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Art Makes You Smart: Unconventional Solutions to Unexpected Problems

I recently read an article from The New York Times titled “Art Makes You Smart.” It describes a study that demonstrates “strong causal relationships” between museum visits for school groups and students’ increased critical-thinking skills, higher levels of social tolerance, deeper understanding of the causes and motivations behind historical events, and taste for art museums and other cultural institutions (music to any museum director’s ears). If you think you’ve heard this before, it’s probably because educators have long believed that exposure to the arts fosters these and other benefits, but the study in question is among the first to provide strong scientifically gathered data to support these assertions.

Consider what it means to be able to think critically: It means you can take a problem, analyze it from different angles, and come up with either a solution or an interpretation of it that is your own. To do this, you may need to be self-critical, able to recognize and question your prior assumptions. In business, science, academia, or the arts, this kind of analytical and reflective thinking is crucial. It is also essential to citizenship. Voters’ ability to listen, read, and weigh conflicting opinions and claims to arrive at their own conclusions makes a democracy possible.

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Children in the galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art.

For those of us who work in the arts or are dedicated museum-goers, art education’s importance for its own sake as well as for general intellectual development is not a surprise. We know from experience that making art or seriously viewing it provides a platform for personal growth—it opens up new worlds. Many of us are disturbed with the slashing of art programs in public schools, while STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is viewed in some circles as a panacea. Of course, these skills are absolutely necessary for living and working into the future, but without the arts and the unconventional, analytical thinking they inspire, STEM cannot produce—or even wholly support—the economic engines of tomorrow

There’s also a concept called STEAM, which is an effort to integrate art into the mix of science-oriented education. My sense is that this is meant to satisfy those who care about studio arts, and it may also be born of an understanding that design has been essential to new technologies—after all, Steve Jobs studied calligraphy and was deeply concerned with the aesthetics of form and function. His talent in those areas is what made Apple thrive. Whatever the A in STEAM is, however, it is only one small aspect of art education.

Art doesn’t usually have, or require, practical applications, and this may be why some educators, politicians, and funders have problems with it. Rather than answering a specific problem, an artwork may pose its own. It may create fruitful complications, or integrate multiple perspectives. Art-making requires trial and error, embracing risk and accepting failure. This fosters the kind of original thinking that makes life deeper and richer, and makes communities and work places more effective and inventive. Whatever the ultimate goals and career paths of those who study art, society stands a good chance of benefitting from their ability to think in new ways.

Museums are an ideal place to learn about art because they contain myriad examples of unconventional solutions to unexpected problems, produced through the ages. At Carnegie Museum of Art, we have an unusually creative and forward-looking education department. My job is to support them and give them the intellectual space and the resources they need to help prepare us for tomorrow’s world.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.