Art to inspire: Ali Smith, Alain de Botton and others on the works they love

Untitled (c1995) by Etel Adnan.
Adnan is now in her early 90s, but her art remains among the best work being created in the world today’ … Untitled (c1995) by Etel Adnan. Photograph: Michel Nguyen/Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut

Got the January blues? To kick off a series dedicated to culture that can uplift us in 2017, six writers and creators from the worlds of music, philosophy, fiction and art choose the works they can rely on to replenish their energy for life

Gilles stands there in his bright white clown suit wearing shoes with pink ribbons. He’s looking ahead, not smiling, but not running away either. He has a job to do, a life to live, a person to be. And, whatever he may be feeling inside, he presents himself to the world, ready for whatever life is about to throw at him, with his straw hat tilted back, hands at his sides. There he is, an ordinary hero, in the moment before the rotten eggs hit his spotless suit.

I call him Gilles, the name by which he has long been known, although the Louvre, which owns this painting by Antoine Watteau, now simply calls it Pierrot, the clownish character from the Commedia dell’arte. Other characters from this stylised form of Italian theatre gather behind Gilles, who is raised on a kind of earthen stage. It adds to the sense that Gilles is on his own, separated from the crowd by his sensitivity and self-consciousness.

If you want inspirational art, I could show you paintings that call for revolution, or promise a new heaven and a new earth, or even raise the dead. If you want a utopia, try Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, the spiralling, Tower of Babel-like structure he unveiled in 1920 to symbolise revolutionary hope. Or there are Christian visions of renewal and eternal life such as Mattias Grunewald’s Resurrection, with its revelatory burst of colour that looks both psychedelic and somehow psychotic. And for the ultimate image of success against all the odds, there is Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus.

Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, by Antoine Watteau.
An ordinary hero … Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, by Antoine Watteau. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

Yet I find art’s more extreme images of belief and hope not so much inspiring as terrifying. Gilles moves me precisely because he is not a zealot, nor a warrior on horseback, nor a martyr dying in agony, nor any of the other images of murder and suicide that have been offered as “inspirations” by artists in the service of state or church. He is just a person trying to be himself, whoever that is, and his delicate mixture of placidity and soulfulness, confusion and calm, is an image of how to be human in the actual world we inhabit with all its mystery, play-acting and comedy.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a song, a film, a poem or a painting. All works of art have the power – if they are soulful or profound or just very funny – to fill you with energy, optimism, hope and zest. Aristotle, the first person to think seriously about art’s purpose, claimed that watching a tragedy was a “cleansing”, a catharsis that purified your soul. So seeing the stage covered in bodies at the end of Hamlet is the best emotional detox you can have.

This is what makes art so much more valuable than some inspirational video or self-help book. It does not feed us fake remedies for life’s ills. Instead, it speaks to our innermost selves in a way we recognise as true. What it tells us is that other people feel like we do, that we are not alone. “He was despised and rejected of men,” goes the line in Handel’s Messiah, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” It is one of the most inspiring of all musical uplifts – and it works by accepting and transcending pain, rather than denying it. All kinds of art can provide the inspiration we need, and it is a sustenance like no other. It might be Leonard Cohen’s singing about tea and oranges in Suzanne. It might be the catharsis of Ramsay the sadist getting eaten by his own dogs in Game of Thrones. Or it might be a rococo painting of an introspective clown.

Watteau did not paint this oddly inspiring image by chance. It reflects his belief that clowns and lovers are the true heroes of life. This spectacularly gifted artist was born in 1684 in the France of Louis XIV. His early paintings are sombre records of the suffering caused by the wars The Sun King fought to assert his glory. The art favoured by Louis was grandiose and serious. Watteau led a rebellion against this pomp, creating a fantasy world that is the opposite of pious or militaristic. Instead of battles, he depicted picnics: his art says life is meant to be enjoyed. In this, Watteau looked ahead to the 18th century and the Enlightenment, which rejected religion and put its faith in science and reason.

In 1776, the ideals of the Enlightenment were enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, entitling everyone to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Watteau was dead by then, but his paintings of young men and women seducing each other in sensually soft woodlands are manifestos for these rights.

He even painted a utopia, to stand against all art’s Last Judgments. The Embarkation for Cythera shows the start of a pilgrimage of love. On a green shore fluffed by delicate foliage, lovers holding flowery staffs are pairing off and heading for a boat to take them to the island of the sex god Venus. These pilgrims do not worship God, and the sea in the background is like a lake of perfume, swathed in clouds of candy-floss mist. If you know what life is worth, Watteau is saying, you will look for heaven on earth. Gilles may not be much of a fighter, but he stands up for one thing: his right to be himself.

‘This taught me to value the everyday’

Philosopher Alain de Botton on Chardin’s Woman Taking Tea

Woman Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.
Art can show us the merit of life as we are forced to lead it. … Woman Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Photograph: Bridgeman

If images in advertising carry a lot of the blame for instilling a kind of sickness in our souls, then the work created by artists can reconcile us with reality and reawaken us to the genuine – but too easily forgotten – value of our lives. Consider Chardin’s painting Woman Taking Tea. The sitter’s dress might be a bit more elaborate than is normal today, but the painted table, teapot, chair, spoon and cup could all be picked up at a flea market. The room is studiously plain. And yet the picture is glamorous – it makes this ordinary occasion and the simple furnishings seductive. It invites the beholder to go home and create their own live version. The glamour is not a false sheen that pretends something lovely is going on when it isn’t. Chardin recognises the worth of a modest moment and marshals his genius to bring its qualities to our notice…



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