The Myths– and Realities– Behind the Stereotype of the Elitism of Art History

Raphael, “School of Athens” (c. 1509)

I recently started using the app Zite on my iPad, a sort of news-related RSS feed which is programmed to cater to your reading tastes the more you use it. I naturally chose Arts and Culture as one of my top categories, and the following article, originally in The Guardian, caught my attention: “History of art: a degree for the elite?” This article was written by Joy Starkey, a third-year Art History undergraduate at Cambridge University. It seems to be more relevant to the British academic and artistic scenes, and consequently, I had a little more trouble relating to it. However, it’s main point was quite clear: art– and therefore Art History– is quite literally put on such a pedestal that it is typically seen as inaccessible for most people, thus its study is believed to be limited to the elite few. And I mean “elite” in the literal sense of the word. According to Starkey, this stereotype is particularly prevalent in England, as Art History is a popular major amongst royals and the wealthy. She additionally points to other key factors in this perceived inaccessibility: the collecting of art tends to be pastime for the rich, art is often seen as cryptic (therefore those who can decipher it clearly are privileged), and art museums– which I should note regularly brush shoulders with the wealthy in order to acquire their art for exhibition loans– are inherently “treasure-oriented” with their presentation of objects on pedestals and white walls. I certainly agree with Starkey that the appreciation and study of art does not have to be limited to the pompous and privileged (I myself come from a thoroughly middle class background). Furthermore, I do not believe that Art History has to be a niche subject, and I wholly agree with her statement that art is “anything but elitist… Art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone’s world.” However, I have to counter-argue that there still are degrees of elitism in the arts sector beyond its financial prevalence as a hobby for the wealthy, and they still pervade academia. 

Detail of “Design for the Grande Galerie in the Louvre” (c. 1796)

As many people know, my relationship with Art History is rather tenuous (which you can read more about in my Art History-ing tab), therefore my perspective on the issue at hand may be somewhat biased. I would like to build more upon key points Starkey mentioned in her article, the first being the places in which we see and interact with art. The vast majority of people are first exposed to genuine fine art in museums and galleries. Historically speaking, many museums, such as the Louvre, started out as venues to display spoils of war. Museums were also intended to emphasize the home culture’s artistic, technological, or military superiority, and originally, they were places that were only open to an elite few. However, museums eventually opened up to the masses in the mid-nineteenth century, though I believe it was Tony Bennett (the author of The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, not the singer) who argued that the very structure of museums lent to impressing forms of societal control over the non-elite masses. Today, there tends to be a very distinct aesthetic in the display of art in museums and galleries, the most common of which is referred to as the “white cube.” This is a rather austere place, with white walls, isolated pedestals, and spotlights, all of which are geared to enhance the perceived value of the objects. The “control” that was inherent to the first museums can still be found in those of today: people simply act differently in museums, particularly those that are treasure-oriented, because they are structured to emphasize the display of items that have been assigned value and therefore command reverence. However, many new museums are moving away from the stereotypical white cube: the Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, for example, has angular white walls and gallery spaces instead of 90-degree cubic/rectangular ones. Also, it is common to see contemporary art point out the ridiculousness of the white cube by playing with space or poking fun at the accessibility of the museum itself. For example, at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, conceptual artist Michael Asher won the coveted Bucksbaum Award for proposing that the museum alter its hours so that it would be open 24 hours a day for a full week (however, due to budgetary constraints as well as consideration for museum personnel, the museum could only do this for three full days). Additionally, increased consideration and awareness of museums’ surrounding communities are allowing them to gear their education and programming towards wider audiences, thus further diminishing the perceived elitist barrier between art and the masses.

Access to art is becoming increasingly open as the museum world considers appealing itself to wider audiences, which is in part due to decreased governmental funding for arts and culture. However, the article under analysis is about pursuing a degree in Art History, thus calling for further consideration of the ivory tower that is academia. A friend of mine recently posted an article on Facebook from the New York Times entitled “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall,” which chronicled the lives of three girls from Galveston, TX, all of whom were the best and brightest at their high school but were plagued with money problems that hindered their abilities to complete their college educations. However, the article’s larger argument discussed the increased elitism of higher education itself, which is becoming evermore expensive– and therefore increasingly inaccessible– to lower- and middle-class students. This in turn contributes to the widening of the gap between rich and poor, as more and more decent-paying jobs require a college degree. Therefore, while art itself may be falling off of its proverbial marble pedestal, its study is becoming imprisoned in an ivory tower that is tragically growing ever taller.

Possibly a more accurate depiction of the home of your typical curator

Art History can be one of the most difficult degrees to work with if you are not going into the arts after you graduate with your degree. In fact, I read that it is considered one of the top 10 most useless degrees, though I wrote a post last summer on what you can do with a degree in Art History. Nevertheless, it is a dark joke in the world of arts and culture (especially museums) that you will never make any money at your job. Many people may have this perception of art museums being filled with Prada-wearing staff who live in fancy, art-filled mansions (since we’re supposed to be super classy and all), but this is rarely ever true. Curators, who more often than naught need to have a Ph.D (which equates to about 8 years of additional schooling if you also include 2 years for a Master’s degree– hooray for bleeding money in the name of education!) and are close to the top of the museum-staff food chain, make an average of $52,000 a year. Indeed, I have known a fair few people employed in the arts who were either born into money and therefore do not have to worry so much about income (which is what Starkey is trying to argue against), or they rely upon their spouses to provide the majority of the income. However, if they are in neither position, they simply resign themselves to living a a very middle-class lifestyle– because it’s the arts, and not much more is to be expected. I include myself in this latter category. Dealers and galleries can occasionally do quite well for themselves, as evidenced by Gagosian and others, but the art market is extremely fickle and dependent on the state of the economy, as art is an elastic commodity. In short, it is a rough road, working in the arts, and I can understand why few people choose to study Art History. Unfortunately, the stereotype that one has to be rich in order to work in the arts (and live a nice lifestyle) is often true.

I overall agree with Starkey’s sentiment of art being accessible to the masses, including college students, and studying it does really increase a number of useful skills including writing and analytical. Yet there is no denying that actually majoring in Art History is often a bold and even risky move. I myself often question what I was thinking when I decided that I wanted to go into the arts. However, I remember when I was a kid, my dad used to tell me that it was more important to do something that I love, not something that I hate just to make more money. I love art, I want others to love art, and I love what I do. Art gives life– including my own– meaning, and “meaning,” according to Viktor Frankl and a new psychological study, is more important than “happiness.”


3 thoughts on “The Myths– and Realities– Behind the Stereotype of the Elitism of Art History

  1. Very interesting post. It rings true for me as a Bachelor of Art History as well as hopeless looker and analyzer of things myself…I think there is hope for the art world to shed some of its elitists stereotypes. The internet offers an accessibility to art, both fine and otherwise, for artists to get their work out there without the backing of big name and big money galleries. I also think its up to artists to emphasize an “every man’s” approach to their work when speaking about it. Unfortunately, I think too many artists enjoy basking in the elitist presumptions that go along with the title. Yes, speak intelligently, but don’t sound so pompous that you end up alienating people.

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