There is often a trauma, then, to encounters with great art, one that de Botton ignores. Trauma helps us remember and appreciate, and so it is that, through trauma, we bring art along with us as life’s best metaphor. This trauma is represented in our culture by the traditional imperatives of education, the ultimate front-door approach. And this is why contemporary students and, increasingly, teachers resist that tradition and its more onerous aspects: a Modernist poem that takes many readings to understand; a dauntingly long novel; a Conceptualist gesture requiring a considerable think-through; three hours at a museum without food, drink or distraction. These are different traumas than the ones de Botton proposes, i.e., keeping in mind your electricity bills, hesitancies to vote, or spousal bed-death while in the presence of the Old Masters. (We might compare de Botton’s approach with the woeful trend of teachers asking students to journal their responses to art and leaving it at that, instead of shepherding them through the complexities of works that may only relate to their lives abstractly.) These traumas are effort-based and, then, psychological. They are alien encounters, and many people cannot be bothered to have them, because they are frequently not initially fun. Through persistent curiosity, however, they can become beautiful and terrifying: something you thought had nothing to do with you grabs you by the throat, and enters you.
This experience of art is rare, mysterious and fundamentally un-genteel. It is completely divorced from the everyday, present in the quiet mundane of existence like a scar underneath a shirt. Being exposed to ways of life that are ostensibly inaccessible, to elevated ways of thinking we will never encounter in real life, to stylized images that appear foreign because they are—this is not pleasant, nice or even useful. But it all eventually makes a strange home. Moving backwards from one of de Botton’s favourite Greek philosophers, Aristotle, to Socrates, it represents a uniquely human desire to live the examined life.
In the museum, a space with similarities to the casino or the bathhouse, one struggles to sense time passing or to distinguish day from night. It is a dream space. This is why its edifications and transformations occur.