Peeking Behind the Curtain of Today’s Art Scene
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Peeking Behind the Curtain of Today’s Art Scene

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Peeking Behind the Curtain of Today’s Art Scene

Bianca Bosker is a New York Times bestselling author and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Best American Travel Writing, and has been recognized with awards from the New York Press Club, Society of Professional Journalists, and more.

Below, Bianca shares five key insights from her new book, Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See. Listen to the audio version—read by Bianca herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Get the Picture Bianca Bosker Next Big Idea Club

1. Art isn’t optional—it’s a necessity.

For most of my adult life, I didn’t know how to “do” art. Going to galleries reliably made me feel like I was at least three tattoos and a master’s degree away from figuring out what was going on. And besides—who had the time? I’d always assumed art was a luxury—I mean, it can’t clothe you, feed you, or be used to kill predators.

But when I started poking around the art world, I began to think that by ignoring art, I was missing out on something big. I’d never met a group of people willing to sacrifice so much for something of so little obvious practical value. Gallerists maxed out credit cards to show hunks of metal they swore could change the world. Artists treated 100-year-old paintings like they were as necessary as vital organs. As I looked around at these art fiends oohing and aahing over weird sculptures of mutilated chairs, I couldn’t stop wondering: Why do we engage with art anyway? Can a few smears of colored rock on cloth—a “painting” as it’s more commonly known—really transform our existence?

Scientists are right there with artists in insisting that art is crucial to our existence, as “necessary to us as food or sex,” per one biologist. Art is one of our species’ oldest creations (we invented paint long before the wheel), one of our earliest means of communication (we drew long before we could write), and one of our most universal urges (we all engage with art, whether preschoolers, Parisians, or paleolithic cave dwellers). Art, experts argue, may be a biological predisposition that has helped our species survive. I realized that by turning my back on art, I was ignoring a fundamental part of my humanity. And that needed to change.

2. Seeing is hallucinating.

We trust our eyes implicitly. “Seeing is believing,” we say. “I saw it with my own eyes” is supposed to put a stop to any argument. But our sense of sight isn’t nearly as trustworthy as we think. Vision is really a hallucination. We don’t see like video cameras, dispassionately recording the scenes around us.

The data coming into our eyes is pretty subpar—our view of the world is mostly blurry, with only a small area in focus and a black hole constantly hovering over our field of view. On top of that, all the data entering our eyes is shaped by our brains’ “filters of expectation,” which preemptively dismiss, ignore, and prioritize the raw data even before we get the full picture, so to speak.

“With art’s help, we can lift that filter of expectation.”

Our brains are essentially trash compactors, constantly compressing the information coming in, and our perception of the world is only a prediction—a hallucination shaped by our filters of expectation. But with art’s help, we can lift that filter of expectation. When we do, we open ourselves to new sources of information. With fresh eyes, we can savor the world’s beauty, chaos, and nuance.

3. Art helps us fight the reducing tendencies of our minds.

Scientists have puzzled over why we persist in looking at art even though doing so isn’t always, well, pleasant. One explanation is that over and over, for tens of thousands of years, humans have been drawn to the confounding, “unsolvable” images that artists create because our brains relish the prediction errors these artworks offer up.

Artworks surprise us and knock our brains off their well-worn pathways. They prevent our brains from overfitting our perceptual model of the world. Like dreams, art introduces pleasurable, powerful glitches that keep our brains nimble and open to new experiences. Art isn’t always pleasant, but that’s often part of its power. The glitch that art introduces to our brains is a gift.

There is an artist in each of us to the extent that we struggle to keep our brains from compressing our experience. Art is a choice. It is a fight against complacency. It is a decision to forge a life that’s richer, more uncomfortable, more mind-blowing, more uncertain. And ultimately, more beautiful.

4. You need to exercise your “Eye.”

Soon after I started sniffing around the art world, artists diagnosed me as suffering from a worrisome condition: I was missing an “Eye.” An Eye, to art connoisseurs, doesn’t refer to the organ but to a painstakingly cultivated outlook they swore enables us to see lots that don’t meet the eye, like who’ll be the next Warhol or what’s transcendent about a sculpture of limp vegetables on a stained mattress. Artists told me this lack of “visual literacy” was downright dangerous in a world so saturated with pictures. So, with their help, I started to cultivate my “Eye.”

I went to see as much art, and as much unexpected art, as possible. I stopped reading the wall labels posted next to the art in galleries and museums. I slowed way, way down. While I was a museum security guard, I spent hours looking at the same work over and over—and kept discovering something new. More than anything, I stayed in the work and quit outsourcing my opinions to the experts.

“Cultivating your eye allows you to experience art on your own terms.”

Gradually, I saw art differently. But I also began to see everything differently. Cultivating your eye allows you to experience art on your own terms. To trust your taste. But it also enables you to see beauty where you never did before. It’s hard for me to walk down the street now and not want to dash off to savor, say, the radiant orange of a brick wall. Even a sewage treatment plant, I discovered, can be beautiful. The mind-bending jostle we get from art can be found nearly anywhere, and beauty, I came to see, doesn’t necessarily lie in a color or a shape. Beauty is that moment your mind jumps the curb. It can be a painting, a math equation, or the sight of planes landing. But you have to be open to seeing it, and exercising your eye helps you do so.

5. Nothing beats learning by doing.

Lots of writers do interviews. I prefer to throw myself in. When I told people about my plan to work in the notoriously secretive art world and then report back on what I’d found, art professionals assured me it was impossible. Maybe even dangerous. It’s true that getting access was tough: I got threats, warnings, many closed doors, plus lots of lectures about all the things wrong with my clothes and “overly enthusiastic” personality. But the more people told me to stay away from the art world, the more determined I was to get inside and then share what I learned.

I’m a big believer in learning by doing. Why? Because I find that understanding the mundane—from who pays the bills to what keeps someone up at night—helps us see the miraculous. Understanding how things work also reveals why they matter.

Artists sometimes follow a similarly immersive process for their own work. I got to know an artist—shortly after she sat on my face for a performance piece—who’s spent years embodying an ass influencer on Instagram. To me, inserting myself into the middle of the action was the best way to get honest answers to the fundamental questions at the core of our relationship with art: Why did a gallery pick this painting over that one? Why did an artist choose to make that green?

It’s one thing for a gallerist to explain how they sell art. It’s another to spend eight hours a day on your feet during Art Basel Miami negotiating with millionaires and finalizing deals from the backseat of an Uber surrounded by people hoofing up lines of cocaine. I wanted to see how an artwork goes from the germ of an idea in a studio to a celebrated masterpiece at a museum because, like with many subjects, all the decisions that shape that artwork are also decisions that shape us: our idea of art, who makes it, and why we should bother to engage. In the process, I discovered just how messy so-called “fine art” can be.

To listen to the audio version read by author Bianca Bosker, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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