Johan Deckmann: Art as Pop-Psychotherapy

Johan Deckmann’s artworks are really riffs: witticisms on contemporary culture and psychology in the form of faux self-help manuals. Titles such as ‘How to turn your stupidity into a sexy attitude’ or ‘How to spend your life with the wrong persons because you are afraid to be alone’ draw pleasure, but only from some pretty uncomfortable self-analysis. They’re what Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) might have classified as ‘tendentious’ jokes aimed at a certain victim: you, the viewer. Deckmann has got the good graces, however, to also include another title: ‘How to raise the value of your art by dying’. These ‘How To’s appear on the covers of the books, but just the covers. He’s glued the pages teasingly shut. I suspect there’s another wry comment going on here: that we’ve become pretty facile, obsessed by the surface without any real depth.   

Johan Deckmann’s  Silent  (2017)

Johan Deckmann’s Silent (2017)

Yet while his gimlet eye sums up the follies of the day humorously, when I interview him Deckmann is quick to stress his earnestness. ‘Although my works have a continuous humorous thread, I am actually very serious’, he explains. ‘I think I work with important issues that many people, regardless of race, religion, age, or gender, should take seriously’. The jocularity, he claims, merely eases the pain of self-reflection. ‘I hope this humorous thread will help people to look at their existence from the bright side and see the possibilities instead of seeing only the obstacles’.  

A practicing psychotherapist, Deckmann describes his art as ‘a hybrid between paintings, poetry and psychology that can have a similar effect to therapy.’ He says some art is capable of ‘collective healing’ in its potential to transform people’s lives. You might think that his self-help-cum-self-deprecating artworks fall within the orbit of Alain de Botton’s Art As Therapy (2013). For just as de Botton envisages a world where philosophers prescribe artworks for specific psychological frailties, Deckmann states that the ‘right words can be like good medicine.’

‘And yet, I’d say that Deckmann is far too cynical for de Botton. His ‘How To’s can’t help but parody the naïve optimism that characterises so much of the philosopher’s thoughts on art, love and life. For hasn’t the ‘School of Life’ founder’s ‘philosophy’ always tended toward the pop-philosophy of self-help? You could easily imagine the titles of de Botton’s voluminous bibliography gracing the covers of Deckmann’s books: How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and even The Consolations of Philosophy (2000). Indeed, the School of Life boasts ‘How to Get Married’ and ‘What is Culture For?’ alongside, Deckmann might note, ‘What is Psychotherapy?’ I ask Deckmann what he thinks of de Botton. He replies, ‘those theories and works of art come from outside yourself. In my practice, I work with the kind of answers, the works of art, that come from within yourself.’ He wants to provoke a process in the viewer, but that process won’t necessarily offer any consolation.

The point of satire directed at individual weaknesses, as opposed to institutional power, is that recognizing the patterns of thinking that give rise to rolling emotions and self-destructive behavior supposedly enables a kind of psychic freedom. Thinking through our instinctive responses means we needn’t be in thrall to the past, the subconscious or to our uncontrollable emotions, or to our environmental conditioning. Deckmann claims the relationship between his artistic works and therapy is tightly bound: ‘based on the responses to my works, they can have a similar effect to therapy. My sentences can induce the kind of eye-openers known only from the therapeutic context.’

You might say that Deckmann’s art is also relational: ‘unlike my work with my individual patients, a gallery, not to mention Instagram, gives the opportunity to work with many people at the same time. It doesn’t mean that my audience is my patients. However, they possess the openness that is crucial for a therapist and patient relationship.’ So far, so Bourriaud. Deckmann has 71.3 thousand followers as of October 2018, so he’s certainly working with ‘many people’. But are the witticisms really going to initiate radical change? A title like ‘How to stay silent so others keep believing that you are smart’ might prompt a wry smile, but for most people it probably won’t be a Eureka moment of self-awareness that inspires a change in outlook or lifestyle. Some of the titles might be a little too cruel to be kind.  

Johan Deckmann’s  Easy to Leave  (2017)

Johan Deckmann’s Easy to Leave (2017)

The concept of self-help is not new but it is changing. Author Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, who sifted through hundreds of self-help books to write Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture (2014)has noted the rise of research-based hybrid self-help books (like Charles Duhigg’s  The Powerof Habit (2012) or anything Gladwellian) that are a tonic for traditional self-help’s vagaries. Positive thinking, actualization, motivation, empowerment: the industry of worldly wisdom whirs on, powered by the consumers’ insatiable compulsion to feel good and to have it all. But it seems people are becoming more aware that it also turns out swill by the boatload, and often feeds the cravings of the perennially feckless. 

Call me cynical, but I think that the same healthy skepticism we should view this literature with should be applied to Deckmann’s art. Satire might satisfy the need to confront public discourse and the collective imaginary, but it exposes problems and contradictions without suggesting solutions. Art might prompt reflection and a sense of kinship, but it’s no substitute for a therapist’s chair. Deckmann is trying to do something worthwhile by creating art that encourages us to take responsibility for our emotions, and to realise we do not struggle on alone. But it’s not a one-stop fix – it’s art. And no less worthy because of that.