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Art Changes How We View the World

Has anyone ever said to you,”All art is quite useless”? This Oscar Wilde quote follows artists and art historians around like an annoying little sibling. And it never seems to go away, no matter how many times you say, “art has its place and it helps us to understand the world around us like nothing else!” Luckily, we now have the proof we have been looking for.

Amy Herman, an art historian and lawyer, is teaching a class to police and secret service agents at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The class, “The Art of Perception,” trains police to pay attention to details and gives them tools for articulating their observations. By changing the way law enforcement officials look at situations and the world around them, they become better equipped to solve and prevent crimes.

Amy Herman Teaching Her Class (with Sargent's Madame X)

Herman’s class ignores the traditional art historical discussions about the artists, historical contexts, or art criticism. These elements are not important for learning to observe. Instead, Herman says, “there are two words that are not allowed, ‘obviously’ and ‘clearly’.” She simply has her students describe what they think they see happening.

And the class seems to be working. For example, one FBI agent used Herman’s exercises while on an undercover mission. His new skills helped him to observe and describe “office layouts, storage lockers, desks and file cabinets containing incriminating evidence.” The information resulted in 34 convictions.

So the next time someone says, “art is completely useless in the real world,” tell them, “You’re Wrong!”

For a more detailed description for Herman’s class and her exercises, check out the article in the Smithsonian Magazine here.