How art might save the world.
Marisol, “The Family,” 1969 (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)

When I was small and days were most often spent with just the two of us, my mother and me, filling time as we pleased, I spent countless hours in parks and museums, wandering aimlessly and looking at trees, art, and artifacts. Our most frequent haunt was the Brooks Museum, where my mother liked to look at antiques and I liked to look first at the Kress collection of Renaissance art and then, for a long time, at Marisol’s “The Family,” which was, at the time, housed in a light-filled side room instead of where it is now, which I suppose is just fine, although I liked it better before.

We went on other art explorations, too. In an oft-told family tale, my mother once took me to an avant garde show (meaning the kind with feces on canvas, etc.), at which I vomited. “You had a good eye for art at an early age,” she would say, because that was the conclusion she drew, whether or not her conclusion was correct.

When I was a teenager, old enough to babysit but not yet old enough to be turned loose in a car, I spent weekends watching other people’s children and getting to know their parents. My favorite of the mothers was an artist, a painter who was pursuing her BFA. Her studies included a color theory class, and since I wanted to be an artist, and wanted to be like this particular woman I admired, and since I had plenty of spare time, I would copy her color theory assignments (from Josef Albers’s “Interaction of Color” book), take them home with me, sit in my room and do them over and over again, because they were more interesting than either school work or, at the time, boys.

The purpose of the color theory work was to understand how one color changed the perception of another. The basic exercise involved cutting holes in blocks of color and allowing another color to show through, trying to make the same color look different and different colors look the same.

So, for example, when looking at these two green triangles, do they appear to be the same or different? How?

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It’s a visual trick, you understand – a game for your brain, and nothing more (though, also, nothing less).

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In the context of yellow, the green appears to be darker and more blue. In the context of blue, it appears lighter and more yellow. And so on.

The same idea applies at the next level of the exercise, which is to take two different shades of green and make them appear the same when viewed side by side, through windows of yellow and blue. Then there are optical illusions of transparency, depth perception, and so on.
Josef Albers, “Homage to the Square”

I spent hours doing these exercises. Hours, and hours, and hours, calculating hue and tone, how one proportional mix compared to another, and so on.

And, I suppose, during those formative years, my brain became wired to think this way, in terms of relativity and context.

Instead of going to art school for college (which was my first choice), I entered a liberal arts program and earned what my father described as the world’s most useless degree: a bachelor’s in art & archaeology. “All that money wasted to study art history,” is what I think he said, although he had little ground in the argument, for reasons that were complicated.

In any event, art occupied a large part of my life from those first toddles in the museum, to Saturdays at the Art Academy, through those adolescent and young adult years when I, like all of us, locked in to a few basic, enduring beliefs. Art became both a rich resource and the bias through which I would interpret and respond to the world.

Were he still alive, I suspect my father would concede things had, in the end, worked out fine, my art history degree notwithstanding. The ability to distinguish a Frans Hals from a Rembrandt has translated into other abilities. A predisposition to think, in any given situation, “how is it different; how is it the same?” has, likewise, paid countless dividends in situations that had absolutely nothing to do with art.

You might recall that just looking at art changes the brain in ways we’re only beginning to understand.  As Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel explains in this (wonderful, I promise) short video, when we look at works of art, we are – each of us, individually – undergoing a creative experience. Our brains process the images and complete the paintings (or sculpture, etc.); so, looking at art is a kind of problem-solving. The more abstract the art, the less pre-wired, bottom-up processing our brains can do, and the more we have to use imagination, forge connections.

If the article and video references seem familiar, that’s because I’ve shared them before, a year ago, when I begged you to Art Harder. As you know, if you’ve followed along here or elsewhere, Art Harder was, for me, mostly a challenge to produce art. But it was also a personal challenge to spend more time looking at art, actively thinking about it. It was (is) a self-protective move, therapy for what I knew would be a difficult year, at home, at work, and in the United States generally. I would maintain resilience, feed problem-solving skills, and stare down the totalitarian push in my own private way, by making what my daughter described as “some pretty weird art” and by looking at equally “weird” art.


A year later, after “arting harder” with every fiber of my being, one basic idea continues to hold firm in my mind: the greatest danger we face is binary thinking. Intolerance for ambiguity will be the end of us. Our hunger for absolute rules and clear boundaries (borders…) will starve us of our humanity in the end, because the letter of the rule often disguises the spirit in which it was made and denies the grace of our own (often slow) evolution.

To be sure, a complete free-for-all would be chaos; but there is water in between steam and ice. A fluid, middle state. A river, making its course over time. Will we swim in the river, or head for the icy banks? We’re increasingly quick-trigger oriented, less and less comfortable with messy process. We are reactive, impatient. The banks, even if icy, can seem safer than a swift-moving current.

Lest you forget, though, while we’re busy wringing our hands and shaking our heads over the explosive news of the day, wanting to claim solid ground, artificial intelligence continues to gather strength, unchecked, in the background. Elon Musk has been warning us for years: Artificial Intelligence (a tsunami of binary code) poses an existential threat to humanity.

What might save us, I think, from both the present-day mayhem and a Skynet takeover, is art.

Art: that pesky, ancillary, non-core course that schools haven’t been able to afford for years, because our education system needed more rigor in math and science.

Art: that breeder of liberal tender-hearts who don’t contribute a damned thing to the real world.

The beauty, the controversy, the conversation piece in the living room. Art: for solace, for challenge, for the general enjoyment of life.

Consider this: Asking a six-year-old, “why is blue dog blue?” opens neural pathways that support understanding how many different ways there are, for instance, to calculate the number 7: 3+4, 18-11, 63/9, and so on. Likewise, putting words to a visceral response (asking and answering “why does Mapplethorpe’s work disturb you?”) instead of dismissing, censoring, or refusing to acknowledge the work, bridges connections and feeds higher level thinking.  Art, not standardized testing, is the basis of that thinking.

That we can use our gray matter to interpret infinite shades of gray – and blue, and red, and yellow – is the greatest human gift. If we don’t use, protect, and multiply that gift, then we are doomed. Art, perhaps, could be our lifeboat.

But, again, I am biased.

Bias, by the way, is a word that most likely comes from the Old Provençal “biais,” meaning “slant, slope, oblique.” Binary, on the other hand, comes from the Latin “binarius,” meaning “consisting of two.” The way a tree slants toward the sun, a river bends to the curve of the earth, I am forever biased toward art, and the great, ambiguous, indivisible mess that it is.

(NOTE: the featured image on this post is “Allegory on the French Invasion of 1672,” by Johannes van Wijckersloot, 1672. It’s one of thousands of magnificent artworks in the Rijksmuseum collection, many of which (like this one) are available for free download. Because, as the Dutch continue to make clear, art matters.)


  1. Hi Jennifer. Not to ignore the important message in your post, but I have a question about the exercises you described. Do you believe an eye for color can be developed/improved using them? I do not have “the eye” and I thought it was something you had or didn’t . What do you think?


  2. I have been wondering why it’s taken me so long to see that looking at art — even (maybe especially) art I don’t particularly like — feeds my creativity and refreshes me in a way that nothing else really does. Plus, it’s fun. Thanks for this.


  3. I expect I’ve told you my dad’s comment about my English/Fine Arts double major (which I have repeated a thousand times since): “What is it you’re majoring in again? Cocktail party conversation?”


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