Why Choose Art History?

I’ve discussed what art history is and thought I’d follow up with why prospective art history students should choose art history (either as a major or minor) and the different career paths art history majors and minors can take.

Let’s first discuss the merits of an art history major or minor based on the academic experience and personal development it fosters in all students, regardless of career aspirations.

Students of art history become students of the world. They study world history, religion, literature, philosophy, and psychology, among other fields. The broad exposure to so many different areas of study enables the student to fathom art, history and the human condition as a whole, where a change in one of these affects the rest. Students gain an understanding of human thought and emotion, as they are in the present and as they were in the past. Art history explores the governing philosophies behind our visual world: the rules and definitions of aesthetics. The study of aesthetics arms students with the tools to identify artwork, artists, architecture, and the ideology behind them. From this stems an awareness of the interconnectedness of art history and human action. To the appreciative student, the exploration of what it is to be human and the visual expression of humanness that art history offers, makes art history a priceless gem of a subject.

On a less academic note, art history is also generally fun to study. Lectures are spent looking at art (and/or in some cases, watching films); discussing the gore of war, religious, political and sexual scandal; and exploring deeper questions about human action and art: Why create art? Why create it in X specific manner using Y materials? What defines beauty? What makes humans’ opinions about what art is – let alone what beautiful art is – so different? Can we truly, retrospectively study art that is outside of its time? Why bother tracking changes in art via art history? Art history, perhaps moreso than other fields in the humanities, encourages and I daresay requires boldness from its students and professors. Boldness in inquiry. Boldness in research. Boldness in theories and in conclusions. Becoming bold, knowing how to ask bold questions, and making bold discoveries, has merits of its own: Courage. Conviction. A passion for answers.

An art history major provides skills that are useful in most careers: reading, writing, communicating effectively, solving problems, and observation, among other skills. Even if, as an art history major, you can’t find a job that specifically pertains to your degree, you can take comfort in knowing that the skills gained from your degree aren’t being wasted. Luckily, there are many options for art history majors to pursue. The most obvious of these would be work in a museum (in any capacity), education, and working in the entertainment industry. An art history minor, combined with certain majors, also has some fun and fulfilling options.

Art history majors seeking to work in museums will find a plethora of opportunities: docents, fundraising, research assistants, library assistants, visitor services, restoration, curators or curatorial assistants … the list can get very long, very quickly. A quick scan of major museums’ employment pages (such as the Getty or LACMA) will yield varying and interesting results. A slight warning, for students to prepare ahead of time for their career if they know they want to work in a museum: Museum work sometimes requires that a student has taken graduate level courses and/or has an advanced degree. This is especially true for those who would like to pursue a career in curating. Curatorial positions nearly always require, at a minimum, an MA degree and some years experience in museum work – and at best, of course, a PhD. Some museum opportunities yield themselves to a BA degree and few years of experience, but from my own experience, these positions are difficult to break into if you don’t have connections. Examples include research assistants (either in libraries or in specific departments) and curatorial assistants, where the employee might be asked to conduct research for the already busy curator. Other career options in museums include the financial sphere: raising funds for the museum, writing grants, hosting fundraising events, and so on.

Museum work would be fulfilling for many reasons. Curators are responsible for the display of artwork, which affects the way the general public view and understand art. They research and brainstorm ideas for exhibitions, come up with the layout and overall message of the exhibition, and decide which art to safely obtain and display in their exhibitions. That is a hefty duty. Such weighty tasks deserve admiration. Those who write the pamphlets and display tags that accompany exhibitions are responsible for making art easily understandable using the written word. This seems simple enough, but some artworks, subjects, and artists have complex histories. Museums can have research departments/institutions that attribute, date, restore and store unknown art. They are artworks’ safe-haven, ensuring the best that they can that the art is not tarnished by vandals, the rigors of weather, or the passing of time.

Education is the other major career option for art history majors. Certain schools teach AP Art History or offer Art Appreciation courses to their students, if the would-be teacher has a passion for 6-12 education. (I say 6-12 because I have yet to hear of an art history course for elementary students. If you know of one, please tell me – such a course would be such an interesting development to explore!) This can be rewarding in its own right: 6-12 educators are in the unique position to assist students academically and personally through the transitions of their formative years –tween to teenager, teenager to… the scary world of adulthood. Students wishing to pursue 6-12 education should look into individual states and school districts to see which schools offer these courses to their students, or if teachers can motion to elect that a course be taught. Students should also keep in mind that teens generally dislike history and find it boring, so for this reason, prospective (and current!) teachers should make history – especially art history – as exciting as possible within the bounds of their district/curricula restrictions.

Naturally, the next level of education is that of higher education: community colleges (which require an MA) and universities (which nearly always require a PhD or at least ABD status.) Community college professors enjoy less emphasis on writing and publication and more emphasis on teaching and student connection (or so I am told). Professors are under restrictions to publish, publish, publish! “Publish or perish,” the saying goes. The split in the road here depends on individual students – if you aren’t so keen on writing, but want to teach on an adult, more academic level than high school offers, community college might be the right career path. If, like me, you love to write, have all kinds of ideas swirling around in your head about art, never stop asking and answering questions (even if no one is asking!), and desperately want the best of both worlds of teaching, researching, and publishing, then, of course: being a university professor is probably for you. I have heard from professors that with the title of professor comes lots of red tape: tenure track requirements (which may include publishing X articles/book[s] per year, good student reviews, etc.), office hours, paperwork, grade deadlines… Perhaps it depends on personality: This sounds exciting to me, and I can’t wait to reach the point where I can hold office hours and step up to the challenge of publishing or perishing. In addition to all the requirements that come with being a professor, there are some finer points that may prove satisfying.

Professors have the task of guiding their students in the pursuit of knowledge and higher truths. Professors may, when asked, share information with students regarding their career path, their current research, their hobbies. Human connection is, I believe, at the heart of all education: the mentor-student relationship. Office hours give both student and teacher the chance to discuss the course material or other subjects on an individual basis, and both gain more understanding of the other. Not every professor does so well, however. Such pursuits may be marred by inaccurate information, textual or lecture bias, disinterest in students versus huge interest in research. The job comes with pressure, this is certain: professors write their own course material (or some read from books – this varies); they are under pressure to publish, write letters of recommendation on time; participate in any organizations or university events/meetings; and, if they do not have a TA, then they have to grade papers themselves. With the title ‘professor’ comes a commitment to the university, its students, and the professor’s own research interests and pedagogical convictions. Students wishing to pursue higher education teaching opportunities should speak with their current professors about their experiences and seek advice regarding their personal academic situations.

An art history minor, combined with certain majors, can be useful tool for the major itself and in careers. For instance, a chemistry major combined with an art history minor (and probably an advanced degree) could potentially work on artifact, painting and/or sculpture restoration, scientific dating, and/or materials analysis. The minor would provide knowledge of and appreciation for art, artistic modes of production, and ideology that may provide clues to materials or dates. A marketing major with an art history minor could work in a PR, fundraising, or grant writing capacity at museums. English, photography, fashion, or film majors would find their writing, descriptive, and observational abilities strengthened by art history, which can be useful in their own ways in each of those fields.

Hopefully, this brief exploration of the personal value of an art history degree and some of its ensuing career options has inspired current students to seriously consider their careers and has inspired prospective art history students to take the plunge and choose the field.