In Defense of Art History

Art Connoisseur by Norman Rockwell, 1962.

I do not normally use this blog to editorialize, but I was listening to the radio yesterday and they played a sound bite from a speech President Obama was making in Wisconsin in defense of vocational training and I will say I agree with what he was saying, that there is no shame and often wage benefits, to being trained in a trade however, he chose the perpetually easy target of art history as an example of a college pursuit gone wrong (as Click and Clack humorously and routinely point out on Car Talk).
Here is the quote according to the Washington Post:
      "A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, 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." According to the Washington Post, President Obama then chuckled and attempted to put out the fire he had accidentally started by saying "Nothing wrong with art history degree, I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need."
I thought oh great, one more insult to add to the pile, way to grab for the low hanging fruit Mr. President, but it points out a larger and and growing disdain in our society for the libral arts/ humanities in education. With all the promotion of the STEM degrees the traditional libral arts have taken a real hit in the last ten years or so. What used to be considered a fine, well-rounded background for almost any pursuit, has become the butt of jokes and is pointed to as an education squandered.

From my perspective, without the studies of the humanities our lives are less rich, they lack an understanding of past and richness that only an appreciation of the arts can bring. People may argue that you can pursue these avenues of enrichment on your own, outside of how you earn your money, but without teachers in these areas, your pursuit will only take you so far. Without someone to explain Abstract Expressionism to you, you might likely dismiss it as so many "globs of paint" and miss the importance of the freedom the movement represented and how by throwing the canvas on the ground and tossing the paint onto it, Jackson Pollock took art to a place without boundaries and represented the potential of a nation emerging from the dust of a hard-fought world war, as the new global super power. Art, music, literature, poetry are the mirror that reflects our world back to us, they capture and see things that may not be clear at the time, but upon further study enrich our understanding of ourselves and our world. 

When I pursued my studies in the areas of literature and art, I knew I was not choosing a path to wealth or fame, but I expected to work in a museum or teach for a wage that would allow me to live modestly, but comfortably and reap my rewards though proximity to beautiful art, or through introducing students to the world of art. As I struggle to find a job (while the adjunct teaching opportunities dry-up and pay far less than a living wage [a rant for another place and time]) I get what Obama is saying, but I am sad for what we lose as a society when we devalue the humanities and look down on those who see its value as more than a guaranteed income bracket.