In ‘Get the Picture,’ science helps explore the meaning of art

Journalist Bianca Bosker investigates humankind’s obsession with art

A photograph of four silhouetted people standing in front of a warm toned abstract piece of artwork that featured tones of yellow, red, orange and pink swirls.

Visitors at London’s Serpentine North Gallery watch a projection of AI-generated work by Turkey-born artist Refik Anadol.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

"Get the Picture" book cover

Get the Picture
Bianca Bosker
Viking, $29

If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve visited a contemporary art installation, seen a painting of a single plain square or a giant sculpture of a fork, and wondered, how on Earth is this art? I’ll bet you didn’t dare ask this out loud, for fear of looking gauche. Luckily for us, journalist Bianca Bosker is willing to ask the age-old question — What is art? — and go to great lengths, fish-out-of-water style, to find the answer. The result is her latest book, Get the Picture, a participatory dive into the art world and the spiritual sustenance that art itself provides.

An art book probably isn’t what you’d expect Science News to review. But Bosker wields many tools, including scientific research, to understand humankind’s primal desire for art (SN: 1/13/21).

She sets out to develop what art disciples call an “Eye,” a discerning ability to separate the “good” art from the “bad.” The only way to do that, she decides, is to embed herself among members of the trade. This is no easy task; the art world is secretive, closed and judgmental. Acolytes are as obsessed about art as they are about maintaining an aura of exclusivity. When Bosker finally penetrates fine art circles, what she finds isn’t pretty. The art world often excludes those who can’t afford to go to art school or the luxury of creating vanity projects. Practitioners often take on multiple jobs to make ends meet; many eventually quit from burnout. On top of that, there’s a culture of top-down bullying.

But as much as Bosker’s experiences might destroy your faith in art, she relentlessly digs deeper until she redeems it, by discovering the fundamental joy that art can bring to both those who create it and view it.

Bosker works as a gallery assistant, art-fair seller, studio helper and museum security guard to examine art from different angles. Each role provides a fascinating vignette into how the art machine operates, and you can’t help but admire Bosker’s willingness to suffer fools. Her can-do attitude puts her in bizarre situations — she lets a performance artist sit on her face in the name of art — making for a hilarious exposé about the art industry.

While entertaining, the recounting of her exploits means it takes a while for the book to get to the meaning of art. But once it does, science provides several clues. Some experts theorize that prehistoric humans were compelled to paint on cave walls because it showed off the artist’s skills and potential fitness as a mate. One anthropologist has argued that art bound communities together toward common survival.

In today’s world, art’s utility has expanded. Here too, science can help us understand how. Bosker introduces readers to the growing field of neuroaesthetics, the application of neuroscience to study the perception of art. Researchers have demonstrated that seeing is often secondary to believing — a “filter of expectation” in our brains distorts the raw data stream of light that hits our eyes. This filter allows us to take mental shortcuts and dismiss certain visual details to rapidly process our chaotic environment. This is why we know a white vase next to the window is still white, even as natural light transforms its exact hue to sunset golden or moonlight gray throughout the day.

One function of art, Bosker writes, is to yank off this filter to reexamine the world with renewed wonder. Art has a therapeutic quality, a fact that’s seized upon by doctors who prescribe patients visits to art museums and the pleasure of hanging wall art. Removing that filter can also help doctors themselves. Over two dozen medical schools require students to study paintings to avert the habit of snap judgment. Studies have shown that trainees who take an art-based visual literacy course perform more holistic physical examinations and read human facial expressions better than those who don’t.

The most scintillating aspect of the book is Bosker herself — the narrator, the why-person, the self-acknowledged philistine and, most importantly, the reader’s friend. Instead of lecturing from an authoritative vantage point, Bosker lets readers witness at eye level her growing clarity of art’s function. She’s also witty, self-deprecating and isn’t afraid to call out snobbery. In her trips to galleries, she writes, “pretension hung in the air like an unacknowledged fart.”

In the end, readers don’t get a complete answer for humankind’s compulsion toward art. Bosker instead offers her own interpretation: Art is a way to find beauty and heighten our appreciation for life. In debunking the infallibility of an “Eye,” Bosker argues that art is everywhere and can be anything, as long as we’re open to letting what we see move us. By the last page, you’ll be compelled to revisit that fork sculpture and behold the artwork with fresh eyes.

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