January 31st, 2014

disney - ariel voice

Thanks, Mr. President.

– Obama Disses Art History Majors: In a post-State of the Union speech stop in Wisconsin, President Barack Obama angered some art history majors (and, oddly enough, a bunch of political bloggers) when he suggested that an art history degree might not be that lucrative. “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” the president said, “but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Maybe regretting his comparison, Obama followed up: “Nothing wrong with art history degree... I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.” [Politico, WP]


I mean, I don't actually disagree with his statement.  Unless you're an art historian at a major institution, like the Met or at an Ivy League university, I'm pretty sure you won't be making an impressive salary.  It's not a career path that one sets out to walk because of a love of money.  Art history is about appreciating visual culture and celebrating human history, preserving the past and inspiring the future.  It's not about chasing the almighty dollar.

But why pick on art historians?  It's not an easy major.  To get a bachelor's degree, art historians must show a strong aptitude for communicating their observations and defending their views.  They have to memorize hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and other art works, and be able to regurgitate the artist's name, date, location, construction, and cultural significance.  Most schools will require either a foreign language or two, or extensive time spent in the studio. And that's before you start to specialize.  Say I want to focus on Renaissance art.  It's not enough to be able to identify the oeuvre of each major painter and sculptor.  The art historian has to know what was going on at that point in history.  The politics and economics of the time, the social mores, what materials were available, what the popular mythology and folklore was, common symbolism, on and on.  At every level - master's, doctorate - it gets tougher and tougher as more languages need to be learned, more history needs to be studied, and picking out the threads that tie all this disparate information together!

Anyone who believes that art history is just sitting around and looking at pretty pictures all day has never spoken to an art historian.

But I suppose anyone will defend their area of study vigorously.

I take more umbrage, I think, at the suggestion that choosing a career based on how lucrative it is is the most important factor.  Yes, the average engineer make twice or thrice as much as the average art historian. But you have to consider quality of life, too.  Yes, I could have gone into engineering, or finance, or a hundred other courses of study that likely pay more than art history will.  But would I have enjoyed myself half as much?  Heck no.  I'm intelligent enough that I could have gotten a degree in accounting, for example, but my personality's a mighty poor match for it.  Why work so hard to make myself miserable?  I'd rather have less money and a lot more fun - and, Mr. President, there is nothing wrong with that.