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. Continue reading

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.  Continue reading