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Questioning assumptions about the value of art history (essay)

“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts … but you are not going to get a job," declared Sam Clovis, Donald Trump’s campaign co-chair in an interview last May. Clovis was outlining the would-be president’s education policy, and art history served as a prime example of the kind of major that student loans, he argued, should not underwrite.

Since that interview, Trump has been elected the 45th president of the United States and, ironically -- or perhaps not -- his administration has been embroiled in more than its share of image-based controversies. For weeks following the inauguration, Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to explain why photographs of the National Mall appeared to reflect lower attendance at the event than the president perceived, or hoped, to be the case.

On Jan. 28, a day after Trump issued an executive order prohibiting refugees from Syria and individuals from six other countries from entering the United States, his daughter Ivanka posted a photo on Instagram of herself and husband Jared Kushner dressed to the nines for a black-tie event -- a gesture that earned her comparisons to Marie Antoinette. More recently, an image of Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office quickly overshadowed the photo opportunity she was ostensibly documenting: the president’s meet and greet with leaders from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

In the face of the many aspects of the Trump administration that warrant attention, Clovis’s distant and passing remark about art history may seem inconsequential. But exploring the assumptions behind it actually offers a lot of insight into the administration’s stream of visual foibles and the way a liberal arts education prepares one to live and work in a world suffused by images.

This isn’t the first time art history has taken a hit in debates about the value of a liberal arts education. In 2014, President Obama famously told a room full of GE employees in Wisconsin, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Both Clovis’s and Obama’s comments betray the belief that art history is an elitist and insular enterprise. It enables you to appreciate the finer things in life -- expensive objects you might see at a museum, but could never afford to own, or things you might discuss “at a cocktail party” (the backhanded compliment of all backhanded compliments to an art historian). In his response to art history professor Ann Collins Johns’s criticism of his remarks in Wisconsin, Obama said the art history class he took in high school “has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

Art can, of course, alert you to the beauties of the world. I recently photographed some bright flowers seen, with difficultly, through a frosted window of an old church because they reminded me of pastels by the turn-of-the-20th-century French artist Odilon Redon. Without that point of reference, I might not have seen the flowers as a mark of the thriving community the old building still seems to foster, or I might have overlooked the site altogether.

But art history has also documented and been witness to and participant in some of the world’s greatest injustices. An introductory art history course would be remiss if it didn’t address 19th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in Madrid, which depicts French soldiers executing Spanish freedom fighters in the wake of the popular revolt against Joseph Napoleon, whose brother had recently installed him as king of Spain. In my introductory class, we also talk about 18th-century French artist Antoine Watteau and the ways his elegant and lighthearted paintings portrayed -- but also abetted -- the aristocratic indulgences that would ultimately bring about the Revolution.

More recently, contemporary artist Kara Walker’s installations of black paper silhouettes have become a staple of classes in African-American art, American art and contemporary art. Applied directly to the museum or gallery wall, her antebellum characters engage in graphic sexual and violent acts, sending up genteel white culture -- from the Southern plantation to the modern museum -- and the ways in which it has sustained, enabled and promulgated racist ideas.

Art history is not, as Clovis’s and Obama’s remarks imply, a litany of obscure facts about artists’ lives, a catalog of auction records or the categorization of styles. It is about representation. It asks who or what is depicted, how, where and why -- questions central to the most pressing political and social issues in the United States today. Racial profiling, transgender rights and immigration, to name a few, are all about equal rights and the ways in which they are enforced or thwarted on the basis of visual cues and popular perceptions. To study art history is to learn the ways in which images -- from 16th-century French paintings to contemporary memes -- wield power, shape identity and construct who we are as well as what we think about other people.

Of course, undergraduates (and their parents) as well as graduate students are right to think about their career prospects, and should be encouraged to do so. But one of the many things art history and, indeed, the liberal arts teach us is that professional success and personal growth are not as mutually exclusive as Clovis’s comments suggest. They are both premised upon recognizing and appreciating how things might look to someone else. In that sense, based on the photographs that have swirled around the current administration, art history may have its place in our world, after all.

Nika Elder is a visiting assistant professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Florida.

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Kellyanne Conway in the Oval Office
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Scholars in the humanities and the sciences should value one another (essay)

Although I am an aspiring scholar of 17th-century devotional poetry, I’ve had a surprisingly large number of drinking buddies who are physicists. Over beers I’ve learned about the Higgs boson, the intricacies of the Large Hadron Collider and the standard model of particle physics. In turn, I hope that maybe they’ve learned a little about Milton’s “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”

Such friendships are part and parcel of doing the entirety of my graduate education at institutions that are heavily known for their contributions to STEM fields. I’ve never been able to ignore the sciences, and I wouldn’t think it a luxury even if I could. In talking with scientists, at least on a bar stool, I have tried to be largely free from C. P. Snow’s famous assertion in his 1959 The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that scientists and humanists are members of “two polar groups” and that between those two lies a “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

There is a cottage industry explaining why those studying the sciences need knowledge of the humanities, and I am sympathetic and largely agree with those views. But as a humanist writing to colleagues, I think that we should admit that Snow may still have a point. Too often we approach the sciences with a mixture of fear, envy and misunderstanding.

First, however, some things that I am not arguing: I do not think that science or scientists are beyond humanistic critique. Science, like any system created by humans, is going to be influenced by the wider culture, and as culture is our subject, we’re perfectly equipped to comment on those aspects of STEM that abut history, philosophy, literature, area studies and so on. The subspecialty of science studies has made important contributions to a considered understanding of how science operates within society, and one need not be a relativist to admit that ideology influences scientific discourses.

Second, if mutual suspicion has grown between the two cultures, the fault does not lie solely with us. Many advocates for a particularly positivist view of science (here I am thinking primarily of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins) are not just dismissive of whole shelves of humanistic scholarship, but they’re also downright anti-intellectual about entire disciplines as well. They deserve to be called out.

Finally, I am not claiming that humanistic work can be reduced into the scientific. Interdisciplinary respect need not entail the loss of disciplinary sovereignty, and I am not supporting a type of epistemological imperialism.

Despite those caveats, Snow’s assertion that the humanities have a bit of a science problem remains pertinent a half century later. As humanists, it behooves us to interrogate our own assumptions about the sciences and the occasionally unthinking ways we may project displaced anger onto scientists that are counterproductive to both them and us. Without an honest consideration of how we sometimes speak about science, we risk alienating potential allies in fighting for shared interests -- such as academic freedom, job security and funding in the era of the increasingly corporate university. Furthermore, some of our personal griping about the sciences subconsciously displays an anxiety that is, ironically, profoundly anti-humanist.

In that aforementioned seminal essay, Snow writes, “A good many times, I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.” While perhaps it’s unwise to universalize that phenomenon, it’s undeniable that Snow identifies an all too common sentiment. There exists a suspicious cringe toward the sciences that is condescending to our colleagues and ultimately not helpful to those of us in the humanities. It includes unstated assumptions that issues of institutional support are always easy for our colleagues in their labs across the campus, as well as the internet flame wars I’ve seen on academic threads griping about science popularization.

Stereotypes Worth Questioning

If anything, the rhetorical problem of the “two cultures” has as of late been exacerbated by the cheap outrage enabled by online culture and the easy discourse of social media, where an attitude of casual disdain toward science and scientists can proliferate. At its worst, I’ve seen the legitimate humanistic analysis of problematic pronouncements made by some scientists veer into an insinuation that said scientists are so unsophisticated that they’re somehow not even legitimately equipped to comment on their own specialties. Or I’ve seen the weird gleefulness of humanists who brag about knowing nothing about science, as if we wouldn’t justifiably denounce the equivalent from our STEM colleagues across the hall as being rank anti-intellectualism.

I’m not innocent in this. From time to time I’ve unfairly stereotyped our colleagues in the sciences as unconcerned or not knowledgeable about history, philosophy and literature. I’ve shared links to online articles and blogs that extol the virtues of humanistic training and research at the expense of the sciences. Oftentimes our disdain can be born out of unpleasant personal interactions with colleagues in STEM fields who are unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties or worth of our own work in the humanities and social sciences. I think the critical attitudes we harbor toward the sciences are almost always related to our legitimate grievances over how neoliberal policies threaten the humanities in higher education.

Being defensive is emotionally understandable, because it can feel that, as humanists, we’re under attack from all sides. After all, when Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” and then responds to his own question with, “I don’t think so,” it’s expected. But then when President Obama jokes about the utility of studying art history, it only reinforces our sense of being beleaguered. Such political attacks often use the humanities as a straw man to contrast them with what is presented as the supremely pragmatic choice of supporting the STEM fields. It’s natural that we’d get a bit touchy. So I get it, I really do. But that doesn’t mean that a defensive posture is always the most helpful.

At the risk of engaging in the fallacy of anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard things that highlight what I see as the dangers of painting STEM with the same broad brush with which we’re tarred. I myself shared a popular meme on Facebook a few months ago that claimed the bizarre pronouncements of former presidential candidate Ben Carson are what happen when STEM students don’t take humanities courses. I’m sure you can blame Carson’s strange comments on many things, but his medical training seems unlikely to be one of them. I’ve never seen his undergraduate transcripts -- perhaps he took scores of English and history classes -- but I imagine that those who created the meme really have no idea, either. It was an admittedly funny image, and in advocating for the humanities I imagine it was made with good intentions.

But I think it does little to convince potential academic allies in the STEM fields of much more than our own intellectual smugness. An even more insidious variety of meme that I’ve encountered are those that argue that the benefit of a humanistic education is that it makes scientists somehow more moral in their research.

The implication that scientists are incapable of parsing the ethics of their own work because they haven’t taken a philosophy course is the height of condescension. From advocating for rational climate policy to explaining what’s dangerous about pseudoscientific anti-vaccination rhetoric, scientists are more than capable advocates for ethical policies that intersect with their own research. The old chestnut that argues that studying the humanities somehow makes a person more moral is tenuous at best. The course catalog justification for the humanities as supplying special skills in “critical thought” is also shortsighted one, for it presupposes that critical thinking is our sole provenance (which it obviously isn’t) and that critical thinking is somehow all that we offer (which it also isn’t).

Not Victims or Martyrs

Of course I think it would be fantastic if more scientists did take philosophy courses. It would be fantastic if every college student did that -- not because those courses only help the student in their primary training but because such courses are an unalloyed good in themselves. That’s the ultimate irony in this sort of defense of the humanities: they use the same economic language of utility that other people use to justify increased funding for STEM.

Yet if we position ourselves too much as victims or martyrs, we ignore the oftentimes similar (or even more dire) political position that scientists find themselves in. We commit a fallacy when we confuse political lip service for STEM as being actual support. One only need look at the precarious situation climatologists find themselves in, under attack by ideologically motivated partisans every bit as organized as those who fulminated against the academic humanities during the culture wars. And while I harbor my own resentments that the wider public may view my interest in 17th-century Puritan theology as helplessly esoteric, 30 minutes of speaking to a mathematician who works on topology and number theory disavowed me of any sense of the grass being greener on the other side when it comes to the public embrace of what one might study.

In defending ourselves, in explaining why anthropology or art history is important, we should not engage in the corollary of denouncing the sciences as unimportant. Too often I see the deployment of the same language used against us, or the ironic gambit of self-justification that involves tethering the humanities to the sciences so that the former is enlisted as some kind of handmaid to the later.

I had a conversation at a conference with a fellow humanist who thought that what I think is the self-evidently fascinating field of astrophysics is simply a financial drain on society, as if it’s somehow clear that the study of poetry is obviously important to everyone. In the academy, both fields of study need to be justified, both need to be explained and both need to be defended. That can be done at the institutional level (why not sponsor events between academic societies like the Modern Language Association and American Academy for the Advancement of Science?), as well as in our own professional lives. The recent catastrophic election to the presidency of the United States of Donald Trump, a man with equal disdain for both the humanistic tradition and scientific evidence, is reason enough for building a spirit of solidarity between academic disciplines.

It’s worth considering biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria,” which was originally meant to delineate the different domains of religion and science, as a useful template for thinking about the relationship between science and the humanities. Factionalism, jingoism and arrogance are no more attractive when they’re gussied up in humanistic language. Incuriosity is an intellectual sin, wherever its origins. This need not be a zero-sum game, as we’re all playing for the same team.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University. He is also a widely published writer on the subjects of religion, literature and culture. His work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Aeon, The Paris Review Daily, Salon, Atlas Obscura, The Revealer, Nautilus and many others. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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