A bit of hoo-ha as arisen from Obama’s recent and casual dismissal of art history as a subject less useful when compared to ‘the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career’. This he ventured last week on a visit to Wisconsin to big up his attempts to boost American manufacturing. As Scott Jaschik observed for the US platform, Inside Higher Ed, Obama covered the comparison in emergency humour-foam by proclaiming, to comforting big laughs: ‘Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree – I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody’. All reasonably innocuous, except for the fact that, as Jaschik relates, Obama joins the list of US politicians, and Republican ones at that, who have been denigrating the supposedly ‘no-job’ liberal arts for some time.

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To counter Obama’s take, Jaschik links out to recent research presented by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in conjunction with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems that evidences the long-term success of liberal arts graduates in the world of work. Salient aspects of that report include note that 55% of employers surveyed expressed a business-driven desire for ‘both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of knowledge and skills’ on the part of employees, and; amongst the Top 15 professions of liberal arts graduates you see prominent, Chief Executives and Legislators, Lawyers, Judges, Managers and Magistrates.

Linda Downs, Executive Director of the College Art Association, offered a rejoinder along similar lines emphasising both the rich employment opportunity opened up by graduating from humanities subjects (including opportunities in government and the military) as well as the broad range of knowledge and skills which liberal arts graduates accumulate over and above field-specific knowledge of, say, art history. ‘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’.

Now, I dare say many defenders of art history who play against denigrators the two-card trick of broad-range knowledge and transferable skills secretly feel on occasion that they disrespect in doing so the field-specific attention and subject matter of that discipline. Gordon Graham, in Universities: The Recovery of an Idea, has given us a brilliant analogy to throw this point of anxiety into relief. Against the extrinsic, proto-instrumental arguments for arts and humanities subjects, Graham writes:

The error in appeal to transferable skills does not lie in its falsehood, but in the fact that it attempts to explain value in terms of use. A direct parallel is this: perhaps learning to play the piano makes people more adept at chopping vegetables, but it could only be a certain sort of desperation that made a musician explain the value of the former in terms of the use of the latter.

Graham’s account is vivid and persuasive. In light of Obama’s blunt dichotomising of ‘usefulness’ it might be, though, that Graham’s sketch is too persuasive, too vivid, for it pictorialises in HD the seeming dichotomy between the useless purity of the art performed and the useful activity of the apparent opposite of that. The pictorialisation might seduce us into accepting the dull, dichotomised Obamaesque model, a model which Graham himself would wish to profane. Indeed, usefully for this bloggation, he does so elsewhere in his book. This he does again with impressive concision by observing that: ‘”…useful” is a relative term; something has to be useful for something or other…Since people’s purposes differ, there is no such thing as “usefulness” in the abstract; everything must be useful for something.’

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This appeals greatly to my pragmatist’s sensibility, and effects solid ground from which to step to the usefulness for of art history and by extension of humanities in general. To make this point, and to rival Graham’s acuity, a David Schwartz might be introduced here. For me, Schwartz’s Art, Education, and the Democratic Commitment is built to last. Happier than Graham to register the putatively-extra-to-intrinsic values of arts education, while still recognising the established intrinsic ones, Schwartz makes a strong case for seeing art education as having rich democratic value; as having usefulness for the construction and sustaining of democratic value. For concision here, the boldest expression of Schwartz’s essay might be: ‘engaging an artwork practises politically useful skills of interpretation, empathy and judgement…the strength of the argument resides in its fundamental commitment to democracy…it generates an especially apt reason for government involvement in the artworld improving democracy itself’.

Graham’s vivid model might dazzle one into reading art’s usefulness for establishing and sustaining democratic value as an act of carrot chopping, but Schwartz would have it as intrinsic – me too. The practice of the art historian, as ambassador for the humanities here, is the practice of interpretation, empathy and judgement; the seeing of the situation in the democratic-round, and, as Schwartz explains:

This ability to ‘see’ the meaning of particular situations is the precondition of all sound judgements, whether they concern the meaning of a law, the significance of a political act, the proper course of practical action, or the meaning of an artwork. The differences between these activities are differences of application, not of kind.

Superb. Schwartz resists the doltish dichotomy, then, that comedic false contestation to be reserved for trips to Wisconsin. Instead he sees the useful for dimensions of art education, not as separate ingredients, as oil and water, but as productive and useful synthesis with democratic intent. Would that more and more and more young people embarked on a programme of education with such intent, and would that more and more and more of them the world over ended up working in government and the military.

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