It is a bipartisan moment to be cherished. Rick Santorum called the President a snob for wanting everyone in America to go to college, and now Obama has come around to Santorum’s side. As the President said to a General Electric plant in Wisconsin this year: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. You can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

And yet, Obama’s perfectly warranted comment—now supplemented with a reassertion disguised as an apology letter —has sent my discipline into a flurry of self-justification, some of which is far more threatening to art history than any politician’s offhand remarks. The career path we art historians have chosen is not chiefly “practical,” and attempting to justify it as a potentially money-making venture is misleading, comparable to advising someone to pursue an accounting degree as preparation for theoretical mathematics. To be sure, the complexity of modern economies ensures that art history majors have a place in it , those who suggest that arts majors doom themselves to joblessness need to review the census data, and stereotypically sure bets are now anything but sure. Still, the more my discipline defends itself on the grounds of presumed financial payoff, the more pathetic it appears.

It has taken three centuries or so, but art history has earned its place among the liberal arts. Aristotle defined ‘liberal’ as “that which tends to enjoyment . . . where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the using.” Such an impractical pleasure is what the discipline of art history has to give. The discipline may indirectly teach the kind of critical thinking that will facilitate a heavy-hitting career in finance, but there are far more immediate avenues of developing such powers of discernment than reveling in how Chardin rendered turnips. (For the record, he did so ineffably.)

What is more, art historians used to teach, and some still do, that aboriginal beauty, not the contest for power, constitutes reality at its most basic level, and such knowledge might genuinely hinder professional progress in a variety of “practical” fields. If cash value is the measure of art history, one might as well replace the Edward Hoppers just mounted in the President’s office with their price tags.

In his inaugural lecture at the Cambridge School of Art, John Ruskin put it this way: “There’s no way of getting good Art, I repeat, but one, at once the most difficult and the most simple—namely, to enjoy it.” Barack Obama seems to have learned this lesson even while some art historians scrambling for self-justification, and seduced by the academic culture of unalloyed critique, have not: “Art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school,” he wrote in that hand-written follow up, “and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

It is perfectly true, furthermore, that—in the President’s words—“you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education.” I recently learned that a cousin of mine, as a unionized operator of a construction machine, easily exceeds my salary. But were he to win the lottery, he would—by his own admission—never see that machine again. Were I to win it, I would pursue art history without interruption. The ability to operate a machine is what John Henry Newman called “Useful Knowledge . . . the possession of truth as powerful.” But “Liberal Knowledge,” which is arguably most perfectly realized in the history of art, “is the apprehension of it as beautiful.”

Faced with the cultural splendor of pre-Revolutionary France, a different President—John Adams—prophesied American art history majors to come:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

To major in art history is therefore the destiny of a mature nation—a rare and precious possibility literally dependent upon generations of costly sacrifice. To observe how the diffused light of historical events and intellectual forces is refracted by the magnifying glass of art history into the intensified beams of distinct works of art, is of itself useless, and its impracticality is its very splendor. But such liberal pursuits are also, according to Cicero, a condition of our happiness, and a refusal to cultivate such skills invites the revenge of hideous places. Obama and Santorum, consequently, are right to tell machine operators that they need not pursue an art history degree. They can pursue a perfectly honorable career in machinery, so that their children can major in the history of art.

And that art history major, if she knows what’s good for her, will visit home and take her retired union father to what’s left of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and help him to see with ancient eyes.

Matthew J. Milliner is Assistant Professor of art history at Wheaton College. 

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

blog comments powered by Disqus