A graduate of two Ivy League institutions, the author of one highly regarded book (the less said about The Audacity of Hope, the better), and a former lecturer at the University of Chicago, President Obama has a reputation for being something of an intellectual. It’s clearly part of his self-conception as well; “I’m comfortable with complexity,” he’s been known to say. And as anyone who slogged through David Remnick’s Ulysses-length interview with him in the New Yorker last month can attest, Obama likes to laboriously argue both sides of any issue. It’s as if he’s trying a little too hard to live up to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that intelligence “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.”
So it was jarring, to say the least, when the president took a tasteless shot at that most esoteric of intellectual disciplines—art history—during a recent speech in Wisconsin. “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he told an audience in Waukesha, “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.” (He later walked back the remark, offering weakly, “I love art history.”)
Obama’s jab might have been offhand, but it was, nevertheless, disturbing. For one, the president used art history, essentially, as a punch line. He implied that there is something inherently risible about devoting one’s time to studying mankind’s highest cultural achievements. One would be hardpressed to imagine an example of more naked philistinism. It may, in fact, be prudent for many people to learn a trade. But making that point doesn’t necessitate taking a cheap shot at the small, self-selected group of Americans (less than 0.2 percent of working Americans with college degrees) who devote themselves to the serious study of art. What’s more, it’s unlikely anyone in America right now is agonizing over whether to pursue an art history degree at Sarah Lawrence or instead train as a welder. His shot was simply gratuitous.
Besides, even by his own cramped and mercenary standards, which imply that the sole consideration when choosing a course of study is one’s future earning potential, Obama is wrong. That art history majors are poor, as the president implied, must come as news to the 6 percent of them who are in the top 1 percent of income earners. Indeed, a higher percentage of art history majors are “one percenters” than are chemistry, computer science, pharmaceutical sciences, microbiology, or finance majors. Even within the humanities, the study of art history is unusually lucrative. A recent report from Georgetown University found that among Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts, art history majors earned the second-most, behind only those who majored in U.S. history. None of this is particularly surprising, given how intellectually challenging the discipline is. No one who spent their college years attending toga parties and sleeping through their morning classes graduated with an art history degree.
Nor is it particularly surprising when one considers that art doesn’t only provide spiritual and intellectual nourishment: It’s also a business. A big business, in fact—the global art market was valued at north of $60 billion in 2012, according to the European Fine Art Foundation. Art museums, meanwhile, are notching record visitor numbers and boast growing endowments. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to take just one outsize example, has an endowment of nearly $3 billion. Is it any wonder, then, that the myriad art history majors who go on to become curators, gallery owners, or art dealers are doing quite well? Not to mention those art history majors who use their facility with the visual arts and their intellectual dexterity to become wildly successful fashion designers (Vera Wang) or big-time businesspeople (Fidelity Investments president Abigail Johnson).
All told, the average midcareer salary for an art history major is about $59,000—almost $10,000 higher than the median household income in the United States. Those jobs in the trades and manufacturing that Obama assured his audience in Wisconsin were more lucrative than art history? The average midcareer salary of a skilled carpenter is $44,000. Basic plumbers, meanwhile, earn $41,000, about as much as journeymen electricians. The average hourly wage in Obama’s beloved manufacturing sector, meanwhile, is $19.60, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That equates to an annual salary of roughly $40,000. Even Obama’s ballyhooed “green jobs” fail to generate actual green. Solar photovoltaic installers earn, on average, less than $38,000 a year.
Where people get into trouble is in going tens of thousands of dollars into debt to earn putatively “useful” degrees that end up paying the equivalent of those aforementioned jobs in the trades. Those who major in elementary education, for example, with its average salary of $41,400, or the culinary arts, with mid-career earnings of $46,800, may be setting themselves up for a lifetime of penury. Starting salaries—which are even more important, because students usually must begin repaying their loans within a year of leaving school—tell an even starker tale. Starting salaries for those who took the “pragmatic” course and majored in hospitality/tourism average $36,200 a year. Horticulture majors, meanwhile, can hope for a cool $37,000. The median starting income for journalism majors is $31,000, meaning that fully half of journalism majors start out making $30,999 or less. The choice, contra Obama, isn’t between training as an electrician and studying art history—it’s between training as an electrician and sinking tens of thousands of dollars into a “pragmatic” degree with no payoff.
So Obama is wrong on the facts. But perhaps what’s most distressing about his dig at art history is what it says about the way he views the American people. Given his own liberal arts background (Obama’s alma mater, Columbia, is noted for requiring all of its students to take a course in art history), one imagines that Obama doesn’t actually dislike art history. He was probably just pandering. But in a way, that’s even worse; it suggests that the president thinks that “Real Americans” in places like Wisconsin relish denigrating intellectual pursuits. As the president has it, in addition to religion, guns, and anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-intellectualism is just another thing that Americans “cling” to.
No, the problem with America is not that it has too many people studying art history. The problem with America is that it has a president who often fails to understand it.