Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

It appears that the most popular post on this blog is On studying Art History (a useless degree?). In fact, one of the most common search terms I get is some derivative of “Is an art history degree useless?” Unsurprisingly, I saw a pronounced spike in this type of search around college application time. My previous post discussed what one can do with an Art History degree at a rather broad level, as I am sure that there are other things one can do with such a degree that I haven’t thought of. However, I did get one search phrase once– “is studying art history hard”– that I would like to delve into a bit more, as well as more real world analysis of what it is like to study and work in the arts.

Brilliant man, Einstein.

Let’s start with the inspiring question of “Is studying Art History hard?” Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but so are most areas of study. Everything requires work whether you are good at it or not, and what it really comes down to is if you care about it. Things can seem especially difficult if your mind does not operate along the lines dictated by your chosen discipline. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

For Art History, there are different skills that one needs to acquire and cultivate, including (but not limited to): memorization, which is necessary pretty much anywhere but in terms of Art History means remembering scholars’ arguments, specific artworks, events, dates, etc; analysis, or being able to look at an artwork and scrutinize how it is made, what it means, and so on; critical thinking, which is tied to analysis and basically means reading between the lines and questioning an argument or artwork; efficient communication, both in terms of writing and speaking so that one can make an effective argument. When I started grad school, I had spent most of my academic and professional careers thinking in more practical terms (and I mean practical in the “practice” sense of the word): in art conservation and collections management, there are set ways in which one handles or takes care of an object, like not touching an antique silver teapot with your bare hands. Granted, many rules in the various academic disciplines are made to be questioned, as questioning and reformulating ideas are what drives knowledge forward (and since conservation is a very scientific field, it is as open to evolving ideas as chemistry is). However, unless someone develops a better glove than nitrile, I doubt that anyone will be changing how they handle silver any time soon.

Art History, on the other hand, is all about challenging and reinventing ideas because it is a very abstract area of study where things are almost always open to interpretation. For example, Surrealism is acknowledged to be a chauvinistic movement that relegated women to the roles of muses or artistic echoes of their male counterparts (Kay Sage loved Yves Tanguy, and it has been argued that her style was influenced by his, which some have counterargued is a reductive claim because it puts her in a secondary, almost copy-cat role); however, in the 1980s, scholars like Mary Ann Caws and Whitney Chadwick began to apply feminist concepts to Surrealism and argued that its focus on the psyche allowed women artists to explore their identities and develop as artists more than ever before. Chadwick even argued that Surrealism was a precursor to feminism, an idea that would have been completely outlandish before the 80s. But I digress– I have Surrealism on the brain because of my thesis.

Karen Zgoda’s classic “Grad Student Barbie” (Source)

From my personal experience, I will say that studying Art History at the Master’s degree level was definitely a challenge for me because my mind did not operate along such abstract lines (I was also insanely busy because I worked my way through grad school at a regular job and could not dedicate as much time to my studies like an ideal grad student should). I had studied Art History in college, but I did not question much and took almost everything at face value while still managing to maintain an A average. Part of me wants to blame the American education system for that because of standardized testing– CSAP was instigated when I was in 4th grade, if I remember correctly– which demands memorization instead of critical thinking and is now being roundly abused for putting America at 17th place in world rankings. However, I could also say that I just have a more practically based mind and my intelligence is rooted in procedural memory, hence my love of crochet. Nevertheless, I managed to train my mind to think differently during my time in grad school, so even though it was especially hard at first, I eventually managed to succeed. Grad school is a challenge no matter what because it is designed to test you and make you question what you think you know. Many grad students complain about the work load, stress or their demanding advisors, and while I will not deny that all of that is true to some extent, it’s all part of the game.

Now let’s move on to talking about a real world application of Art History of which I can also speak from personal experience. As I discussed in my original post, there are a variety of jobs out there for which a degree in Art History is directly related, but one must know that they want to work in the arts and must get as much professional experience possible. I spent years doing internships, volunteering, and working contract positions in museums and galleries before I landed a full-time job. When I was about 16, I began believing that working in the arts was what I wanted to do, first as an art conservator; at 23– and after 2 years of rejections from art conservation schools– decided that I wanted to work as a registrar or collections manager in an art museum. I have had a passion for art my entire life, and my dad in particular had always encouraged me to do something I love rather than something I hate just for the money. I will say that Art History has given me many skills that I am glad to now have, especially critical thinking, research, and argumentation. These are good skills to have in many work environments, though it would be more beneficial to get an MBA rather than an MA in Art History if you want to make an effective argument in, say, a corporate setting. Still, the fact is that I love art, I love caring for it, and I find great joy in knowing that I am a protector of history (as crappy as some of it may be).

However, for a long time, I could not comprehend the realities of my teenaged decision to work in the arts. I was following the dream to do something I love, and that was all that mattered. I am now 26, and let me be blunt: working with a two art-related degrees is a bitch. I have found work– and again, I absolutely love caring for art– but I have had to resign myself to the fact that I am likely going to live a very modest lifestyle. At 16 years old, working at a dry cleaners 12-16 hours a week for $6.50 an hour, a salary as low as $24,000 a year sounded awesome because I had no concept of living in the real world. Furthermore, my degrees are so specialized– especially my BFA in Pre-Art Conservation– that I am going to have a hard time ever getting out of the arts should I decide that I want to do something else all together. Sadly, I am hardly an exception to the rule: almost everyone I know who works in the arts or in museums gripes about the high expectations and low pay; the amount of education we’re expected to get and the accompanying debt; the questionable job security (when the economy tanks, the arts and cultural sector tanks harder); and the lack of equivalent respect to other professions, particularly in comparison to business.

The decision to follow a certain career path ultimately comes down to one thing: whether or not you care about what you do. Caring about something and liking it do not always go hand in hand, and if you begin to dislike what you do to an extreme degree, you will likely eventually stop caring about it and become all around miserable. I often reflect on my current path and think about how I would have done things differently, as I frequently feel quite disgruntled about my grad school stress levels and future job outlook. Ultimately, I probably would have stayed the course I originally took because I cannot imagine doing anything else; however, I may have done a Bachelor’s degree in Art History with a minor in Business, then done my Master’s degree in Museum Studies. I wish I could be a lawyer, but I simply do not have the personality for it (although according to this fascinating article from the New York Times, lawyer prospects aren’t so shiny anymore because one will likely graduate with an average of $125,000 in debt and a 50/50 chance of getting a job). My dream job would be as a professional craftsperson, making hats and birdhouses and whatever the hell else catches my fancy, but I find that I need the personal and financial security of having a regular job.

Dumbledore and Voldemort, battling on.
(Source)

Is a degree in Art History useless? No, but be confident that you love it and prepared for the possible outcomes, like working in a niche market and a middle class lifestyle (as much as I would like to go off on a rant about the broken higher education system and lack of equal pay for equal work, I’ll save that for better writers than me). Is Art History hard? Yes, but again, so is everything that requires work. My best piece of advice is to think about what you value in life, which can unfortunately be hard when one is a teenager. I honestly think that it can be a good thing to take a little break between high school and college to get some perspective and real-world experience. If I had done that, maybe things would have turned out differently. However, there is no point in regret. As Albus Dumbledore would say, we must “battle on.”

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One thought on “Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

  1. I really appreciate your practical and honest perspective! I have a BA in English and an MA in the History of Art. (“working with two art-related degrees is a bitch”!) Trying to get my second (or is it third?) career going as a freelance editor, which feels right. Probably what I should have been doing all along – I just didn’t know it. I don’t regret those degrees for a second, but they’re not going to get me a job all on their own. It seems to me that networking, that is, who you know, can take you a long way, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. I’m finding that people are almost always kind and want to help if they can, and that you never know where things will lead. I’m not a huge Joan Rivers fan, but I love this quote by her: “You go through any door that opens. In the beginning, you go through the doors. You don’t know which is going to be the one.” Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

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