Some say that art is man's loftiest endeavor -- a mortal attempt to be like God, to create something where there was nothing, to move the spirit and touch the soul. Others say that art is a load of sheep dip. Most of us fall somewhere in between, able to appreciate a pretty picture, but in constant amazement that "patrons" will pay $700,000 for a painting of a red square on a white background. The first thing you should know is that some art really is crap. The catch, though, is that nobody can agree on which art is crap. This means that if you learn the tricks, then you can fake an expertise in art analysis that would make Andy Warhol proud.

Art appreciation is an easy fake, and you're about to learn how to do it. Who knows, you might even pick up a bit of genuine appreciation along the way. Don't get scared, it won't make you less of a man (even if you're a woman).

One caveat here: some intellectual, pedantic, sipping-tea-with-their-pinkie-extended types think that all art should be interpreted literally. "What's important," they say condescendingly, "is knowing who Mona Lisa was, what she did for a living, what those trees in the background stand for, what Leonardo had for dinner the night he painted Mona," and so on. We take the position that this is garbage. As long as you can say something quasi-intelligent about the painting itself, you'll be leagues ahead of everyone else.

To get the right side of your brain warmed up, take a gander at these famous works of art.


Some people get PhDs in Art History; we're perfectly content to merely have you scam your way through centuries of artistry. So below, we provide you with the characteristics of the basic art periods. We warn you -- there's A LOT here. So feel free to skim or skip around. But don't forget to go to step 2 when you're done.

ANTIQUITIES: before 500 years B.C.
This refers to stuff that's so old, that it's usually appreciated more for its archeological value rather than its artistic expression.

Dead giveaways: Everything's broken and half gone. What's left has been pieced back together with Krazy Glue.

Pretentious comment to say: "Imagine the Herculean task of the sculptor-carving the hardest of rocks, in the hottest of climates, with the simplest of tools."

: 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.
These cultures appreciated the ideal: men looking beautiful and achieving great feats. The art of this period is particularly important because most of the ideals of Western civilization came from these artistic portrayals. They also carved a lot of naked marble statues, many of which are missing arms and/or heads.

Dead giveaways: Missing Noses and other protrusions. Usually, the statues are made of white marble, while vases are black.

Pretentious comment to say: "Note how the sculptor draws attention to his virtuosity by holding back. That is what classic means."

: 500 to 1500
Medieval art can seem even more primitive than its predecessors; it's as if they were starting over from scratch (and in a sense they were, what with the Black Plague and all). Most of the stuff is religious, and that should factor into your (faked) appreciation. These relics were not just meant to be beautiful -- To the people of the Middle Ages, they held sacred power. Many of the artistic works of this period were created purely for religious purposes.

Dead giveaways: On the little placard next to the painting, look for "egg tempera on panel" in the media category and "Madonna" in the title. A flat, 2-dimensional perspective also abounded in this period.

Pretentious comment to say: "Images of Hell gave the usually reserved monk-like artists an opportunity to explore their subconscious fears."

: 1400 to 1520
The Renaissance was like the All-Star game of art history. During the Renaissance (literally meaning "rebirth," as in the rebirth of Greek and Roman artistic sensibilities), Europe experienced a cultural boom and great value was placed on art. As a result, a large number of extraordinary artists all appeared at once (especially in Italy) and produced revolutionary works of art. Four of the most famous artists of this period were Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.

Dead giveaways: People in robes and halos gesturing. Other characteristics include a rich 3-D perspective, human subjects in proportion, and the believable representation of spaces. It was during this period when artists tried to mimic reality as closely as possible.

Pretentious comment to say: "Note how the perspective is more an allusion to space than an illusion of space."

: 1600 to 1725
The Baroque period carried on the Renaissance forms but added a heavily melodramatic flair. The result? Baroque art, with its fat cherubs and gilded frippery. Landscapes and still lifes also sprouted in this period, giving motels around the world something to hang over their double beds. Look for works by Caravaggio and Bernini in Italy and Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer in Holland.

Dead giveaways: Fat women, light rays and fruit bowls.

Pretentious comment to say: "The way the bountiful figures spill over from darkness into light is so typical of the Baroque style."

: 1700 to 1800
During the Neoclassical period, the work of the Greeks and Romans became hip again, but Neoclassicism took a more romantic look at classical subjects. Melodramatic paintings of historical subjects are in vogue and robes are back in fashion. If you need to namedrop, casually mention Jacques Louis David (pronounced Jock Loo-wee Da-VEED).

Dead giveaways: armor, spears and sandals.

Pretentious comment to say: "I'm blown away by the precision of the composition, the accuracy of the costumes and the expressiveness of the gestures."

: 1800 to 1880
Realism was a movement started Gustave Courbet (Goo-stov Cor-BAY), and it refers to the subject of the pictures, not the style. Realists preferred to paint images of thing that they could see, reacting against those who painted imaginary or idealized stuff.

Dead giveaways: a big red signature that says "Courbet."

Pretentious comment to say: "His journalistic approach to reproducing the facts of the real world gives me chills."