Correcting Public Perceptions of Art History

A few weeks ago, Storia dell’Arte published stories from readers who have told interested parties what they’re studying in college (art history) and have been met with insensitive responses. I have written about this before, but never from a solution-oriented angle. I want to give my two cents about how we can begin to correct the public’s perception about art history, and related (i.e., museum studies, conservation) majors.

Here’s some of the stories:

Conversations like this one aren’t limited to undergraduate study, sadly. When I tell people I will be studying art history in graduate school in the Fall, the response is often some variant of  “Don’t want to be in the real world, eh?” I hate to shatter their worldview, but graduate school is the real world. My work will just not be the same as “real world” people, who don’t spend eight hours a day reading primary sources about Caravggio’s police record or grading undergraduate student work. (Both those things, by the way, make this almost-grad-student immensely happy and I would do it for the rest of my life.)

I thought that this perception would change once I told people I was in graduate school, but that, too, has become plagued by a perception that graduate students are such because they want to escape the economy and hide out in academia for a few years. I don’t deny that there are graduate students out there who undergo graduate study for this reason, and it has its merits, but it isn’t something that can be slapped on as the definitive motive for graduate study. It’s gotten to the point where I qualify my upcoming “doomed fate” by saying that this is what I love to do and I’d rather be a poor graduate student than a rich woman stuck at a job I have no passion for.

I think the root of the problem is ignorance about what art history is and, perhaps more importantly, what it has been in the past and thus how it has molded and impacted other fields of study. How can we as a society begin to correct public perception about art history? Sometimes I feel like its counterparts — museum studies and art conservation — garner more respect from the public because their intrinsic value and career options are more readily accessible in the public mind.

The ignorance displayed when talking about art history is often underscored by concern, as you read above in the stories given — for an art history student’s job prospects and financial situation, the value of their education, and if their time could have been (or be) better spent. It isn’t uncommon for us art history majors to hear things like, “Why don’t you go to (law or medical) school instead?” These types of statements assume that money and material status, often signifiers of success, are the most important thing — the highest goal. While I’m sure that none of us would turn down wealth and material possessions (in fact, a recent survey conducted found that as women become more educated they desire higher paying careers — men as well, but the opportunity is rising for women), the truth is that it’s nearly impossible to be an art history major for “the money,” which means that we’re in it for something else. For the intrinsic glory of an art historical mystery solved, or the education that comes with an interdisciplinary field like this one, or the intrigue of studying past modes of expression. Whatever our individual reasons for choosing this field, we all have them.

“Most think of art, quite correctly, as part of the present – as something people can see and touch. Of course, people cannot see or touch history’s vanished human events, but a visible, tangible artwork is a kind of persisting event. One or more artists made it at a certain time and in a specific place, even if no one today just knows who, when, where, or why. … Art historians seek to achieve a full understanding not only of why these ‘persisting events’ of human history look the way they do, but also of why the artistic events happened at all.” — Gardner’s Art Through the Ages

I don’t think we can point fingers to a single social occurrence and blame that for existing perceptions about art history. Rather, I think perceptions of art history and the deep sense of concern that arises from telling someone what we’re studying, is indiciative of a society that has, over time, emphasized empirical evidence and the sciences over pursuits of the mind, which, in the past, were held in high esteem.

Efforts by non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and museums are being made to re-emphasize the importance of the arts and art history, which is perhaps the best avenue to begin increasing public knowledge about the importance of the arts and art history. Any misinformation in the public realm that exists about the value of the arts and art history can and should be corrected by the above institutions as well as by professionals on a more microscopic level. Certainly, their efforts are not buttressed by recent reports that have found fine arts and history (art history would be a blend of these) to be among “the most useless college degrees” (in a study by Georgetown University; you can also see a visual summary of this study at the Daily Beast). Indeed, it could be argued that the media is a huge part of why the public feels the way they do about fine arts, history, and art history majors. When seen in this light, the public’s concern over our job prospects and education value is an echo of the media’s constant barraging of the message of despair that their child/relative, who majors in one of the Most Useless College Degrees, will find employment only by some great miracle. Finding employment has proved difficult for many recent college graduates (if I can understate greatly — it did take me eight months to find a job, including looking for three months pre-commencement), but it isn’t impossible. I also wouldn’t trade my study in art history for any amount of wealth or job permanence.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. — Steve Jobs

I’ll sing art history’s praises for the rest of my academic career, because I love what I do, and I want my passion for this field to spark curiosity in other people, so that they love it, too.