As his book’s title implies, Alain de Botton is deeply concerned with travel’s relationship to art, both literary and visual, as well as aesthetic experience more broadly. Artists and writers are de Botton’s traveling companions throughout this book, because he thinks that their travels (and those of the characters they have created) can offer contemporary tourists valuable insight into the places they visit and, more importantly, the how and why of traveling. He thinks not only about the process of traveling as a form of art, but also about art that depicts and influences travel. Art and travel are ultimately deeply similar because both fundamentally hinge on the relationship between the subjective observer and the objective world, and as such their value relies on an individual’s aesthetic sensibilities. Ultimately, de Botton suggests that aesthetic experiences—like those that inspire and emerge from both art and travel—play a core role in human happiness.
Art inspires travel and travel inspires art. Throughout the book, de Botton travels in response to art and literature (in addition to using such works to interpret his own travel experiences). A photograph inspires him to travel to Barbados, William Wordsworth’s poems lead him to England’s Lake District, and the only thing he can bring himself to appreciate about Provence is its physical beauty, as depicted by Vincent van Gogh. Art also inspires many of de Botton’s historical or literary subjects to travel: the Duc des Esseintes decides to travel to London when he reads Charles Dickens and to Holland after he sees Dutch paintings, and Gustave Flaubert decided to visit the “Orient” after reading novels and poems about it. Travel also leads artists, writers, and thinkers to produce some of their most valuable work. Flaubert consistently evokes the “Orient” in his novels, van Gogh was at his most productive after he first arrived in Provence, and Xavier de Maistre decided to write his most famous book, Journey around My Bedroom, only after he traveled extensively throughout the world and came to think of travel as a mindset. De Botton suggests that this close relationship stems from a fundamental similarity between art and travel: the value of each is aesthetic, which means that travelers and artists alike chase what they find beautiful, new, and transformative.
Not only does art inspire travel, de Botton claims, but travel is itself an art: it is a means to both shape and interpret one’s vision of the world. De Botton argues that both art and travel are eye-opening because they foreground certain images and experiences while erasing others from view. For instance, van Gogh’s paintings of Provence are significant in the history of art, according to de Botton, because they allowed people to see the region through new lenses. In fact, after learning about van Gogh, de Botton notices Provence in an entirely new way because he begins paying attention to the aesthetic features that van Gogh emphasized.
Because travel is not a science, for de Botton, rigid travel is meaningless travel. In the essay “On Curiosity,” he tours Madrid with the assistance of a guidebook that he finds utterly boring—it offers him a predetermined series of directions and factoids, declaring what is important without giving the traveler any room to pursue their particular interests. He contrasts this guidebook, which forced established information down the traveler’s throat, with Alexander von Humboldt’s 18th century voyages to South America, which were fruitful specifically because his own curiosity led him to a discover a wide variety of previously unknown laws governing the natural world (like ocean currents and the altitude where flies live). Travel also introduces people to new stimuli, letting them use the facts they discover and places they encounter to enhance their lives. When he arrives in Amsterdam and notes curious cultural differences, de Botton sees these differences as promising that the Netherlands “may in critical ways prove more congenial than my own to my temperament and my concerns.” Indeed, he sees travel as a means for people to discover ways of life that suit them better than their current ones. In this way, beyond helping a traveler interpret the world around them, travel can ultimately reveal the traveler to themselves.
De Botton suggests that aesthetic experiences like art and travel do not merely help people develop this aesthetic self-knowledge, but also become more valuable the more they develop it. In his first chapter, de Botton argues that “few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of [the human quest for happiness]—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels” because such travels reveal people’s “understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and the struggle for survival.” Such an understanding is inevitably subjective, for it concerns the meaningful dimensions of one’s life that are not rooted in the activities all people necessarily share; in travel, people can choose to do nearly anything in nearly any place (within reason), so what they choose reflects what they fundamentally value as individuals. If traveling reflects an individual’s sense of purpose and calibration to their environment, then this explains why a shift in mindset—i.e. a shift in that purpose and calibration—can turn the familiar environments of home into sources of unexpected joy. This is why, in his final chapter, de Botton learns to re-experience his home neighborhood of Hammersmith, London, by viewing it as an aesthetically saturated environment with the capacity to surprise him rather than the unexciting, empty space in which his everyday life takes place. While art and travel might not be completely necessary for humans to achieve happiness, de Botton thinks they offer people important lessons about what they are, desire, and have the potential to become, but also that they become more fulfilling the more one figures out the answers to these questions.
Ultimately, to de Botton, both art and travel contribute to the human quest for joy because they demonstrate people’s distinctive perspectives on and agency in the world; one person’s successful trip is another’s failure, just as one person’s masterpiece is another’s dud. Travel and art are natural bedfellows because they both reflect—and force people to reflect on—the role of individual aesthetic judgment in the human quest for meaning.
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Art, Travel, and the Search for Happiness Quotes in The Art of Travel
Readers who would have been capable of scepticism and prudence in other areas of their lives reverted, in contact with these elements, to a primordial innocence and optimism. The longing provoked by the brochure was an example, at once touching and bathetic, of how projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness; of how a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set into motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.
What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
We are all of us, without ever having any say in the matter, scattered at birth by the wind onto various countries, but like Flaubert, we are in adulthood granted the freedom imaginatively to re-create our identity in line with our true allegiances.
What though the radiance which was so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
One of Wordsworth’s poetic ambitions was to induce us to see the many animals living alongside us that we typically ignore, registering them only out of the corner of our eyes and feeling no appreciation for what they are up to and want: shadowy, generic presences such as the bird up on the steeple and the rustling creature in the bush. He invited his readers to abandon their usual perspectives and to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes, to shuttle between the human and the natural perspective. Why might this be interesting, or even inspiring? Perhaps because unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with.
The value of landscapes would henceforth be decided not solely on the basis of formal aesthetic criteria (the harmony of colours, for example, or the arrangement of lines) or even economic or practical concerns, but rather according to the power of places to arouse the mind to sublimity.
The world may appear illogical to you, but it does not follow that it is illogical per se. Our lives are not the measure of all things: consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.
Because we find places to be beautiful as immediately and apparently spontaneously as we find snow to be cold or sugar sweet, it is hard to imagine that there is anything we might do to alter or expand our attractions. It seems that matters have been decided for us by qualities inherent in the places themselves or by hardwiring in our psyches, and that we would therefore be as helpless to modify our sense of the places we find beautiful as we would our preference for the ice creams we find appetizing.
Yet aesthetic tastes may be less rigid than this analogy suggests. We overlook certain places because nothing has ever prompted us to conceive of them as being worthy of appreciation, or because some unfortunate but random association has turned us against them.
It was for van Gogh the mark of every great painter to enable viewers to see certain aspects of the world more clearly.
‘Completely true to nature!’—what a lie:
How could nature ever be constrained into a picture?
The smallest bit of nature is infinite!
And so he paints what he likes about it.
And what does he like? He likes what he can paint!
A few years after van Gogh’s stay in Provence, Oscar Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. Surely, too, there were fewer cypresses in Provence before van Gogh painted them.
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, “I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.”
The camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge, but it may also unwittingly make the effort of acquiring that knowledge seem superfluous. It suggests that we have done all the work simply by taking a photograph, whereas proper eating of a place—a woodland, for example—requires that we pose ourselves a series of questions such as “How do the stems connect to the roots?” “Where is the mist coming from?” “Why does one tree seem darker than another?” These questions are implicitly asked and answered in the process of sketching.
“I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”