Something about art.

(You’ll think, possibly, that this, finally, is the thing. It is not. But it’s post number 50 of 56. FIFTY! Cue Molly Shannon….)

Maybe you do this, too:

Sometimes, I get sucked into thinking that everyone knows what I know, that I don’t know anything especially helpful or informative or different from what people, in general, also know.

But then something will remind me that none of us knows exactly the same things as any other person. We have overlaps, sure; but each one of our magnificent brains holds an encyclopedia that is an edition of one.

Which is why is possible that some of you, even some who’ve been following along here for this little 56-day daily writing lark, don’t know about my background in art and art history. It’s possible you don’t know that, once upon a time, I taught both art and art history. It’s even possible that you, dear reader, haven’t been willing to consider an idea that I will never stop trying to impress upon you.

Maybe you – just one or two of you – still think art is frivolous and unnecessary, something unworthy of serious study and definitely not deserving of any public investment. You might have art in your home, might enjoy visiting a museum; but deep down inside, you might, possibly, think art is for unserious people who don’t have the mental fortitude to tackle Important Things.

You remind me, the one or two of you who might think along these lines, of a friend from college who said to me, one sunny fall afternoon, “All you have to do for your thesis is string together some Styrofoam balls with wire and call it ‘art,’ while I actually have to WRITE something.” (Ah! How surprising these two worlds, art and writing, could ever collide!)

I’ve met, in my almost six decades, more people who question the practical value of art than who do not. That list of “I don’t know about art…” people starts with my own father, who said of my degree in art & archaeology. “All that money wasted to study art history.”

Were he still alive, I suspect my father would concede things had, in the end, worked out fine, my art history degree notwithstanding. He might begrudgingly concede that the ability to distinguish a Frans Hals from a Rembrandt has translated into other, if nuanced, capabilities. 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 has absolutely nothing to do with art.

As Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel put it, when we look at works of art, we are – each of us, individually – undergoing a creative experience. Looking at art changes the brain in ways we’re only beginning to understand. 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.

For insight into Kandel’s thinking, and the book, I recommend several terrific interviews like this video, “How Your Brain Finishes a Painting,(which is only five minutes) and  this radio piece, “This is Your Brain on Jackson Pollock(which is almost 30 minutes, but worth the time).

The gist is this: When looking at a work 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.

Through his work Dr. Kandel provides, perhaps, a scientific answer to something many of us have considered conventional wisdom for a long time: If you get stuck trying to solve a highly analytical problem, wander around an art museum for a few hours. However, it isn’t so much engaging one “side” of the brain so the other can rest as it is simply moving to a different set of problems for the brain to solve. It’s the equivalent of what used to be the basic rule in standardized testing: If you get stuck on a problem, skip and come back to it later. You don’t stop solving problems; you stop solving one particular problem, for a little while.

If all of this seems familiar, it’s because you’ve been here for a while and remember when I asked begged you to Art Harder. 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.

Across many decades of learning about, looking at, and creating art, one basic idea continues to hold firm in my mind: The greatest danger we humans face — still — is binary thinking. Intolerance for ambiguity will be the end of us. Our hunger for absolute rules and clear boundaries 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.

What might save us, I believe, 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 our greatest human gift. If we don’t use, protect, and multiply that gift, then we are doomed. Art, perhaps, could be our lifeboat.

But I am biased on this subject, and I know it. I’ve had a life-long love affair with art and creativity, and the things I keep learning along those subject lines continue to enrich my life. And whether you already knew all of these things or whether it’s new information for your consideration, now you know some part of what I know. We have shared learning and information. How wonderful indeed.

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. I will forever resist the suggestion that there are only two possible answers to any one questions. Art did that for me. Perhaps it can do the same for you.

(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.

This post is 50/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.


  1. So, today, most online standardized tests don’t allow you to skip a question or to go back and change your answer. Even less artful. I learned the whole works — philosophy, religion, history, migration, etc — from art. I keep one of your college pieces in my study. Thank you, Jennifer

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  2. I’m sure I’ve told you before, but am reminded of my father’s frequent quip about my English and Art History double major: “What is it you are majoring in again? Cocktail party conversation?”

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  3. As a fellow art history major whose father said something very similar but meant the exact same thing – no wonder they were such good friends – I could not agree with you more!

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