Obama says true thing, art historians complain

February 13 2014

Video: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

I've been trying to avoid the row about Barack Obama's remarks on the value of an art history degree, but there have been some interesting responses to it. Here's what he said last week (via Politico.com), when giving a speech about job-training programmes:

“I promise you that folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” Obama said. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree; I love art history, so I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.”

“I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need[...]”

In response, the Colllege Art Association, apparently the main lobbying body for art historians in the US, took the President's remarks too seriously, and got a little windy:

The College Art Association has great respect for President Obama’s initiative to provide all qualified students with an education that can lead to gainful employment. We support all measures that he, Congress, State Legislatures and colleges and universities can do to increase the opportunities for higher education. However, when these measures are made by cutting back on, denigrating or eliminating humanities disciplines such as art history, then America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities. It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating thinking play a critical role. Let’s not forget that education across a broad spectrum is essential to develop the skills and imagination that will enable future generations to create and take advantage of new jobs and employment opportunities of all sorts.

So far so predictable. But the sad fact is, Obama is right. An art history degree is a fascinating and worthwhile thing, but don't think it will lead to a high earning career in art history. I recently mentioned Tate Britain's advertising a full-time Assistant Curator post for British art, for which a PhD 'desirable', for which the salary was just £23,360.

And why is this? As the arts commentator Lucas Spivey eloquently demonstrates on his website, there are too many art historians chasing too few jobs, and so organisations like Tate can get away with offering ridiculously low salaries:

At least someone said it. Regarding President Obama's statements in Wisconsin last week, please let's not make the man apologize. He accurately compared the salary of a skilled manufacturing job to someone with an art history degree.  It's sad but certainly not his fault that those holding BAs or even MAs in art history can't find decent paying work.  This is not to say that the arts and culture jobs are not important to the economy, they accounted for approximately 3.2% of GDP or $504 billion in 2011 (about $200 billion in advertising).  And the arts also have net effect on local tourism, international legitimacy and other areas that are somewhat intangible.

However the economic numbers are in and they are quite conclusive about job prospects and compensation for the arts industries. In the US, the total number of filled arts jobs (somewhere north of 100,000 positions that already occupied) is actually equal to or less than the total unfilled jobs for a singular fields like nurses (105,000), truck drivers (103,000), sales reps (350,000), machine operators (140,000) or software developers (108,000), and others on a given month.  Let that soak in: there are roughly as many unfilled truck driving positions available than there are total arts and cultural jobs filled.  And their rates of pay are at or well above the average salaries in the arts.

Lucas' piece is well worth reading in full.

Now, regular readers will know that I have a further problem with the way many art history degrees are taught these days: they have increasingly little to do with the 'history of art', and are more about presenting an overly theoretical, social history view of art and artists. So if you pick the wrong art history degree, you can end up with little real-world knowledge of the history of art, but be fluent in writing the sort of academic guff we like to laugh about here on AHN. I've also heard senior curators at national institutions express their sadness at applicants for curatorial positions who turn up for an interview with glossy PhDs in the most obscure aspect of social art history, but who know nothing about the broader view of art required to work in a museum.

My advice to people who ask me whether they should do a degree in art history is usually to avoid it. Do history, I say, but read art books, and spend lots of time in galleries.

Still, if President Obama really wanted to make his point stick, he should've taken aim at degrees in 'Media Studies'.

Update - by coincidence the CAA annual conference is currently taking place in Chicago. In case you don't believe me about the randomness of much art history teaching today, take a look at some of the conference session titles

Update II - a reader on a well-known art history course writes:

[...] nearly the whole student body is starting to 'panic' about the severe lack of jobs / internships / training programs going at the moment. I think many here do expect the [course] to virtually hand over a career to them after the course is over. However, when one is paying over £20,000, perhaps it does set one up with false expectations? Perhaps a whole lecture on 'Managing Expectations' would be better for the mental health of students, but not for securing more business [...] Although, it must be noted that most of the advertisements for jobs are coming from Contemporary Galleries in America at the moment. Perhaps it is time to jump ship?

Anyway, it won't put me off...

Update III - Obama apologised! He sent a hand-written letter to an art historian. Wow. More here

Update IV - more thoughts on the subject from Felix Salmon at Reuters here.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.