In Which An American President Explains To An Android Why It’s Wrong To Shoot God With A Bazooka

March 3, 2014 · Print This Article

There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lt. Cmdr. Data expresses to the rest of the crew his puzzlement at the human fascination with “old things.” The crew were probably trying to save some ancient ruins or encountering a relic from the past (probably a shoutout to the original series, like the wreck of the old Enterprise or something). It is, if you think about it, an odd notion. Why is something made a thousand years more interesting than something made yesterday? (With the penchant for clever, punny titles of panel sessions at CAA, if there hasn’t yet been, there will almost certainly eventually be, an art history panel called “Lascaux to Last Week,” probably about contemporary cave paintings or appropriating ancient imagery.) [Note: Apparently it’s a book. I thought I’d heard that somewhere. http://www.percontra.net/archive/3lascauxtolastweek.htm]

Art History has had a couple of moments in the spotlight recently. The College Art Association conference just took place in Chicago, and for those in studio art fields who attend, it’s maybe more exposure to art history than we get, unless we actively seek it out, during the rest of the year. (The conference has a history of some animosity between the two disciplines; from what I’ve gathered it was more art history focused in the past, and in recent years studio art has been taking over, affecting everything from the book and trade fair to the location of the conference itself.)

The CAA conference isn’t universally loved, or even respected, by visual artists. My friend and colleague, painter Steve Amos, posted to Facebook: “Beware of the foul smell emanating from the South Loop; the pile of bullshit known as the College Art Association conference is in town.” (Posted February 14th to Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steveamos/posts/10151952963102919?stream_ref=10.)

I didn’t ask Steve what he meant or why he felt that way, but I’ve heard the sentiment echoed among many of my friends, and may have said something along those lines myself, in a moment of frustration. Some of the hate may come from a frustration with the job market, and a treating of the conference as synonymous with the Career Services aspect thereof. The Interview Hall and Candidate Center are certainly geared towards job seekers. I know some people who have gotten jobs through interviews at CAA, and others who have gotten interviews. Personally, I’ve never been interviewed at CAA, though their career services have helped me in other ways: almost every job for which I’ve applied was listed on CAA (other listing sites include Higher Ed Jobs, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Academic Keys), and their mock interviews and packet reviews helped me prepare for the application and interview process for my current position. (Since August of 2013 I’ve been teaching full time at Northern Arizona University.)

Another recent spotlight on art history was the film Monuments Men, in which some art experts get drafted into WWII to “tell our boys what they can and can’t blow up.” It was a true story (an interview with one of the surviving, original Monuments Men was featured recently on NPR), and a lot of masterpieces in European collections survive today only because of these men. (Others, such as an Italian monastery, were bombed out of supposed military necessity.) My friend and colleague, Chicago artist Renee Prisble, asked on Facebook (via Twitter), “Where were ‘The Monuments Men’ when we invaded Iraq?” (Posted to Facebook January 27th, via Twitter: https://www.facebook.com/reneeprisble/posts/10203102149818529?stream_ref=10.)

The Ufizzi Gallery in Florence during WWII. Sculpture, including Michelangelo’s David, are behind brick domes intended to protect them from bomb blasts and fragments.

It’s a fair question, one that was asked plenty at the time (or, rather, immediately after the looting of the museum), although mostly among the NPR set (myself included). There’s an image, I can still see it, of the facade of the museum sporting a hole created by a round from the cannon of a main battle tank. In this case the Americans clearly caused the damage by invading, even though it was primarily locals who did the looting (as opposed to the WWII example, in which invading Nazis themselves were the looters).

Two years earlier, just before 9/11, in the summer of 2001, the Taliban had used rockets and explosives to destroy the Baniyam Buddhas of Afghanistan, a resurgence of the age-old iconoclastic prohibition. Iconoclasm is based on Mosiac law (i.e. the Old Testament generally, and specifically the Ten Commandments), and thus is common to the history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, although within each faith sects vary widely in how literally they interpret this. Islamic Fundamentalism is among the most vehement, its leaders sometimes issuing death threats against people who depict Mohammed. The Taliban followed in this tradition when they chose to destroy the pair of 6th Century monumental sculptures of the Buddha, carved into a cliff face. (Mosaic law can be interpreted as instructing its followers not to make any representational imagery whatsoever, or more narrowly not to represent prophets and deities; in this case it was extended to destroying ancient monuments made my followers of another religion.)

The tragedy of this destruction is central to answering Data’s question: why was it such a big deal? Merely because the statues were old? Or because they were a symbol of a faith different than that of their destroyers, and we in the West have a live-and-let-live, relativist attitude? I don’t have the answer to this, but certainly our fascination with old things, as well as our respect for other cultures, is central to the role of art history.

It would be disingenuous to treat art history as totally synonymous with preservation. Certainly conservation, preservation, and repatriation of lost or stolen works is a role that requires the asssistance of an art historian. But the bread and butter of art history is study and interpretation. I described it in my own prediction for what I’d see at the College Art Association conference: “A bunch of new stuff is going to get queered, painting isn’t dead after all, and there’s going to be a hell of a lot of viewing things through the lenses of other things.”

Art History entered the spotlight on a national level very specifically a few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama, speaking at General Electric’s Waukesha Gas Engines, said to the audience that “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree…Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So 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.” The audience chuckled along, and applauded at the end. But not everybody was amused. While there is no evidence that America’s art history majors are going to start abandoning Obama in droves, he did manage to draw some backlash from the College Art Association’s director Linda Downs, who issued the following statement in response:

The College Art Association has great respect for President Obama’s initiative to provide all qualified students with an education that can lead to gainful employment. We support all measures that he, Congress, State Legislatures, and colleges and universities can do to increase the opportunities for higher education.

However, when these measures are made by cutting back on, denigrating, or eliminating humanities disciplines such as art history, then America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking, and creative problem solving offered by the humanities. It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities.

Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where skills and creating thinking play a critical role. Let’s not forget that education across a broad spectrum is essential to develop the skills and imagination that will enable future generations to create and take advantage of new jobs and employment opportunities of all sorts. (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/watch-obama-slights-art-history-majors/)

It’s no surprise that the organization defends its own. But Obama’s remarks have some chilling implications far beyond the validity of an art history degree. Would Obama want his own children to go to a trade school to become skilled in a blue collar trade? Or is class segregation acceptable, with one definition of success for some, and another for others? The idea that an education in the humanities is a luxury implies…comedian Louis C.K. said it very well. Talking about Technical High School, he said, “That’s where dreams are narrowed down. We tell our children you can do anything you want, their whole lives. You can do anything. But at this place, we take kids that are like fifteen years old, they’re young, and we tell them, ‘You can do eight things.’”

Maybe in some communities this beats the alternative. Sure, being a welder beats being a drug dealer. (Well…I know some drug dealers who would disagree. Oh, don’t give me that look. That ‘friend’ you buy your weed and coke from is a drug dealer. But I mean, on the street level, it’s pretty high risk.) But it’s totally antithetical to our ideals of hope, ambition, social mobility, and whatever is left of the American Dream, if that was ever really a thing.

John Adams said, according to Fred Shapiro’s The Yale Book of Quotations), “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.”

I’ve frequently heard this quotation used to argue, broadly, that times of scarcity or hardship are not the time to study the humanities. The quotation comes from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail Adams…on May 12, 1780. Over 230 years ago. Do the math. Okay, I’ll help:

John and Abigail had six children, over a ten year span. Three were daughters, of whom one was stillborn and another died before her second birthday. A third daughter lived long enough to give birth to four children, none of whom seem to have accomplished enough to merit a Wikipedia entry. John and Abigail also had three sons. Charles studied law before dying of alcoholism at the age of 30. Thomas also studied law (though apparently without much success), also struggled with alcoholism, and died deeply in debt (after fathering seven children). It’s hard to imagine John and Abigail even being able to claim with a straight face that they didn’t have a favorite child in John Quincy Adams. Instead of math and philosophy, he studied classics and practiced law before going into politics like his father.

John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa had three sons (and a daughter, who were still pretty much treated as footnotes back then). Their first two, George and John, were trainwrecks on the level of their uncles Charles and Thomas, dying (one of suicide) in early adulthood. Their third, also named Charles, did somewhat better, carrying on the family tradition of diplomacy and politics. A fine pursuit, certainly making his father proud, but not the study of “Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine” which the original John Adams had said he envisioned for his own grandchildren. (In turn, Charles Francis Adams, with Abigail Brown Brooks, fathered seven children, none of whom, so far as I could find, turned out to be painters, poets, musicians, or anything of the kind.)

The first John Adams was a soldier so that his children could be scientists and his grandchildren could be artists. But none of them were. They were all diplomats, military officers, lawyers, and politicians. I don’t know who their descendents today are. Google it if you’re curious. But I doubt there are many blue collar workers among them. Wealth is, after all, inherited, unless it’s squandered by some suicidal alcoholic like some of the Adams kids. I wonder, though, whether, twelve generations later, any of John Adams’ great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren are painters, poets, musicians, architects, sculptors, weavers, or ceramicists. And I wonder what he would say to hear our President essentially tell today’s parents (well, the poor ones) that they shouldn’t share the dream he had for his own descendants.

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