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."


The last two centuries have seen an exhilarating march of overlapping and blending movements. Don't worry too much about it; just realize that art that does not attempt directly reflect reality is usually considered to be "modern." The art movements below are all factions of modern art.

MODERN ART: 1800 - present
Modern Art entered around 1800, a century before Picasso and his buddies made it famous again. While traditional portrait painting was still being cranked out by the acre, there was a growing movement of artists who wanted to rebel against the stage-y art that people were hanging over their living room sofas. What makes a work "modern" is its purposeful breaking of the traditions of the past; those who broke the rules got the headlines. Modern art does not necessarily represent concrete objects (be it real, like a person, or imaginary, like a unicorn), but rather revels in its weirdness.

Dead giveaways: the tourists around you are squinting and asking, "What is it?"

Pretentious comment to say: "It is art."

: 1870 to 1900
Spun off from realism, Impressionism took the act of seeing to a new level, thanks to an obsession with light and color. Impressionists painted the light they could see, using countless little dabs of paint. Claude Monet was the founder of the movement and its most consistent practitioner. In short, impressionism is obsessed with tons of colors, and as the movie Clueless so eloquently put it, impressionist paintings look normal from far away, "but close up, it's a big ol' mess."

Dead giveaways: the same image painted two or more times under different lighting conditions.

Pretentious comment to say: "Look closely. All the colors in the painting are represented in every square inch of the canvas."

: 1880 to 1920
The Postimpressionism movement basically consists of a group of guys who have no other distinction than coming after the impressionists. They started out with the impressionist rules of painting light, but went in different directions. Postimpressionism also has a particular affinity for drawing attention to the physical act of painting, focusing on such features as thick swabs of paint (Van Gogh) or only painting with tiny dots of color (Seurat). Others include Gauguin and Cezanne.

Dead giveaways: You see paint first, image second.

Pretentious comment to say: "You know, his ear never had a chance to grow back."

: 1900 to 1920
Cubism has nothing to do with Cuba; rather, it was an intellectual approach to the figure/ground problem. For instance, Picasso and Braque used multi-facets (unrealistically portraying several perspectives at once) to break up the forms of the figures and blend them into the ground.

Dead giveaways: It was painted by Picasso or Braque between 1906 and 1921.

Pretentious comment to say: "In the collage phase, Picasso synthesizes his faceted abstractions with the new sound of Jazz."

: 1912 to present
Abstract art refers to works that have no literal subject at all. The artist strips the forms and colors of any trace of representation. The painting doesn't represent anything at all. It just is. Even in abstract art there's still the classic and romantic split. Kandinsky, for example, painted chaotic splotches of singing color that clearly set him in the emotional category. Mondrian's works, on the other hand, are classic calm.

Dead giveaways: You say to yourself, "I could do that."

Pretentious comment to say: Anything but, "I could do that."


Style: De Stijl
Artist: Mondrian
Look for: Monopoly boards, the Partridge Family bus.
Pretentious comment to say: "The asymmetrical balance is so simple, yet complex."

Style: Surrealism
Artists: Dal, Magritte
Look for: Melting clocks, floating bowler hats
Pretentious comment to say: Anything with the words "existential" and "gestalt."

Style: Abstract Expressionism
Artist: Pollock
Look for: Dribbling, drippy paint splattered on the canvas.
Pretentious comment to say: "The enormous canvas envelopes your perception and draws you into the network of drips like an insect into a web."

Style: Pop Art
Artist: Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein
Look for: Campbell's Soup cans.
Pretentious comment to say: "His original reproductions of mass produced objects are an ironic commentary on the modern preoccupation with materialism."


Figure and Ground

You remember the optical illusion of the black and white shapes that can be either a vase or two profiles facing each other, right? This is a simple example of figure and ground. The figure is the subject (not necessarily a person, but the emotional focus), and the ground is the area which that figure occupies. Just think of the figure as the main thing in the painting, and the ground as the background.

Going back to our faces and vases, if you see faces then they are the figures and the vase shape is the ground. If you see a vase, then the vase is the figure and the faces are the ground. But making the figure and ground dance together is one of the main challenges of art. There are exceptions, but this concept will help you fake your way through most of what you'll see in the average (or great) museum.

Different artists (and different art movements) solve the figure/ground problem in different ways. So when you look at a work of art, look closely at where the figure meets the ground. Is it a crisp edge, or does it blur so that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends? Is the ground lighter or darker than the figure? Is it darker in some places and lighter in others? Announce what you observe loudly and importantly, and gesture toward the work with fluid flicks of the wrist.

Talking about the figure/ground will impress your companions and cause other museum-goers to follow you, hoping to catch a few crumbs of your obviously exhaustive knowledge of art.

Light and Color

It seems simple, but look at the colors in works of art. Are they bright? Muted? Are they all similar or does it look like Walt Disney threw up? And what about the light? Where is the source light? Is it sunlight? Candlelight? Headlights? How does the light affect the mood? Practice on this work by Jan Vermeer.

The way that color and light come together is a big part of many works of art. The thing to keep in mind as you're looking at this stuff is that it's not a photograph (unless, of course, you're looking at a photograph). Thus, every color, shadow, and highlight had to be put there by hand. Did they do a good job? With experience you'll be able to confidently judge. Or confidently fake it, which is what most art-types do anyway.

Unity and Variety

Each work of art has elements of unity and elements of variety. Some ways of creating unity might be to make everything in a painting a similar color, or to have a series of repeating shapes, or a consistent texture made with brush strokes. Variety balances out unity and keeps things interesting. At times, variety is used to cause the eye to pay particular attention to that object. Ask yourself why the artist would bother trying to single out your attention to that object.


Classic vs. Romantic

You've heard of the "right brain versus left brain debate," right? The left side is rational and deals with words and numbers (think Mr. Spock). The right side is emotional, intuitive and colorful (think Austin Powers). Most people slightly lean toward one way or the other.

It's the exact same way with paintings: the left is "classic," and the right is "romantic."

  • Classic artists are more interested in the world as they know it to be (conceptual) rather than the world that meets the eyes (perceptual). Their works tend to be calm, balanced, cerebral, patterned, geometric, structural, and rational. Artists of this kind tend to find more important the underlying structure of things rather than the surface appearance. For a fine example of a classical work, check out this painting.

  • Romantic artists are more interested in the emotional effect of their work. Their art tends toward the theatrical, and they are more concerned with the surface appearance than underlying structure. Their works tend to be colorful, intuitive, dynamic, organic, and have movement and drama. To wallow in a romantic work, look at this painting.

Remember that these are broad categories and many works have characteristics of both. Some artists start out classic in their younger days only to grow wild in their old age.

Linear vs. Painterly

So you're standing there, you've already attracted a crowd by talking loudly about figure/ground and classic vs. romantic. You've got 'em eating out of your hand. Where to go now? Linear vs. painterly. An easy way to categorize works as either classic or romantic is by identifying the use of these two common painting techniques:

  • Classic works tend to be linear -- that is, the shapes are bounded by lines, sort of like cartoon characters. Botticelli's Birth of Venus is a perfect example. You can also refer to every Peanuts comic strip Charles Schulz ever drew (regardless of what anybody says, it is art).

  • Romantic works tend to be painterly--the boundaries between shapes are blurred somehow, usually with brush strokes. You can clearly see the brush strokes; the artist isn't even trying to hide them. Some call it lazy, we call it painterly. Frans Hals barroom works fall into this category.


Composition is about putting things in the right place. Like the way you arrange the objects on your desk or the furniture in your living room. Everything in art (as in life) has its own color, weight, texture, etc. When you put these visual elements, together they interact. For instance, colors may fight or harmonize (or both). A triangle sitting on its base looks stable; turn it on its point and it looks unstable. How the artist arranges the elements of color, shape, and size is a means of expression, and in some ways is the heart of the exercise.

As you gather experience looking at art, you'll become sensitive to what the artist is saying through composition. You see that a mob scene with a hundred randomly scattered figures isn't as strong as a mob scene with carefully composed groups of figures all working together. You look at Leonardo's Last Supper and you'll note that the disciples aren't just sitting at the table, they're clustered together in groups. Christ is at the center, alone. His head is in the center of the window behind him. All of the lines of perspective lead to him. These are just a few of the compositional elements that make The Last Supper a masterpiece.

Once you get the hang of composition, not only will you actually be able to appreciate art more fully, you'll probably get a hearty round of applause from the museum crowd, who by this time will have tossed their rented cassette players to openly hang on your every word.


Now that you've got this art stuff nailed down, time to go to the museum and try it out on the plebes.

Get there early, or whenever off-peak is. You want to see art, not the back of someone's head. Also remember to wear comfortable shoes -- you could easily walk a couple of miles in a large museum. Oh yeah, and print this out and take it with you.

Here's what to do when standing in front of a work of art:

  • Stand in the right place - it's different for each work, so stand in a few different places to see what works best.

  • Don't stand where the lights make a glare on the painting. If you see people crouched on the floor peering up, join them in trying to find that glare-free spot. It'll prove that you really are analyzing the painting instead of looking at it.

  • Don't lean over the ropes; if you get too close to the art, the security guards might toss you out of the museum (or into the East River, in the case of more valuable works). And no matter what you do, NEVER touch the art unless a sign specifically says you can. It's a museum, not a petting zoo.

  • Spend at least 2 minutes standing still and deeply looking at each painting. Nothing will ever jump out at you and yell at you to look at it; you'll have to use your brain to recognize the elements we've described above.

  • Take a pair of binoculars. It sounds ridiculous, but museums with special "for a limited time only" displays can get very crowded. Sometimes you can get a better close view by standing back and looking through binoculars than you can by trying to wrestle your way to the front of a flock of schoolkids.

  • Don't waste time in front of mediocre works. Even in the best museums not everything is great. If it doesn't grab you, keep going. If someone asks you why you don't like the painting, just say something cryptic like, "The artist obviously didn't take a stance on the subject's emotional state. Thus, the emotional plateau of the painting is muddled." Nobody will care enough to ask you to elaborate.

  • Don't get too analytical right away; check your gut before your head. You might surprise yourself.

  • Above all, remember to enjoy it. While faking supreme knowledge of art is fun, it's useless unless you derive pleasure from it too.

So that's it. If you commit this article to memory and recite it out loud (or just read it aloud from the printout) the next time you go to a museum, you'll be an intellectual god. People from around the world will fly you to Paris, Rome and Barcelona to walk them through museums and share your special knowledge with them. Or they might just squint at you, call you a showoff, take you out back and kick your ass. But as you lie there bleeding in the alley, you can close your swelling black eyes and rest secure in the knowledge that YES, YOU APPRECIATE ART. Maybe you'll be able to teach the paramedics a thing or two.