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.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

72 replies on “Obama Loves Art History but Thinks It’s (Economically) Useless”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

          2. 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.

          3. 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…

  13. “A
    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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  17. 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).

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

  18. 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!

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

  20. “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.

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

  22. “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.

  23. 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.

  24. “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”

  25. 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.

  26. 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.”

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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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