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At the scrapbook store the clerk...

Posted Sep 12 2008 1:09pm

At the scrapbook store the clerk smiled as I paid. (I have a Shangri-La Diet scrapbook.)

“You’re amused because I’m a professor?” I asked.

“Because you’re a man. Never see men in here,” she said. “My husband hasn’t been here.”

“I think scrapbooking is very important,” I said. “Everyone’s an artist.”

“There’s no right or wrong,” she said.

Exactly. There’s no right or wrong in art but there is better and worse. Unlike technology where there is “right and wrong”: the tool works or it doesn’t work.

Suppose you are trying to guess a number between 1 and 10000. Contrast two kinds of feedback:

yes/no

and

too low/correct/too high

The first is discouraging, the second encouraging. With the second you can find the number; with the first you will give up.

Suppose you are trying to learn how to make steel. To make useful steel requires doing several things almost exactly right. There really is right or wrong. Trying to guess what to do is hopeless because the feedback is of the yes/no variety. And, in the beginning, all of it is no.

In contrast, suppose you are using steel-like materials in art. There is better and worse in art; as a result, you will slowly learn better control of your materials. You will be slowly guided toward the knowledge you need to make steel. The evolutionary reason for art, I believe, is that paying artists paid for research in material science, which eventually led to better tools. Just as ramps and curb cuts help people on wheels, art helped ancient man. It replaced step functions of utility vs. knowledge with ramp functions.

For fascinating recent comments on sex differences see Rebecca A. and Tyler Cowen. Just as scrapbooking releases the inner artist, blogging releases the inner story-teller.

Previous posts in this series: Christmas; American Idol; business book.

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