Are Artists Smart?

It sounds like a mean question. But stick with me because, as you’ll see, it’s really not.

Artists. Painters, sculptors, sketchers. Let’s go broad and include novelists, poets, actors, chefs… any profession that relies primarily on creativity. Are these people smart? Blurt out whatever comes to mind.

One thing you may have blurted out is, yes. Painting or writing well enough to call yourself a painter or writer is hard. And it’s not hard like moving a fridge; it’s hard like sitting in a studio and bleeding your brain until something amazing appears on the canvas or page. That requires intelligence.

If your answer was something like this, full marks for a well-reasoned and sincere response.

Perhaps you said that no, artists aren’t necessarily smart. Some people who can write brilliant poetry are thick as planks when it comes to other matters. It doesn’t make sense to call artists – people skilled at one thing – any smarter than, say, bricklayers (who are also skilled at one thing).

If your answer was something like this, full marks for a fair and sensible response.

Perhaps you answered ‘well, what does “smart” even mean, really?’

If this was your answer, full marks. Plus a bonus point for sensibly seeking clarification before answering, but minus a bonus point for rudely pre-empting the rest of this article.

Humans are smart animals. Show them something vaguely resembling a face, they will tell you the emotion it expresses. Put them in a room full of people chatting and they will filter out the irrelevant noise. Ask them they layout of their childhood home and watch as they marvel you with exact, detailed descriptions. Best of all, all of these are automatic processes. They don’t require much thought.

So these are normal, universal smart things people do. What about some smart-by-human-standards stuff? Some people are exceptional mathematical thinkers; others can hear perfect pitch; others can translate between languages in real time.

What do all these skills have in common? They are associated with specific parts of the brain. Within your brain is a lobe for self-control, a lobe for organisation long-term memory, a lobe for processing visual information…

We learned a lot about the way the brain works, before MRIs and other advanced equipment, from people suffering brain damage. A stroke or trauma could damage a specific part of the brain, leading to a decline in specific skills.

But creativity is special.

Lately my bedside reading has been the Neuroscience of Creativity. One of the many findings running across the book is that we don’t know how creativity works in the brain. As in, even by neuroscience standards (a field where the questions are far greater than the answers), we little idea about how someone can come up with something new.

Or rather, we don’t know where someone can come up with something new. We know where mathematical analysis and facial recognition take place in the brain, but creativity? Well, creativity takes place everywhere.

This is an interesting idea. We know where so much happens. Even things like exercising willpower and empathising with people take place in specific parts of the brain. Try to think of a new design for a toaster, though, and the whole organ lights up like a Christmas tree.

Okay. So, creativity is complicated. Maybe it uses so many distinct skills that no one part of the brain is responsible. But is creativity more complicated than other brain functions? Well… maybe? I don’t know. I find it surprising, though, that even something as diverse and complex as creativity is distributed across the hardware, while everything else has specialised centres.

But sure, the brain is weird. I get that. And we understand so little of it that, really, nothing should be surprising. I’ll try to keep that thought in mind while thinking about neurological diseases.

Neurological diseases – things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – are terrible conditions. They tend to kill a person’s mind before killing their body, which is a cruel trick of nature. If you lose someone to something like this, it can be hard to remember them for who they really were. But to distance ourselves emotionally for a second, the impact they have on creativity is both fascinating and bizarre.

Conditions like these degrade the brain as a whole. Everything starts to fall apart. Memories and personalities fade and change. And yet, despite this, creativity remains relatively intact. People who painted before developing, say, Alzheimer’s, will often continue to paint even as their other abilities degrade. What’s interesting is that the style might change but the quality tends not to drop – at least until fine motor control weakens. In some cases, people the quality of their work even increases.

There are theories. One is that inhibitions often fade early, leading to uninhibited expressions of art. Another is that as language skills degrade, patients turn towards expressing themselves through visual means. Who can really say. What we can say is that creativity – which seems to draw on the entire brain’s resources – is robust in the face of those resources dwindling.

Back to our opening question. Artists are no-doubt skilled. Are artists smart?

I’m not convinced the question makes sense any more. Creativity seems to operate, neurologically, different from most things we’d describe as evidence of ‘smart’. I feel like we need a new word for it – distributed smarts, like creativity, as opposed to localised smarts, like language or mathematics.

Are artists smart? I think so. But it’s a different class of smart, one that is separate from all others. Creativity is a unique skill, a robust skill that can survive all kinds of neurological damage. It can flourish even as the components of the brain underperform. Creativity is special.

If there is a takeaway from this article, it is the following: never, ever say to yourself ‘I am not smart enough to be creative’. Your creativity doesn’t need you to be clever or talented; it just needs you to use it.

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