I am an art history major. Yes, that means that I am working towards a bachelor’s degree in art history (It also means that my math skills are akin to those of a 3rd grader). Every time I mention this to someone, I get the exact same response: “what are you going to do with that?”
I imagine that anyone studying English literature, or philosophy, especially something like painting is used to hearing a similar response. In such a terrible economy, with job shortages rampant, “art history” seems about as practical as studying, well, painting.
It very well might be because I am of the generation who assumes that infinite utopic possibilities are guaranteed by a foolproof combination of hard work, networking and a reasonable amount of intellect, but I’m getting tired of having to justify my proposed career path to everyone outside of this little art history/fine arts cocoon with which I surround myself.
I should not have to list off the variety of viable and respectable career options that an art history education might lead to (but what the heck; these could include teaching at any level, curation, museum administration, archival work, non-profit work, art sales and marketing, just to name a few). The fact that I am actively studying something, while having a set of goals and aspirations during the process, should be enough to prevent people from scorning the fact that my degree won’t be business, technology or medicine-related.
There is no doubt that bachelor’s degrees are constantly becoming devalued. As industry becomes more highly specialized, roles within contemporary industries need to be filled by people with highly specific training; master’s degrees, professional diplomas and even doctorates become necessary as the level of expertise needed rises. Which brings me to my next point of frustration: I am in the process of applying to graduate school. I’m doing this for several reasons: the first being because I genuinely enjoy studying art history and desire to continue to do so at a more advanced level, and the second being because I believe that if I want to achieve any of the career goals I have set for myself, a higher level of expertise is necessary. I am responding to what I view to be industry and economic realities in the climate I live in.
The stigma seems even more pronounced when I mention that I want to get a master’s degree, and eventually a doctorate degree in art history. It’s almost as if the idealism of an undergraduate can be forgiven on the basis of youth and naivete; to spend years and thousands of dollars more continuing along this trajectory seems crazy to so many people. (It probably is, to some extent).
What I want to do is incredibly elitist. I will admit that. I do want to teach, and I do want to research (and make buckets of money, naturally). However, there is absolutely a place in society for such careers—to deny that would be to discount the validity of cultural and artistic education. The plethora of other career options that can stem from an art history degree are not all elitist and fantastical—again, to claim that they are would discount the widespread cultural value of galleries, museums and artistic community outreach programs.
I know I’m not alone here. The rapid expansion variety of fine art and art history related educational programs in recent years is testament to this. The emergence of specifically contemporary curricula, curatorial degrees and cooperative, multidisciplinary degree structures (gender studies and art history, social work and art therapy, etc.) indicate that there is a growing demand for higher education in this general field. Many people of my generation are recognizing that there is social validity in pursuing an arts career path. It’s an inarguable fact that not all of us hold interest or have aptitude in sciences and math, and we should not all be pursuing accounting just because it might guarantee us a job more quickly after graduation.
I certainly have moments—many moments—of questioning why it is that I insist on pursuing a series of degrees that might not in fact lead me to a “dream” job (or any job at all, if the economic state and reality of academic hiring procedures continue to remain dire). I remind myself that what I am doing is valid, and that studying the arts is absolutely valid. The field of creative, intellectual and community opportunities that come out of the kind of education I am attempting to craft for myself should need no justification.