Home Arts & Lit Barack’s ‘History of Art’ attack

Barack’s ‘History of Art’ attack


Bethany Stuart reports on Barack Obama’s remarks on Art history last week.

BARACK OBAMA created some controversy at an appearance last month at a General Electric Plant in Wisconsin with his statement: “You can make a lot more [money] with skilled manufacturing or the trades than you might with an art history degree”. Ann C. Johns, a specialist in late Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture at the University of Texas, was particularly outraged by the comment and received a formal apology form the President himself for his “off-the-cuff remarks”, stating that he was merely highlighting the opportunities for young adults in manufacturing and its role in improving the employment market. However, by using the arts as a direct comparison to raise a point about financial opportunities Obama inevitably brings to the fore questions about the relationship between art and money, and the place of art in contemporary society.

Image credit: The Telegraph
Image credit: The Telegraph

His speech was targeted at “working families”, his overall aim being to use manufacturing trades to “strengthen the middle class” and ultimately aid economic recovery and the unemployment figures. By removing the arts from this equation there is the suggestion that art is merely for the upper classes, a luxury rather than a necessity, and of little service to society as a whole. Indeed, by encouraging those still in education to enter in to manufacturing trades on the grounds of monetary potential – for both the individual and the country as a whole – there is a somewhat ominous Althusserian overtone of the next generation being groomed for capitalist gain. I’m not in any way suggesting Obama is the figurehead of a monolithic soul-sucking superstructure, however the absence of any sense of individual vocation in his speech and the side-lining of the arts as something somewhat frivolous necessitates, in my opinion, a re-evaluation of the deeper value of the arts.

In his response to Obama’s comments, Jonathon Jones highlights how the art industry is actually one of the strongest markets: “Auction houses, art galleries and even art magazines all exist to turn art history into cash. The art world is big and booming and it needs knowledgeable experts to grease its wheels”. This rather aptly bursts the bubble of myth surrounding an arts career as doomed to romantic notions of bohemian poverty, showing the fundamental economic value of the arts and proving the likes of art history students not to be idle but productive and erudite members of the next generation of workers.

Furthermore, whilst I may be criticised for being idealistic and potentially odiously pretentious, I think it is fundamentally wrong to value the arts by the same economic criteria as the likes of manufacturing. Its purpose is not simply to produce and generate income but to remind everyone that we’re not a homogenous mass of cogs in a larger machine. Obama commented, “You can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education”, implying in some instances that higher education is somewhat futile and largely a springboard for earning potential. Jones has proved art degrees have financial prospects, but Obama seems to have tactlessly missed the point in his speech about the value of vocation. If people have a passion for what they do, they’re more likely to do it successfully – fact. If more focus went on encouraging people to pursue their individual interests than on profit margins I think Obama would be pleasantly surprised with America’s bank balance in the future.


Bethany Stuart

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