In a (hopefully) off-the-cuff speech at a GE plant in Wisconsin, our President said, "folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”
Predictably, there was a barrage of distraught protestations from Art History Departments. And just as predictably, our President – whose aplomb early fell victim to the pressures of the job – offered a lame response, writing to one of the whinging art history professors that “art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school.” (What a lucky boy was Barry, going to a high school with art history in the curriculum.) He went on to say, "I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history."
There can be little question that a mastery of the history of pictorial art – except for the lucky few who can find jobs at Sotheby’s or Christie’s or, in the pyramid scheme which the humanities have become in the academic world, teaching art history – has no economic value.
Nevertheless, like virtually all educators, who sometimes twist themselves in knots in order to join the economic bandwagon, the art history professor to whom Obama replied had defended her field, in her e-mail to him, as helping to “challenge students to think, read, and write critically.” Fair enough, but that’s true of almost any course in college, high school, and even grade school, if it is taught well.
The funny thing is, that in his reply to the art history professor’s e-mail, Obama assigns a non-economic value to art history, a totally useless benefit when it comes to earning enough money to make one a good middle-class consumer: “As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”
The “joy” that a person who paid attention in his high school art history class might experience during an afternoon in an art museum is just an inkling of the lifetime of “joy” that a serious student of art history, even an impoverished one, would experience exploring the range of art, the depths of art, discovering a facet of art with which he felt a particular affinity and devising his own unique interpretation of the works within it.
There may be no economic value in serious academic work in the humanities, but is there any social value in it? On the face of it the answer is no. Why should there be? The aim of what we call a liberal education is the enrichment of the individual. There are plenty of institutions – including numerous education disciplines, such as medicine, science, engineering -- which not only have an economic value, but contribute materially to the social welfare. But art history? What good is that?
More good than ever. The study of the humanities – art, literature, music, philosophy – are more important today than they have been for 1,300 years.
We are entering a new Dark Ages, with Western, or Judeo-Christian, or European (whatever you want to call it) Civilization in the grips of a cultural revolution more destructive than Mao’s – not cruel, like Mao’s, but really quite pleasurable, camouflaging the destruction of the culture in addictive gadgetry just as the Church, in the Middle Ages, hid its depredations behind gratifying sanctimoniousness. It will be the academic humanists – the art historians, the literature professors, the classicists, the music historians, the philosophers and the historians of philosophy – who will play the role that the Irish monks played in the previous Dark Ages. They will keep the fires burning until, a century, or two, or four from now, a new Renaissance will recognize the value – the basic importance and beauty – of what every day, every hour, every moment, we see – almost literally see -- slipping away.