Obama Loves Art History but Thinks It’s (Economically) Useless

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 30, 2014

A man looks at Richard Avedon's portrait of President Obama (photo by Flickr user Mr_CRO)

A man looks at Richard Avedon’s portrait of President Obama (photo by Flickr user Mr_CRO)

Speaking on the floor of a General Electric plant just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, today, President Obama made some remarks on the state of education and employment in the US, bringing up art history degrees in the process. Politico reports:

“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” Obama said.

“Nothing wrong with art history degree,” [sic] he added. “I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, 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 training that you need.”

Some people, chief among them the College Art Association, have taken offense at the comments. “Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations,” they argue. So. If you’re an art history major leading a corporation, here you go. If you’re stuck in the education bubble, here you go. Let us know what happens.

UPDATE: President Obama has written an apology to University of Texas in Austin art historian Ann Collins Johns explaining his comments.

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  • Michael Blum

    “I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody” is an e x c e l l e n t presidential quote

  • Guest

    He could have picked on Philosophy instead. Artists create actual tangible items that are bought and sold. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.

    • Shanzer 37

      Art Historian typically don’t make the art. They may sell the art or appraise its value.

      • Tamara Pauline

        Advanced art history IS philosophy.

        • raine vasquez

          by definition history and philosophy are not the same thing. although historians may engage philosophy, especially when considering issues of historiography. But, this is only philosophy when they are philosophizing about historiography itself, not when they are mapping out the historical developments of historiography. To amend your sentence: Art HistorIANS CAN become philosophers.

          • Tamara Pauline

            It’s virtually impossible to chart the history of art making without engaging with poetics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology in some way.

            If understanding philosophy is quantified by obtaining a degree, becoming a “specialist” or teaching the traditional paradigms of it, than my statement was misunderstood. Philosophy is a pursuit—not an academic subject. So, I’ll amend MY OWN statement and say that:

            One can make art, appreciate art, observe art, sell art and even speak to art’s past without philosophy. But, this experience would be narrow and absent of meaning.

          • Tamara Pauline

            This will no doubt lead to the larger question of “empirical historiography”, its supposed objectivity and its positivist traditions…. :) But, we can have that conversation, too.

            I’d love to see “quantitative art historical research” that isn’t somehow influenced by an ideological lens in which the past is viewed. I’m not questioning its value as research—far from it. But, to free it from philosophical analysis is irresponsible.

        • Chicken Fingers

          Eh, it isn’t. A PhD in art history does not qualify one to teach philosophy. A PhD in philosophy does not qualify one to teach art history. I can’t imagone how anyone would think they are equivilant without grossly misunderstanding the content of those fields.

          • Tamara Pauline

            I believe you can understand and study branches of philosophy without a knowledge of aesthetics, but I don’t think you can understand art or art history without a knowledge of philosophy. You seem to narrowly define what art is. Art making is a philosophical pursuit with a communicative function.

            Art reflects reality/ its relation to man, depicts man, his spiritual world, and the relations between individuals in their interaction with the world. “Life is so structured that for a man to be fully conscious of it he needs all these forms of intellectual activity, which complement each other and build up an integral perception of the world and versatile orientation in it.” —A. Spirkin

          • Chicken Fingers

            “You seem to narrowly define what art is. Art making is a philosophical pursuit with a communicative function.”

            Well I have a degree in philosophy and two degrees in art. We can speak of philosophy and art as meaning most anything we want – the “philosophy of corporate branding” or “the art of sales contract negations” – but at some point the words need denotative value for them to mean anything at all. I appreciate romanticizing about art and philosophy as etherial human activities that issue us into higher planes of self-awareness or spiritual enlightenment, or something like that. But dictionaries should be apprecaited too. They are designed to facilitate in clear communication, not put oppressive constraints on your imagination.

            In any case, I’d like to know which philosopher’s work you’ve understood with more clarity having studied art history, and some insight on how such cross-application actually works. I’m not going to be so crude as to suggest you believe a good look at Giacommetti makes reading Sartre’s On Being and Nothingness a breeze, or even reduntant, because I’m guessing you have at least some explanatory model that I am ignorant of.

          • Tamara Pauline

            I bet your mom is incredibly proud of your academic achievements.
            I, too, hold terminal degrees. I’m on my second. But, what we are talking about is pretty basic…undergrad stuff.

            The correct question (if you are trying to elucidate my earlier point that you cannot study Art History without philosophy) would be which piece of art I understood by examining the philosophy of the moment more carefully—and the examples are endless.

            Giacometti…okay. It’s not enough that Sartre and Giacometti were contemporaries that influenced each other. How can you look at his reductive sculptures and not see a reflection of 20th century modernism—specifically Existentialism— that modern life is decreasing, empty and meaningless? It marks the shift of the disappearing figure in painting and absurdity as a jumping off point for later works. Was Kierkegaard a philosopher or a creative writer in your opinion? Because it would seem his disciplines overlapped, too. Is prose the only way to disseminate philosophy? Or can one come to knowledge through a range of forms?

            Art isn’t about decorative objects on a a wall or mantle. Art can be a way of asking questions and solving problems.

            But…that example isn’t enough…So…Which philosopher from which movement would you prefer I expound upon more? Would you like to talk about The Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin) and their intersections with contemporary art and criticism or…We could look at The Vienna Circle/Prague School (Bakhtin, Wittgenstein) and observe how the early waves of Structuralism shaped Formalist painting…Of course, we can’t leave out the French Intellectuals…There was Barthes’ Death of the Author that introduces interpretation as being subjective—setting an apology for an entire movement of decentralized art…Foucalt’s Art of Seeing would be an excellent primer for you to read on the “aesthetics of existence” problematizing the relationship of the self to a work of art. (Both maker and viewer)

            We could look at contemporary philosophers like Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Judith Butler or Slavoj Jijek, chit chat about their views on Postmodernist art and its evolution on the surface of language and semiotics or we could go as far back as Plato’s cave painting allegory and how it informs our ideas about representation and reality. Whatever you are more comfortable with.

            :) Art without context is meaningless. History without context is irresponsible.

            Incidentally, here are dictionary definitions of philosophy-

            ***It can be “a particular system of philosophical thought.”

            ***It’s “the study of the theoretical basis of a particular branch of knowledge or experience.”

            ***It’s also “a theory or attitude held by a person or organization that acts as a guiding principle for behavior.”

          • Tamara Pauline

            In a nutshell…art works are not analogous to philosophical prose….Art has a causal and reciprocal relationship to human thought.

          • Chicken Fingers

            When I asked about cross-application from art history to philosophy, I didn’t mean provide me a list of theorists and philosophers you have read, such as “Slavoj Jijek” [sic]. I was interested in understanding how art history is interchangeable with philosophy (that is, equivalent), according to the nature of their disciplines. The goals of art historical analysis and the goals of philosophy are not at all the same. If they were, there’d be no place for much of the theoretical work you cite.

            I think what you mean to say is that art history makes use of philosophical concepts.

          • Tamara Pauline

            Greater minds than our feeble ones have wrestled with defining what philosophy and art are. :) If your intention was to scold me and delineate that philosophy is a wider reaching discipline than art history, than you function under a dated, formalist definition of what philosophy is. “Doing philosophy” (its nature of problematization, inquiry, etc.) is part of viewing and analyzing artworks.

            This is why colleges are now (Europe did this decades ago) merging these once separate fields into interdisciplinary departments “Art History, Philosophical Theory and Criticism”, etc. The birth of critical theory marked an epistemological shift in how we record history; it can’t be done in a bubble of mere dates and assumed movements.

            A philosophy professor taught my graduate art history class. Can an art history professor teach a philosophy course outside of aesthetics? I think we are moving into a time where a knowledge of art will be essential to understanding human thought. So, someday…yes. Then, it becomes an argument about specialization…

          • Chicken Fingers

            P1. If “art history IS philosophy” they couldn’t be merged as interdisciplinary.

            P2. Art history and philosophy are merged as interdisciplinary.

            QED: Art history is not philosophy.

            The last word goes to you.

          • Tamara Pauline

            Art History, as it has been practiced before the emergence of critical theory, WAS seen as a separate practice. Now, it is being merged as a philosophical discipline. I think you are arguing for your job security instead of really reading and trying to understand a point of view outside of your own. This would make your framework insular and your understanding of philosophy…as dead as your proof.

          • Chicken Fingers

            It’s already demonstrable, despite your obsession with theory, that art history and philosophy aren’t the same, so I’m going to indulge your ad hominem arguments to avoid work I should be doing.

            (1) I don’t work in philosophy. I’m just defending it from rhetorical abuse and confusions. I’m not out of a job if authorities in Egyptian art start teaching Descartes’ third meditation for pay.

            (2) I’m familiar with theory, like it, and read it, but will confess to taking Eagleton’s dimmer view of it as you’ll find in his After Theory. Lots of it is ignorant word slop. I remember James Elkins asking Maud Lavin what she meant by “metaphysics”, since she used the word weirdly in a lecture on her book Clean New World. Turns out she thought it meant “astrology”, since those words are used together in New Age literature, which she associates with feminism. Imagine her thinking Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics was about the next zodiac. That might work for advanced art history, but not philosophy.

            OK, I’ve dumped enough of my narrow-minded phallogocentrism in these comment boxes for a while, and defending the value of dictionaries. Take care.

          • Tamara Pauline

            1) Egyptologists educated in the last 20 years would no doubt have a breadth of experience in Ethnophilosophy so I think they’d have a damn unique perspective on that body mind problem.

            2) Eagleton’s views in After Theory interrogate theory that is driven by capitalism. He doesn’t squelch free thinking across disciplines. Please don’t drag one of my heroes into your muddy brand of demarcation.

            3) Oh…you’re a guy, Chicken Fingers? I hadn’t noticed. :)

          • Chicken Fingers

            And the debate ends with the anti-essentialist deploying gender binary essentialism as if professors aren’t watching. This place is chaos.

        • Sandra Haynes

          You are making my head hurt.

          It is discussions like these that give Art History a bad (economic) name. I’ve taken Modernism and Comtempory Art History and written the jargon you folks are spouting to get my A for the class, gritting my teeth the whole time.

          You know you are only writing to impress eachother, right? The rest of us just want you to get on with it, and agree to make smart, strange children together over your double Americanos. As artists, we need future art historians to continue to collude with the auction houses and museums using inscrutable language to boost our street cred, so that our heirs can cash in even if we are getting screwed by the system today. That is how Art History is economicly viable, and I can provide the reading list to support my hypothesis, and it doesn’t include Kant, or Benjamin.

          • Tamara Pauline

            I’m really excited you got to take an art history class or two before you went on your way to “boost your street cred” as an artist. It’s sad that you feel the need to masquerade your language with museums and auction houses. You DO know, though, that being able to talk about your work isn’t the crux of the issue, right?

            You are getting screwed by the system today, because education (specifically the Humanities) isn’t appreciated in our culture. Art is still traded like a commodity and our labor isn’t valued. This includes intellectual labor.

            It’s not jargon that makes museums and how brow collectors elitists. It’s their greed. What gives Art History a bad name is its inaccessibility. The answer isn’t to dumb it down to the public. The answer is to wake up and realize that we have a deficit in our education system. People don’t know HOW to appreciate art outside of something visual or decorative, because in this industrial complex, money is king…not ideas.

            So, before you throw me into a stereotype, which is INCREDIBLY LAZY and ARROGANT, you should know that I don’t drink coffee. I work two jobs as an adjunct and designer to someday publish my dissertation, because I feel it’s important to not just sell art work but, to use art making as a way to critically solve problems. I work incredibly hard as an artist who is an underrepresented minority both as a woman and a Latino. And it’s sad that we are so divided, when we fight the same fight.

          • Sandra Haynes

            If I was lazy, I wouldn’t have gotten my As. Arrogant I may plea bargain to.

            It is the jargon that makes things inaccessible. That is the nature of jargon. Jargon is the password into the speakeasy party. If you don’t know the password you don’t get in.

            For instance, my first BS is in accounting, and I’ll be the first to admit that that BS is bs. I can talk circles around non accountants with the jargon of accounting, but I choose not to because doing so will not help them understand why they can or cannot deduct certain art supplies on their tax forms.

            Expecting people who are not trained in your field to learn your jargon rather than talk in plain language they so they can understand is, if not elitist, segregating. I don’t expect everyone to be educated to learn how to read a discounted cash flow analysis. I’m compassionate enough to not insist they be tortured in that manner.

            It is the greed and the systems of art history and valuation that I have been studying.

          • Sandra Haynes

            How is your use of language being used to perpetuate that system?

          • Sandra Haynes

            I give you exhibit one at

          • Sandra Haynes

            Oh, I’m also sorry to hear you work as an adjunct. That is another broken economic system that needs some serious moral and critical review.

          • Tamara Pauline

            I agree that academic language should only be used for the appropriate situation. I thought a person who read Hyperallergic would have a more than basic knowledge of contemporary art. So, I made some statements on here that started conversations. How I give an art talk at a university is different than how I give an art talk at a gallery, etc. Both are equally important.

            How is my use of language being used to perpetuate yet another closed system?

            That’s a great question. When unchecked, it feeds into academic elitism…true. But, if more people like us don’t publish and educate the public about art (even if it means eating Ramen to do so)—Myths about art continue to shroud our practice as irrelevant and indulgent. I believe a knowledge of philosophy is important. The history of human thought shapes our world view and our being in it. Art is an utterance of these philosophies…and sometimes it shapes new ones.I want to be a part of that conversation.

          • Sandra Haynes

            And in order to be part of the conversation that type of language is required is it not?

            What value is being placed on that language and who is deciding that that language has value?

            What we are talking about here is how value is created and measured. This seems to be the conversation artists and other art professionals constantly want to avoid. We keep professing art has value, but we get all squishy and squeamish when we start talking dollars and you wonder why the system is hacked and profiteers and other speculators are the ones who profit while the rest of us are either eating ramen or saying fuck it and getting accounting degrees. The artybollocks language is used to create and prop up arbritary market values. It is a very particular kind of marketing designed to make the in crowd feel in and everyone else feel ignorant, and wrapped up in the noble clothes of educating the public.

            I say, go ahead and go for it, but make sure your eyes are wide open to exactly what it is that you are doing and who is benefiting from it while you are eating ramen.

          • Tamara Pauline

            “…artybollocks language is used to create and prop up arbritary market values.”

            I think its interesting that when Scientists use theory to support their research, it’s funded and the public accepts this mode of operation. But, when artists do it, it’s “artybollocks” and convolutes something that couldn’t possibly be more complex…?

            If we are talking about how value is created and measured, then it’s spectacle and popularity that wins out over theory or artspeak every time. “That artist with a compelling story…That artist that is seen hobnobbing with Hollywood movie stars…That artwork that looks amazing in that Nylon cover shoot.” It’s not the aestheticians or academics working to find out why movements are surfacing that marginalizes working artists. It’s what is HOT. This is why everyone has heard of Jerry Saltz, Marina Abramovic and Jay Z and no one knows who Judith Butler is. This is why white cube galleries sell entertainment and not substance. The kids at Yale might be be talking artybollucks but, I guarantee their success is mostly because they have a million dollar granting foundation and an exhaustive network of connections in New York.

            I think it’s INCREDIBLY important not to confuse thinking with selling out. I think it’s imperative to see art as something that’s not just entertaining, but a way of existing in the world. I’m a member of W.A.G.E…I’m not saying to work for nothing. I’m just saying that “economic viability” is skewed when defined by a capitalist society and should not be measured by how much artwork you sell. Education has value in other ways.

          • Sandra Haynes

            The scientists also use measurable results along with the theory to get their grant funding, and those measurable results are tied to financial data. I know this first hand. I’m the one compiling that financial data at a major research university. Don’t go pointing your finger at the scientist and whining that they get to use theory, why can’t I. That’s not how it works and you know it. Come on, you called me lazy for such arguments. Don’t go there yourself.

            You are absolutely right about the spectacle being the measure of valuation. The question you should be asking is what is it about art that makes it a victim of spectacle because we do operate in a capitalist society. You see it. You belong to WAGE so you know who is profiting and who is not. Rather than face the question of real valuation as it is currently operating you keep wishing people would just get educated and then the valuation system you think it should have would kick in and everything would be a field of daisies rather than the field of poppies we seem to be walking through.

            I also,wish for better education. I wish art students were required to take business law classes so they don’t end up in contracts like Rothko. I wish the romance of the starving artist paradiem

          • Sandra Haynes

            (I wish discus worked better on my ipad)
            …paradigm was not constantly reenforced by the stories in the art history books. I wish the auction houses were regulated so they didn’t make money from both sides of the deal. And I wish people using the critical language you are defending were honest about how their work is just adding fuel to the spectacle.

          • Tamara Pauline

            While we continue to have the gollygeeshucks attitude that art is for entertainment without any quantifiable research to measure progress…it will be TREATED like entertainment rather than the reflexive discipline of human thought that it is. Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend (more things to read, yes, I know) discuss this point elegantly in their interrogation of the positivism that surrounds science as verifiable truth. So, honestly, without being patronizing, I recommend books like “Against Method” and anything from “Mathematics, Science and Epistemology” as a read. (At the very least, to critically defend your position or see the larger question of how information is valued.)

            What we have here is a clash of epistemologies. Facing the problem of valuation for art is facing the problem of valuation as a whole…for anything. This is why, sure, artists can de-skill…but, know why… They should be at least a little mindful of history and their role as thinkers. Jameson called it “cognitive mapping.” To simplify it…We retain our individual voice with a mindfulness of our historical station. Without this awareness (or call it education if you’d like) we are making work in a bubble and will always be thought of as these mindless makers.

          • Sandra Haynes

            And we are back where we started with my head hurting and you using the same language as before. The fact that people are creating words like de-skill to explain this this stuff makes me crazy.

            No one de-skills. That is not physically possible. The only way I could de-skill how to throw a weaving shuttle is with major brain damage. I can stop weaving because I don’t want to go to Mexico or China to use those skills commercially or stop hauling my work to fairs and listen to people tell me “your work is lovely but why does it cost so much?” They don’t want to hear my direct and indirect costs and my break even point analysis anymore than you do. I didn’t de-skill when I took the NAFTA retraining money for displaced textile workers and got my accounting degree. I added new skills to what I already had.

            As far as positivism goes, I’m positive you need to go back and read 1984 and Brave New World. You talk about the need to quantifiable research on art then refer to the very theories that call the entire system of quantifiable research into question. That’s just

          • Sandra Haynes


            Anyway, this discussion has been interesting, but since we are back at the beginning I’m bowing out now. I leave you to joust at your windmills while I joust at mine.

          • Tamara Pauline

            I’m an educator, so it’s not in my blood to give up on someone…but, you’ve been fed a lie if you believe that thinking or understanding history is a crime. There is a difference between using jargon/academia to market art works and seeing art as a thinking discipline.

            I also don’t think you understand what deskill means. “Deskill” is an art term used to discuss the avant guard’s notion that Formalism (or the former infatuation with the artist’s mark of skill or technical ability) is not what is important about an artwork. It’s about a viewer’s engagement. It’s more than just an indicator of a paradigm shift from the decorative object to the readymade. It signifies how we perceive and value things. This movement of “deskilling” was important in that it decentralized the artist as “master” myth and made us question hierarchies. But, it has been used as an umbrella term for conceptual artworks that are lazy.

            My intention was not to say you were lazy. My argument this entire time has been that knowledge is power. The answer is not to silence each other or belittle education. The answer is to make that power accessible to all.

            Also…you should check out this program or at least some of their readings. I bet it would give you a better understanding of your concerns and what you are really up against working in Fibers/Weaving:


          • Sandra Haynes

            Really, I’m done. You think I will agree with you if I just learn the same things you have. As an educator, you need to let go of this fallacy. It will only cause you grief in the long run.

            I may not have had the same number of art history classes you have had, but since my teacher was the one who wrote this, I’m not as ignorant of theory as you seem to assume I am.

            There was a friend sitting next to me in Dr. Emerling’s Comtempory Art History class. She was pretty much pissed off all semester, and muttering “this isn’t art,” most of the time. We were both in the front row to avoid the teenagers. One day I said to her, “the Emperor has not clothes.” She said “Yes!” I completely understood where she was coming from, even if I didn’t agree with her.

            Now I am the kid on the side of the road saying “The Emperor is naked.” Either you are the parent trying to sh me, the rogue trying to trick me, or the courtier going along with the trick to keep your cushy position. What I’ve been suggesting all along is you be honest with yourself about which role you are playing.

            I’ve chosen to be the child for a reason. Like any kid, I’m thrilled the Emperor is naked. If he can walk around in public buck naked, so can I. You are trying to convince me clothing (theory) is mandatory. I’ve learned it is optional.

            Thanks for the judicial edit. I wouldn’t have done that web site and artist statement (committed my own arty bollocks for that one) if it hadn’t been required by the class, and when a salesman walks into your office and asks “can you design another ugly plaid like the one you did last season?” As a textile designer you know exactly what you are up against-a big f’n windmill.

            Good luck on your dissertation.

  • He could have picked on Philosophy instead. Artists create actual tangible items that are bought and sold. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.

    • wolfspider

      Philosophy has long been the go-to choice when someone needs an example of a “useless” degree (well, that and Underwater Basket Weaving). Kudos to the Chief for changing it up a bit.

  • j.snoogans

    I saw this as I was on my way out of the house. My roommate-brother, the engineer, laughed at me, the art history major. It was a tense moment.

  • Margaux Carini

    He’s not wrong, but for some people it goes deeper than “making more.”

  • estevan

    Let’s be honest. There are measurable ways to see which degrees are economically viable. If an artist is getting an MFA with a focus on contemporary painting, it should NOT be because they think it’s economically viable. That’s nuts. You do it because you love it.

    Art history is not the same as Comp Sci or something else. This is coming from someone who is both an artist and programmer. Completely different economic outcomes from each of those areas.

    • I have an MFA in creative writing and I also paint. And I also have a “day job” that involves a lot of writing, but primarily editing and project management. There are real, practical applications of “throwaway” or “self-indulgent” education programs, and they do produce tangible results. That stated, I pursued my MFA because of personal passion, and I recognized from the outset that I was about to incur a lot of debt for a personally fulfilling return rather than a financial one. So far, my life hasn’t been devastated (and has been enriched) because of the decision–and I have $7k of student-loan debt, as compared to the tens of thousands of dollars averaged by many of my peer coworkers. But besides all this, economic measurements should take into consideration long-term projections and not only immediate return. The arts and art history (I can’t speak for philosophy.) contribute over time to any nation’s cultural identity, at the very least, and that is always a significant aspect of any nation’s global economic viability. The individual who pursues an IT degree may well make two to three times the salary of someone who studies art/art history and becomes a teacher of art and art history, but that salary shouldn’t be mistaken as equivalent to that person’s actual societal value. Paris without the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, its Egyptian and Roman influences, and its food would not be a magnet for the planet and the world’s most-visited (= $$$) and admired city. Egypt wouldn’t be anything without its artifacts. Almost no one would ever visit Peru, most likely, without its architectural ruins, and without its art and architecture New York City would look like and feel like hell on Earth. Economics is more than just immediate financial returns. It’s psychological and emotional and behaves not according to algorithms, but according to human behavior en masse.

  • Daniel Luna

    I think he was just saying that there is nothing wrong with having a skills or being a craftsman. I can agree with that. Doesn’t mean Art History is useless.

  • Vanessa

    I’m a MA art history candidate and my goal for my studies was not to make millions, but to study something I love. Most people with BFA, BA, MFA, MA’s enter these programs to invest in themselves and their interests. Obama shouldn’t use any degree program to make his point, be it the liberal arts or the sciences.

    • Shanzer 37

      I also have a degree in art. I don’t regret it but I’m willing to acknowledge its not exactly conducive to getting a good job. Partly because enrollment for the art, music and theatre is at all time high. Most people would rather have creative jobs so the competition is fierce for the limited jobs in those related fields. On a personal level, its okay to choose something creative and fun that your passionate about but the job market can’t bare everyone choosing these prestige jobs.

  • bekindbekindbekind

    I am an undergrad Art History major in one of the top programs in the country. And I believe Obama is correct–he simply phrased his argument the wrong way. He did not need to play into the (often false, as previous commenters have pointed out) idea that a degree in particular field (whether that’s Art History, Philosophy, or anything else) is a potentially bad investment. What he meant to do was remind young people like myself that college is not the only option. Trade school, etc is a perfectly viable option, and people should not feel pressured to go to college if it doesn’t suit their goals and their current situation. People who work with their hands are undervalued in America, and I wish more of my peers demonstrated more respect towards people who have chosen a more traditional, less expensive road to the future. -N

    • Shanzer 37

      Well said!

  • I have an art degree. Every tradesman I know earns more than I do, so I don’t see how he’s wrong.

    But I’m Canadian, things might be different in ‘Murica!

    I’ve worked on sites with contractors while I was paying my way through school, and it’s really not a bad job when you are with a good crew who genuinely cares about what they do, and strive to do the best they can to please a client. It’s a lot like functional sculpture in a way; you are using your hands to build something that you can feel proud off. Whether that’s art or a cabinet, it still feels good to produce nice things.

  • Jeremy W. Simmons

    Well, maybe all of these artists and art historians would be better off becoming crooks…

  • John Tennison

    How exactly does the president stimulate the economy? By giving failing businesses the opportunity to avoid dissolution and allowing unprecedented secret spending on american companies to develop technologies that suppress populations across the entire world? A politician may have his hands in more, but he has his heart in it way less. It’s a wonder that people can even afford higher education in this country – the last thing we need to be doing is criticizing their passions and interests. The people that actually make up this country deserve a little more respect.

  • Dmitry Strakovsky’s just that a push for trade school by Harvard-educated prez is a little clumsy :)

    • Vanessa

      YES!!!! Exactly Dmitry!!!!

  • jen

    I am a bench Jeweler with a Bachelor’s of Fine Art and a Master’s of Fine Art. I could have gotten the job I have today by doing a 6 month trade school program, and spent A LOT less money–something I didn’t know until I went through it and got the job. HOWEVER. My life is far more enriched by taking the classes I took as a student…things I would never have learned about had I not driven myself to take the classes. Philosophy, World History, Medieval Art, Modern Middle East, Japanese Culture…just to name a few… I feel *extremely* lucky to have been able to go to college. I’m over $60,000 dollars in debt but I would not trade it for the world. I’m qualified to teach, if I feel so inclined, when I am older– I am not pigeon-holed into doing the same job for the rest of my life– I have intellectual and skilled mobility in my life that was not there before I went to school. The pros greatly out weigh the cons for me– a small town person with a poor education. College was great for me. There is a lot more to think about than money.

  • Edward Porter

    I have an MFA degree and I regret it. I was naive to think I could make a living in the arts.

  • sheila coutouvidis

    You used the word useless not Obama – listen to what he is saying without trying to bend his words so you can get you’re knickers in a knot

  • Zev Robinson

    History, of which art history is a part, is essential in our understanding of who we are and the type of society and culture we want and the values we strive for. Saying that the humanities are not economically viable is not far from saying that the civil rights movement, the sufragette movement, seeing a film, going to church, and playing (amateur) sports, etc, etc are not economically viable.

    • Shanzer 37

      How many historians/artists/philosophers can economy employee? He’s not saying that these fields aren’t important but any society is going to need more builders than architects.

      • Zev Robinson

        The economy will take care of that. I don’t disagree that there is nothing wrong with getting a job as, say, a carpenter or in manufacturing, but there is also the slant that the arts and humanities don’t generate capital and wealth, universities don’t need them, we don’t need them. Unfortunately, too, manufacturing is in decline, with finance taking its place. He should have said, nothing wrong with manufacturing instead of Wall Street speculation, but then the emails would really start rolling in, and from the wrong people.

        • Shanzer 37

          Yes agreed the economy will eventfully weed out the superfluous individuals in intellectual fields. But not before those individuals spend a lot of money educating themselves for a career they will not have. So eventually our unsuccessful candidates reassess, most likely spend more money going back to school for another career path. On a national scale it means a decent portion of creative talent is under employed and unproductive when those same talents could be better utilized in other segments of our economy.

          • Zev Robinson

            Surely, that’s up to the individual to decide. If they have to work in a factory for 30 years, don’t they at least deserve a few years pursuing and learning about what really interests them. Whatever one does in life, a university education helps them see and understand society and themselves differently, and hopefully they take that with them.

          • Shanzer 37

            I wasn’t suggesting an Ayn Rand like hellscape where we all have assigned jobs. But I’m sick of this you do anything you set your mind to career advice. 18 is still a very impressionable mind I think pragmatic advice is best scare off the ones on the fence. Let the truly talented and foolhardy take a go at it.

          • Zev Robinson

            Between you can do anything and you’re useless and can’t do anything, there has to be a balance. But my point was more about why say that about art history. Art is a billion dollar industry, with all sorts of “service” staff needed who would do well to have a basis in art history. You could say the same about sports and film and other fields, but if Obama said I love sports, but it’s economically useless, think about the backlash he’d get. Yet the arts…

  • alex_schaefer

    lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing
    as a viable career” yes but what generation was is that started that
    ball rolling with leveraged buy-outs and asset liquidation, selling
    Americas productive capacity to the benefit of but a few vulture capitalists, and setting up sweat shop labor in easy to
    exploit 3rd world countries?

  • craynol

    The context of this photo is more interesting than this article. Know your history.

  • Godbluff

    He is completely correct. I teach art history, and I know studying it isn’t the most economically viable way to spend your time. However, non-economically viable things are the things we do the minute we aren’t being economically viable at work. Or to put it another way, non-economically viable things are what make life worth living once you’ve finished being a slave to the economy every day.

  • Sandra Haynes

    I’m actually more annoyed with the Hyperallergic headline than I am with what Pres. Obama said. He didn’t say an art history degree is economically useless. That’s a Fox news styled headline to get us art folks annoyed with him. Wrong way to go about it. What he said is actually what every craftsman has been trying to get the capital A Art world to admit for quite some time, that skill and craftsmanship have significant value and should not be dismissed.

  • Why do people go to Paris? Or Rome, Venice, Machu Picchu, Tokyo? Do they make pilgrimages to these places to attend parliamentary proceedings? Many people go to museums and galleries–who visits Paris without going to the Louvre? And even people who say they don’t “get” art go to see landmarks like the Eiffel tower or ancient pyramids, or they go for the food, or to buy clothes. People pay hundreds of dollars for an airline ticket and thousands for hotel rooms almost exclusively to immerse themselves in some kind of art. It drives world commerce. I don’t understand how people can’t understand that. This era involves a globally interconnected economy, and the arts–contemporary and historic–are a necessary means through which we can understand other cultures’ histories and popular cultures, and that informs how we communicate with and understand one another individually and nation to nation. The United States of America is still held in high esteem worldwide in large part because of our entertainment exports–Hollywood is implicit in many foreigners’ ‘American dreams,’ and it is our greatest public-relations mechanism, as well as a huge source of income from the rest of the world. Music, visual arts, architecture, cuisine, clothing, archaeological sites–all art, and mostly misunderstood without some art history knowledge. Obviously people who work in factories are not dependent on this knowledge, but to suggest that they shouldn’t pursue it to understand the context of the anthropological world and enrich their lives is relegating that whole person to an existence simply for the sake of manufacturing–and without enrichment and appreciation for the arts, why wouldn’t we expect people to resort to drinking and drugging themselves? It’s a disturbingly narrow-minded and elitist way of thinking. Sorry for the rant, but our national tendency to dismiss anything that can’t be tied to a direct monetary transaction is so foolish and such an unrealistically incomplete perspective of human nature. I won’t send the president “a bunch of emails” complaining because, regardless of political parties, I think that, sadly, most bureaucrats see the world in a binary code made up of $s and ¢s and simply cannot even interpret anything beyond that. As much as those at the top want us to be, human beings are not yet emotionless automatons, and although one must think in a somewhat abstract sense in order to understand this idea, the arts–while not usually as practical as an automobile–are vitally important to all of human history. In fact, human history begins with the arts of letters and pictures. We know absolutely nothing specific about our species from before humanity began to record events and ideas in through artistic disciplines. So, so, so shortsighted. Absolutely everyone should be fluent in art and educated in art history.

    • Shanzer 37

      True but you don’t have to be an art history to be educated in art. I said this elsewhere but I think it bears repeating. Any society is going to need more builders than architects. For every artist, actress, screen writer that succeeds there another 100 muddling to get by. So while I love art history I recognize the supply for aspiring art historians far exceeds the demand for them. And perhaps its better to serve the art world as buyer and consumer than as another ascetic laboring under the romantic notion of the the starving artist (or art historian) as the case may be.

      • I agree with you for the most part, but I still feel that his quote–even though it was off-the-cuff to make a point–denigrates the perceived value of art and art history overall. People may make less money with an art-history degree than as a specialist who works on wind turbines or as a steel technician (if that’s a thing), but it doesn’t have to be presented as an either/or proposition. That is why traditional integrated liberal-arts education evolved as it did. Some people don’t find value in the arts or history (grr! But ok, fine.), but there is a reason that these things have been incorporated into educational programs throughout history. If we only follow the money’s lead, then we will lose touch with culture. And as much of a luxury as ‘culture’ may sound to people, it extends far beyond and “below,” socioeconomically speaking, so-called high culture. I have the utmost respect for people who work in skilled trades, and I acknowledge that a plumber need not understand Modernist art to do her job and make a sizable wage–but I still feel that she should not be discouraged from learning about the arts simply by virtue of her day job. The divide between upper and lower classes in the U.S. is growing too quickly, and that divide would be significantly accelerated and widened if we encouraged everyone to choose a working-class life or a white-collar life. There should be a lot of gray area–more than there is now–or else we will be forced to stop denying that we really do have a British-type class system in this country, which values the products made by skilled tradespeople, but generally regards those people are educationally and intellectually inferior.

        • Shanzer 37

          The idea of art as high culture is relatively new concept. Ingres painted erotic nudes of the various mistresses to the King and the occasional harem. roughly equivalent to what playboy or music videos are doing today. “Brook Watson and Shark” is the Jaws of Oil paintings. I guess my point is people are consuming plenty of culture. It used to be to hear music you had to attend a performance, if you wanted a visual story you had to see a painting at the museum, people could hardly afford books let alone be educated enough to be able to read them. We consume more stories, images and music than in any other time in history. As to the intellectism of our modern few of art, its just not everyone’s cup of tea. There’s a reason Thomas Kincaid was the wealthiest living artist. Most people just want to be entertained by art. If taming of the Shrew were written today it would be starring Jennifer Aniston. I can accept that not everyone want intellectual stimulating media without thinking their stupid. Music Critics don’t endorse Justin Beiber but its not exactly hurting his sales. Likewise Art Historians can encourage more think-y art but as the saying goes you can’t make the horse drink.

    • Tamara Pauline

      <3 exactly.

      This thinking upholds the Renaissance myth that art is decorative or an indulgent pursuit of the bourgeoisie instead of a catalyst for coming to knowledge about the world or a viable form of communication that influences other disciplines. For several centuries, its struggled between these two poles. But, without valuing and studying Humanities, I can't see how we'll ever progress as a people.

  • RobertWBoyd

    Ha ha. I pretty much agree with him, but I happen to be one of those people who got an art history undergrad degree AND ended up with a well-paying job at a big corporation. But my path from A to B was by no means a straight line and not something that others could easily duplicate (even if they wanted to).

    • Shanzer 37

      I’m working on that transition myself although I think my studio arts degree puts me even a peg lower on that path. uggh

  • Pierre Gustav

    Dear author, your headline is misleading and doesn’t match the direct quote. But, it’s an attention grabber and elicits “hits”. These “outrage” headlines appear to be a trend, formerly just used by “rags” but are now employed by many, blogs and print. Hyper, you used to be classier than this!

  • Logan McNeil

    He really should never deviate from the teleprompter. Youre a scripted teleprompter President. Embrace it and stopping making an ass of yourself.

  • ashlisisk
  • Daniel Fleming

    “I’m just saying, 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 training that you need.”

    That’s all he needed to say…his mistake was specifically calling out any major in particular.

  • Jim Findlay

    Interesting because I feel the same way about him.
    “I Love Obama but Think He’s (Economically) Useless.”

  • silenttristero

    “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career” Gee, i wonder why? He says this just days after he told the country that pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be one of his top priorities this year, a trade agreement very similar to the ones that have eviscerated the domestic manufacturing industries over the past few decades, leading to the collapse of the middle class and the economic inequality he likes to talk so much about correcting.

    Saying that going for an art history degree is not the most lucrative career path is just stating the obvious. Hopefully he’s serious about raising the minimum wage, so that all of us trapped in the service industry can at least afford to pay our bills.

  • Virginia Bryant

    This makes sense in a society that has its values in the toilet, which is why art, which is at least in part spiritually oriented, if not itself a spiritual practice, is denigrated in this society. We do NOT need more product, rather less product and a history based on something other than war “victories” and more oriented to other realms. Art is an excellent possibility.

  • lulu

    “Nothing wrong with art history degree,” [sic] he added. “I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, 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 training that you need”

  • Den Hickey

    We need living wages for everyone who works, better public school educations, especially in poorer areas that lag behind, and we need a system that guarantees a good and affordable trade OR college education where the level of education you can get is not dependent on how wealthy your family is or whether you are going into a field that will be incredibly profitable rather than just a decent living.

  • Paul Werner

    Effin-A. Art History as a profession is so rife with cronyism, backbiting, sexual and racial discrimination and arbitrarily imposed hierarchies, that you might have more pride and self-respect as a factory worker. At least if you’re welding car parts it’s because you know how to weld.

    Paul Werner, PhD.
    Author, “Jump Jim Corot. Cash, class and Culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

  • Joan McKniff

    Oh, ease up. He was just promoting technical training in an area of high unemployment, high rates of school dropouts, and stressing the value of technical education, saying it was something people could be proud of…that blue collar work is respectable, important and valued. He was not advising universities to drop art history majors or courses, was not saying art history was not important, just saying other things are important TOO. Joan McKniff, History major/art history minor, retired US Diplomat/Cultural Attache.

  • J. C. Phillips

    Obama has seen the numbers, and he is concerned about the job situation and America’s competitiveness in world markets. He has done a great job in leading America towards recovery, but he has faced two problems. Everyone knows how the GOP, far from being a
    loyal opposition, has done all it can to obstruct his work. They have reprised their performance from the 1930’s.

    Virginia and the far-too-many people like her are the second problem. It is a large problem because it inflates college education costs, and it obstructs the development of more
    vocational education at the community college level. Readers who are seriously interested in this question should look up Ralph Gomory’s blogs on Huffington Post. However wonderful piddling around was 30 years ago, when America dominated world markets, it is something America cannot afford today.

  • Dionne Smith

    I don’t think your title for this article is fair or accurate. It’s obviously meant to instigate negative reactions from creatives. I don’t get that President Obama says “art history is economically useless” at all. He is saying exactly what he said: “folks can potentially make more $ with technical or vocational skills degrees than they might with an art history degree”. It’s not denigrating art history, just pointing out that people shouldn’t poo-poo trade or vocational skills as people are wont to do. I am an artist working in the creative industry for over 20 years. I am also involved with a foundation that gives scholarships to young people in every possible field there is including the arts and technical/vocational fields. And the President is right; there is a great need for technical and vocational skills and because the need is great, the pay will potentially be greater than in the field of art history, which is most likely in less demand….Come on guys, we see through the sensationalism.

  • Bob Ragland

    I was hoping to find this data. Art and artists ,seem to be something lay people often dismiss
    as a hobby. I have a solid nonstarving art life in Denver, Colorado. I learned how to make art pay my way. Art and art knowledge allows me to heat and eat. Art people are creative, they solve problems everyday. Artists make the world easier to live in. One can’t look around not not see how art is not part of it.

  • Bob Ragland

    The White House is a museum, the president’s children live with art everyday.
    There are a number of works in the collection , that happens to be made by artists of color.
    Just saying.

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