cure social, political and economic problems. The hot tub project proved successful in this mission as all the trialists who were randomly selected to grace the floating iceberg hot tub were impressed and achieved a sense of happiness in their experience. However, most probably this sense of elation was due to the fact that this was a free offering to spend some time in a hot tub. One does not envisage the project would have enjoyed the same success if there was a charge to enter the hot tub, which is clearly what will happen once a firm decides to snap them up, and they will undoubtedly not go for cheap either.

Jane Wernick, editor of Building Happiness; Architecture to make you smile, hinted that whilst gross domestic product was up, happiness is still flat and wonders if it is at all achievable. Being a structural engineer, she suggested when designing schools, libraries and other institutions, it is imperative to incorporate break-up spaces where people can randomly bump into each other and stop for a brief conversation which usually makes each of the individuals happy. She also agreed along with the panel after an audience member’s suggestion that self expression is far too prominent in modern art and may perhaps be a reason for art not making the audience happy.
Essentially, it is also rather difficult to measure and evaluate the level of happiness after viewing art or architecture.
Nicolas Bourriaud was adamant individuals always have a personal battle with the artist and the art work when viewing. During the potential individual experience of happiness in front of art we often read too much in to it thus losing the spur of the moment happiness within seconds of discovering it. Builders and architects, Bourriaud suggested, should be regarded highly as their job involves building places where we go in search of a more prolonged happiness and they therefore have a rather important role to play in our lives and general happiness. Bourriaud further commented that purchasing art for yourself whether in the form of a nice ceramic bowl or a painting tends to make us happy as one sees it nearly everyday and expect visitors that notice it to appreciate it just as much as you do.
The panel agreed that perhaps the problem lies with the critical eye of the viewer, who instead should appreciate the effort put in to an art work rather than whether it makes them happy or not. Perhaps this selfish struggle for happiness and its constant evaluation is what diminishes it in the first place. Art may struggle to make us happy but like Narcissus, Pygmalion, Aphrodite and Helen of troy, the philosophy of beauty/art and happiness always led to tragedy so one should not analyze it to such an extent that it disappears whilst still in front of our eyes.

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