Does Art Make Us Smart?

The other day we attended a celebration of author, critic, and Cornell English Literature professor Dan Schwartz. It was a lot of fun! Schwartz has been teaching at Cornell for 50 years and so there were a lot of former students up on the stage talking about what they had learned from their professor and how it had manifested in their own lives and careers.

The folks in the room were fluent in literary theory and I am not. But as a designer, I spend a good amount of time thinking about the intention of the designer and the relationship between the designer, the objects and systems that they design, and how a user interprets the designer’s intent. Literary critics think and write about the same relationships but with different words: they replace the word designer with author; designed objects with text; and user with reader.

Schwartz wrote a fun piece in the Huffington Post a few years back–Why Study the Arts and Humanities? –that evolved into a book–How to Succeed in College and Beyond. 

In the article, he claims that engaging with the arts does, indeed, make us smarter. Here are a few quotes that speak to that in broad strokes:

That entry into other worlds and minds does give us a larger context for thinking about how to live and how to confront and understand present personal and historic issues, even while also giving us pleasure for its own sake.

Another way to think about what the arts do is to ask whether experiencing the arts makes us more perceptive and sensitive humans. We can say with some certainty that reading and viewing masterworks in the visual arts or in attending performances of great music, opera, or ballet widens our horizons about how people behave and what historical and cultural forces shape that behavior.

And this quote goes beyond broad strokes and digs into the details:

The form of imaginative art, as well as the form of well-written non-fiction, organizes the mess (if not the chaos) of personal life as well as that of external events. Form not only organizes and controls art but also other bodies of knowledge within the humanities. Form imposes structure that our own lives — as we move from moment to moment through time — may lack.

The effect that a text has on our thinking and feeling is interesting. And so is trying to understand the techniques that the author used to shape our experience with the work.



I just discovered a youtube series by a former music prof of mine called “What Makes This Song Great?” It’s super fun and if you watch the videos, you will become smarter, a smarter listener at least. Check out one of these episodes here

and a link to Dan Schwartz’s article is here