Art can sharpen our problem-solving skills. Here’s how. — Quartz at work

When looking for new ways to improve our problem-solving skills, spending time with a work of art is perhaps the easiest and most effective training, according to art historian Amy Herman.

Herman has taught professionals—homicide detectives, medical students, lawyers, and engineers—to read paintings to improve their analytical skills. “Art provides a safe space outside of ourselves to analyze our observations and turn those observable details into actionable knowledge,” Herman writes in the introduction to her new book. Fixed. How to perfect the fine art of problem solving.

This can help us understand how and why things go wrong and, more importantly, how to fix them, she explains.

Put the lesson into practice

In her book, Herman explains step-by-step how to navigate through a complex composition.

Look at Théodore Géricault’s grisly painting The Raft of Medusa.

Musee du Louvre

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, 1819

Herman writes:

Perceive its scope, notice its details, count things, catalog what you think is going on.

Then take a deep breath and let your mind wander.

What did the chaos of the previous scene remind you of? A natural disaster? A man-made catastrophe? The current state of your country? Perhaps you were reminded of more personal scenarios: office drama, a runaway argument at home, Zoom Thanksgiving.

No matter who you are or where you live, chances are you can identify with the despair described above.

A critical skill in Herman’s approach is the art of noticing—the ability to suppress the impulse to pick up our mobile devices and pause long enough to ponder the details of a visual spectacle before us. This is especially true in the age of short attention spans, when the average museum visitor spends less than 30 seconds looking at a work of art.

HarperCollins Publishing

Viewing art also attunes us to nuance and ambiguity, Herman explains. It’s a skill that’s critical for hostage negotiators for managers trying to read the space.

“The best way to look at art, whether alone or with others, is to look at the object first, speak after looking, and only then read the label,” Herman told Quartz. “My hope is that learning to look at art in a structured way will inspire and refresh critical inquiry, and that the same model will be applied when confronting problems that require resolution.”

Herman, who once headed the education department at the Frick Collection in New York City, insists there’s no shame in “using art to study ourselves and the problems we face every day.” “Art can be many different things to many different viewers,” she argues. “If the power of an artwork can be channeled in a way that allows a viewer who has no background in art or art history to approach their calling in a different and more inclusive way, why not unleash that?”

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