What is the value of an art-history degree?


President Obama came in for a drubbing when he mentioned during a speech at a GE plant in Wisconsin earlier this year that one could probably make a better income in manufacturing than with an art-history degree. The president quickly backtracked, but it’s hard to un-ring that bell, given how people with art-history degrees have a tendency to pay attention to news and politics, and have laptops and Twitter accounts.The president’s remarks called to mind a similar dismissal, this one made by presumably-not-an-art-history-major Edward Conard, Mitt Romney’s former partner at Bain Capital, who, in a 2012 interview with Adam Davidson of The New York Times, chose ‘art-history majors’ as a derisive shorthand for well-educated kids who opt out of the high-risk-taking, high-reward producing economy – an economy that would generate greater innovation and wealth, Conard argues in his book Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong (2012), if we would stop taxing and regulating and even charitably donating.

For Conard, our current patterns of inequality are not unequal enough. The greater the economic rewards for capital-risk-taking, the more ‘art-history majors’ would be induced to give up the safety of their minor gardens of knowledge, irrigated as they are by the innovations (information technology) and wealth (that goes to pay museum, gallery and studio bills) of others.

On this logic, if Conard had to be for anyone in the field of the arts, he would be for the artists. Artists, after all, are in the business of leveraging capital of different kinds in order to produce something innovative (dare one say ‘new’?), often underwritten by some sense of societal welfare (be it through pleasure or use), and usually with significant risks involved (few risks are as dearly felt as the one of being ignored). However much one would like to compare artists to knowledge workers in today’s flexible and precarious marketplace, it remains that artists, more than art historians, and more than even highly skilled laborers in the manufacturing industries, can still envision a direct path of social mobility to the upper class.

Art-history majors, on the other hand, to the extent that they become art historians or, more likely, take on other wage-based positions, cannot and often do not entertain such mobility. This is not to suggest that they are choosing or want a life of impoverishment. Only that it is likely a defining trait of art-history majors and their ilk that they have given up the promise of some social mobility for a life of service. For example, service to the cultivation of the intellect or the passion one has for art, or for the institution or field of culture or knowledge that supports it, but service nonetheless, which – and this is the crucial point – requires casting off self-aggrandisement as either means or end.

Some, such as Conard, will no doubt scoff at such an idea of service, privileged as it may be and as safe as it may seem, certainly in comparison to the heroics of private equity. But the value of an art-history degree lies in that choice between self-aggrandisement and service.

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of ArtReview.

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