Full disclosure: I am neither an artist nor an art critic. Art, however, or at least a piece of it, does hang on my living-room wall. How do I know it is art? The easy answer is because that’s what the gallery owner who sold me the painting called it. A more engaging, if not wholly more satisfying, attempt at an answer is to be found in “Get the Picture,” journalist Bianca Bosker’s breezy, entertaining account of her laborious effort to discover “why art matters.” I say “laborious” because rather than just Google “why does art matter,” Bosker digs the rabbit hole she hurls herself into.
You know from reading the subtitle, which pretty much says it all, that through her encounters with “obsessive art fiends” (everyone from gallery owners to artists to ass influencers (!) to collectors to curators to scientists at the Visual Science of Art Conference), Bosker learns “how to see.” Of course, as a skilled journalist, Bosker already knew how to see; myopic writers don’t usually get published in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, as Bosker has. Good journalists have good eyes—they know what to look for and where to look for it. Bosker is no exception, and what is most admirable about “Get the Picture” is that it hums with Bosker’s relentless determination to get to the bottom (literally, in one case) of her subject on behalf of those of us without the access, wherewithal or book advance to find out for ourselves what makes art Art.
Once committed to following her white rabbit, Bosker has the luck (not easily earned) to fall in with a gallery owner named Jack who serves as her initial guide. Jack turns out to be something of a controlling prick, and so Bosker moves on to a string of new adventures populated by some of the colorful, confabulating denizens of the art world wonderland she explores. By the time it’s over, Bosker will have staffed a booth at a Miami art fair, worked as an artist’s studio assistant, and prowled the Guggenheim as a security guard. Along the way, the mysteries of art’s production, consumption and presumption come slowly into focus. Bosker taps outside references as needed—artists, sociologists, art critics, philosophers, etc.—to help direct her gaze. Naturally, Bob Ross makes an appearance. Was Ross a legitimate artist? Or simply someone who could skillfully, soothingly, draw treacle from the treacle well (to paraphrase the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party)? If you have a taste for treacle, who cares?
Bosker’s book is written with the kind of calculated abandon characteristic of gonzo journalism. Both Bosker’s eye and “I” are at the center of “Get the Picture.” Mostly it works. Much of this type of journalism carries with it a sharp strain of cynicism fueled by a nagging belief in the hypocrisy, absurdity or depravity of humankind. Bosker doesn’t go that far. She works hard, she parties, she ponders. Things get curiouser and curiouser, but Bosker never passes harsh judgment, even when a bit of harsh judgment is due. Although Bosker raises the issue of race and class privilege in the art world she navigates, she gives the concern only a sideways glance. She notes that success in the art industry usually takes money to survive not making money and that Ivy League degrees like her own help. So do the right connections. Like Alice’s wonderland, it’s an insular world operating according to its own insular, self-referential logic. For me, the book reveals that the art industry is less concerned with seeing than with being seen.
In the end, Bosker finds what she is looking for, and here I am forced to swap one analogy in for another. Rather than “Alice in Wonderland,” which ends with Alice opening her eyes and returning to “dull reality,” “Get the Picture” concludes like James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” with an emphatic, blissful affirmation of the experiential awakening that art (and the body) provides. But while Molly Bloom’s “yes” signifies the climax of a novel that is itself a work of art, I must confess that I felt Bosker’s final thoughts on the questions that drove her art world odyssey to be, in all honesty, flaccid. I enjoyed the journey, but the payoff left something to be desired. Get the picture?
“Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey Among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See”
By Bianca Bosker
Viking, 384 pages