Why Malia Obama Should Study Art History

Isaac Kaplan
Nov 13, 2015 12:47AM

Jeff Koons, Art Magazine Ads (Flashart, Art in America, Artforum, Arts), 1988, 1 of 4, courtesy of Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art.

(The irony of using Jeff Koons, famous wealthy white man, to illustrate this story, is not lost on us.)

Last January, President Obama ruffled the bowties of art historians across the country when he disparaged the discipline, telling a room of General Electric workers that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” He meant that learning a skilled trade is both commendable and economically beneficial. But he’s since apologized for dissing art history. With Malia Obama heading to college next fall, we wanted to toss a query of national importance out into the election ether: Should Malia Obama major in art history? Put more broadly: What’s the value of an art history degree in society today?

Perhaps sensing the presence of a foot in his mouth, the president quickly backtracked during his speech. “Nothing wrong with an art history degree,” he added. “I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.” But get a bunch of emails from everybody he did. The president had unwittingly set off an important debate over the value of the humanities, and, more crucially, how one actually determines “value” in relation to the critical thinking skills instilled by often-pricey liberal arts colleges and universities.

After Obama’s comments, Professor Ann C. Johns, an art historian at the University of Texas (UT), Austin, growing bored of all the discussions about how those in her field should respond to the perceived slight, decided to sit down at her computer and send Obama a positive correction about what art history offers. Like most of the humanities, the subject can be a dull memorization of canonical facts or a humanizing discipline that encourages exploration. Over time, it has moved from the former towards the latter. “We’re no longer just teaching the great masters,” Johns says. “We’re teaching material culture about the entire world, from the entire span of history.”

“Art history is a subject which is often studied by the children of the elite, and it doesn’t get much more child-of-the-elite than Malia Obama.”

Moreover, art history can nurture the critical thinking skills left malnourished by the multiple choice tests force-fed to high school students. “In my introductory classes, I take 200 young Texans, teach them about art, show them Duchamp’s Fountain, and open their brains and eyes a bit,” Johns says. “I think that’s an important thing.” She fired off her email to Obama in just 10 minutes. Nineteen days later, the president sent her a handwritten note of apology, reiterating his enjoyment of art history.

Malia would hardly be the first political scion to learn what “ontological” means (I think it’s the study of birds, but Malia, when you find out, I’m all ears). Amy Carter, daughter of Jimmy, got her master’s in art history, and Meghan McCain, daughter of Obama’s erstwhile presidential rival, majored in the subject while at Columbia.

If Malia has inherited her father’s inclination towards the arts, “it wouldn’t be too surprising,” says Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw of the University of Pennsylvania, which Malia toured in March. One impediment to studying art history is a lack of exposure, but Malia “has grown up surrounded by really excellent art. The White House is full of marvelous painting and sculpture,” Shaw adds, including works by Jasper Johns, Alma Thomas, and Josef Albers.

Indeed, there’s more to art history than learning how to correctly pronounce Walter Benjamin (hint: it’s WALT-er). The subject provides an unparalleled visual literacy, one that is crucial now that our days are spent staring at information transmitted via glowing rectangular screens. “Learning to look at images and decoding them in sophisticated ways is absolutely enhanced by looking at art,” Professor Johns says. Through art, abstract theory and historical moments find visual expression, and looking at art and relating to a work is also a lesson in “the things that make us human,” Professor Shaw says. “It makes us mentally engaged and morally engaged.”

While all of this is certainly true, none of these arguments will assuage  ̶m̶y̶ ̶d̶a̶d̶  parents worried their child is about to sign up for a profession with little earning potential and dim job prospects. Not so for Malia, as Felix Salmon, Senior Editor at Fusion (who has written about art and economics), reminds us. “Art history is a subject which is often studied by the children of the elite, and it doesn’t get much more child-of-the-elite than Malia Obama,” says Salmon, an art history major himself. (He’s right—art history is quite popular among the one percent.) Malia will get a job no matter what she decides to do, so “if she loves art, this is an amazing opportunity to study it.”

Salmon isn’t against the subject, readily acknowledging that “studying art history means moving back and forth between words and ideas and images all the time, putting them together in novel ways while building on the work of countless smart people who came before you.” The skills involved aren’t outdated, but for a student taking on debt to attend college, “an art history degree...doesn’t pay off in terms of job opportunities at the end.”

“I take 200 young Texans, teach them about art, show them Duchamp’s Fountain, and open their brains and eyes a bit.”

That art jobs aren’t gangbusters should surprise exactly no one. A study conducted by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce found that, towards the tail end of the recession, art history majors—those between ages 30 and 54—suffered a rate of 8.8% unemployment and a median income of $52,000. These numbers aren’t the worst, especially compared to the 22.9% unemployment for those with only a recent high school diploma, but they’re not particularly bright for those taking on crippling student loans. (If you’re thinking about potential earnings before plunging into higher ed, Salmon built a handy application.)

It’s risky if one is vying for scarce curatorial and academic positions, but being an art history major doesn’t necessarily mean becoming an art historian. Malia (or anyone) can apply the subject’s required critical thinking skills to design, law, and even the profession most advocated by grandmothers: medicine. Professor Shaw reported an uptick in the number of Penn art history graduates donning a stethoscope, and medical students at UT are taken to the school’s Blanton Museum of Prints and Drawings “not to study anatomy, but to study the emotions that artists have captured, and to try and understand the range of human experience,” Johns says.

Still, art history is plagued by enduring—and not entirely unfair—associations with elitism, once studied almost exclusively by, as Johns says, the “girls with pearls.” That this perception remains is a failure of the art world, both in demographics (it’s predominantly white) and in accessibility (who isn’t alienated by the seemingly impenetrable nature of contemporary art?). Yet, in the classroom, art history as a discipline is growing ever more inclusive, teaching previously marginalized artists and related scholars in an attempt to expand and critique the preexisting canon.

In the classroom, art history as a discipline is growing ever more inclusive, teaching previously marginalized artists.

Like with anything President Obama says or does or looks at, the debate around his apology to Johns quickly became polarized. Marco Rubio took a hard stance on the mea culpa, tweeting, “Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof. We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs.” While the “subtweet” (as the kids call it) here is the fairly standard implication that Democrats work for elitists while Republicans represent working stiffs, the tweet’s tough anti-art history message overlooks that Rubio’s home state of Florida hosts Art Basel in Miami Beach, a five-day art fair which, along with related events, generates a disproportionate amount of tourist revenue (on top of a conservative estimate of art sales in the upper nine-figures) and more than a few “#jobs” for the city.

But college campuses have long been a battleground for national ideologies. With their rapid expansion fueled by unsustainable student loans, the future of the liberal arts university is in flux, if not outright jeopardy. Amid this tenuous position, the existential questions swirl: “What are we? Are we trade schools? Are we training people for jobs? Are we educating people?” asks Johns. “If your primary directive is to educate people, then you educate people in every aspect of human knowledge. If your primary directive is to give people a job,” she sighs, “then I don’t know what will happen to the humanities.”

Isaac Kaplan