What the

Art can be a way of understanding the world. That sounds like an obvious statement. But it is only obvious when you don’t think about it. If you think about what art is, and compare it to science, its role becomes less clear.

The first example that comes to mind is science fiction, but that’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about art that does not describe the future but is set in the present or past. I’m thinking about realistic art, so called “straight” art, more specifically about novels and movies that take place in a recognizable present-day setting.

I’m well aware that there are a lot of these: I can think of several off the top of my head, including one of my favorites, American Beauty. It won’t take long to come up with more examples if you try.

What exactly do these works do? They don’t predict the future; they don’t reveal hidden truths; they don’t even tell a story in a particularly compelling way (though some do).

Artists sometimes make claims for their work: they want us to see how beautiful something is, or how horrible—sometimes both at once. Or they want us to think differently about something—sexism or racism or capitalism

When you first hear about something, it is easy to get the impression that it is completely unlike anything else. If you then discover a connection between the new thing and something else you already know, it can seem like a huge discovery. The more you look, the more connections you find, until finally you realize that the new thing is not really that new at all. This pattern of initial surprise followed by gradual assimilation is what explains most progress in science and art.

There are two aspects to this process of deep integration. The first is that every field has a few ideas so deep and powerful that they apply everywhere. Newton’s laws of motion, for instance, are useful not only in astronomy but also in baseball and flight simulators. The second aspect is that every field has a few ideas that are just wrong: false friends, as the saying goes. You have to be careful not to mistake one for the other. A physicist once told me he was fairly sure general relativity was false because he had heard a talk arguing against it and couldn’t refute any of the points in the talk. I asked him why he thought the speaker was wrong; he said he wasn’t sure but he had a gut feeling about it. “Gut feelings,” I said, “are

When you first open an art museum, you don’t know what to look at. Parallel tracks run down the middle of the room, with other paintings hung on either side. You can spend a long time just wandering around and looking at whichever paintings strike your fancy.

But eventually you will start trying to understand what the museum is trying to tell you. Maybe that’s what the curators have in mind when they put things together this way?

Often there are labels next to the paintings. If you pay enough attention to them, you can piece together some kind of story about who painted what and when and why, but it’s not obvious how much of that story is true. Sometimes facts are missing; sometimes dates don’t make sense; sometimes the stories seem to contradict each other; sometimes one artist is even said to have done the work of another! (That’s how they were able to fake old masters, like in The Thomas Crown Affair.)

After a while you might notice that not all art museums are equally confused about their own collections, or equally consistent in their own stories. For example, MoMA has its “Modern” period and its “Contemporary” period, while the Met has “European Paintings” and “American Paintings.” But these

I don’t know much about art. Still, I know what I like. And I like the stuff that went on in Japan between about 1600 and 1900.

That time period is called, for obvious reasons, “the Edo Period.” The Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. For 250 years, Japan was cut off from the outside world. During this time, Japanese artists could work without having to compete with European ideas of what art should be. As a result, they experimented with all kinds of things.

The results were strange and amazing: art that was satirical, or erotic, or abstract, or just weird. It’s not my intention here to try to explain it all; you can find some good books if you want to learn more.* But today we associate art with creativity and free expression, and it’s worth remembering that those things are not necessarily valued by everyone — and they haven’t always been valued everywhere.

What we can be sure of, however, is that the term “ancient Chinese art” covers a lot of different ground. So, if you are looking for a gift for someone special, perhaps something unusual and unique, you might want to consider a piece of ancient Chinese art.

Art is a way of expressing yourself. It’s also a way of making money. Any art that makes money is some kind of business. And any business has to deal with the same kinds of problems all other businesses have to deal with—even if those problems are not exactly the same as the ones other businesses have, because art is by definition weird.

We can divide these problems into three parts:

* How do you make something people want?

* How do you get other people to sell it for you?

* How much do you have to pay yourself, and why?

Now, all this is well and good, but how do you get a job as an artist? You could start by doing work that looks like art: painting pictures or writing novels. But this is risky. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to publish or exhibit something that looks like art but isn’t. You would be creating what I like to call “pretend art.”

Pretend art is not necessarily bad. On the contrary, some of the most famous works of art in history were pretenders. The Cuckoo Clock of Kakadu was found in the attic of a house once owned by a famous abstract painter; it was dismissed as a child’s toy until someone noticed that it had been painted with oil paints and signed on the back. A series of faked Jackson Pollock works sold for millions before they were exposed as fakes. (The forger had tried to make them look too good.)

Some people are better at recognizing pretenders than others. Some people like them more than others. Pretenders are sometimes easier to sell than real works of art, because their lack of status makes them cheaper and because there may be more buyers who don’t know enough to tell them from real art.

Pretender-detection skills

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