Making Sense of the World

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It’s time to put aside childish things. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on art altogether.

What’s childish about art, anyway? That it’s frivolous? That it can’t be taken seriously? That it has no practical value? None of these accusations is true. Art can be as useful as any other tool. It was the art programs at NASA that produced the first pictures of Mars and Saturn, which told us what places those are. Art is a way to make sense of the world, whether or not that sense is immediately obvious to others.

Art can be a way to argue for your point of view, or about anything else. It can change your perspective even if you never show anyone how it changed you. And it benefits from collaboration; every person who creates art learns from other artists and adds something new to what came before.

Art isn’t just for artists. If you’ve ever made a picture on your computer or played music on your phone, you’re an artist.*

In the past two years, I have read over 100 books on art and science. I am no longer a complete amateur. But I still don’t feel qualified to write this review. So why should you trust me?

Because it’s easy to convince yourself that you understand things that you really don’t. Having an opinion is easy; making sense of the world, much harder. You are likely to believe that you understand something when you actually don’t, or at least not as well as you think.

The best way to be sure of understanding something is to try explaining it to someone else. If you can’t explain it clearly, maybe you don’t really know what you thought you knew. So in place of expertise or credentials, I offer this: can I explain this stuff clearly enough that a reasonably intelligent person who has never heard of it before will understand?

It’s a tough test but the one I set myself when I started reading all those art books.

We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. To understand the world is to understand ourselves.

The world is full of things you can’t see, like magnetic fields and bacteria and radio waves. How can we detect them? We build tools to help us see them. But even with tools, those invisible things are still invisible. It takes a lot of study and practice to learn how to use our tools properly. It takes a lot more to learn how to use them well enough to make new ones that let us see further and deeper into the surrounding world. And while it may seem trivial to us now that there are invisible forces all around us, that was not obvious at first.

And most important of all: once you know how to think about a problem, you can solve it. Everything builds on top of what came before, but for each problem there is a way of seeing the problem so that everything else falls into place after that.

The world is a complex and interesting place. You could spend your whole life trying to understand it. But if you did, you would probably miss a lot of other interesting things. In particular, you might miss out on the experience of surfing online art galleries, which are simply amazing.

A great online art gallery will have a huge collection of beautiful images, arranged in ways that let you find what you want quickly and easily. And you can sort by size, or color, or price, or popularity, and so on — in other words, by all the attributes that make the Internet such a rich way to buy stuff.

This simple idea — that we can browse goods electronically in the same way we browse them physically — has had astonishingly rich consequences. Some of these consequences were predictable: for example, how much easier it is to share pictures than it used to be! But others were surprising: for example, the whole notion of “royalty free” images made possible by online art galleries.

Online art galleries even help us understand what art is for — at least if we’re willing to believe that they’ve made more people into artists than they’ve made into con artists. They let people with good ideas communicate those ideas directly to an audience without having to persuade

The modern world offers an enormous amount of information. There is so much that it can seem overwhelming. Our brains work better with some kinds of information than with others, and we can train ourselves to see what we need to see. A child learns early in life that someone crying is upset or hurt, and is likely to have crying as a kind of signature. The same child will learn that people who are happy tend not to be crying, and will stop looking for smiles as a clue to happiness.

This training helps us to focus on the important things, but it also limits our vision. We are very good at seeing sad faces and bad news, but bad at seeing happy faces and good news. We are primed to pay attention only when disaster is likely; the rest of the time we are more likely to miss what might be important.

We can use technology to help us get around our own limitations. Tools like Google News help us find the information that matters most. It looks for keywords in the stories, ranks them based on how many times those keywords appear, and gives you links to the top ones — so you don’t have to read everything yourself.*

The fact is, we are surrounded by works of art we don’t notice. If you could see what we can’t, the world would look like a Museum of Modern Art exhibit.

Trees, clouds, raindrops, and rocks are all great artists. They use color and texture in ways that delight us even though we’re not conscious of being delighted. Yet when human artists do things like that, we call it “minimalism” or “post-minimalism” or “conceptual art,” depending on whether it’s made of wood or iron or mist.

Why? Because they have a name for it. And names have power over us. We think something is more real if it has a name, even if what’s named is just an idea. So we pay attention to ideas that have names because we think they must be real — even if they aren’t.

It’s a little like religion: there’s no God in the Bible like the God I just made up for you (and me). But people believe in the God I just made up for you (and me) because it has a name — Yahweh or Allah — and so feels more real than the God without a name who is equally real but harder to picture in

It’s easy to be confused about the nature of art. It doesn’t help that a lot of people want to confuse you. Artsy types like nothing more than saying things like “Art is whatever you want it to be!”

Even well-meaning people tend to make the same mistake. They may say, “Art is anything creative.” But the truth is: not everything creative is art. A lot of what you do in kindergarten is creative, but it isn’t art when you bring it home in time for your parents’ anniversary.

Much of what people produce in their spare time isn’t art either. There are plenty of novels written by hobbyists and never published; movies made by film buffs and never seen outside their basements; paintings done by weekend painters and never shown to anyone except close friends. Of course there’s no rule against that, but if you don’t plan to show your painting or publish your novel or premiere your movie, why bother? If your hobby keeps you from spending too much time on other hobbies, fine; if it doesn’t, why not choose something else?

The definition of art you should use most often is: art is whatever artists do. Not including all creative acts obviously leaves room for plenty of disagreement about what counts

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