Week in Review: Obama on Art vs Factories, and More

WHAT seems to have been a throwaway line on the impracticality of the “art history major” by President Obama is stirring up art-world folk. I first read about it in this Hyperallergic post, “Obama Loves Art History But Thinks It’s (Economically) Useless,” which describes him praising skilled manufacturing jobs over, you know, artsy silliness.

For the most part, I like the president and some of his policies, but it makes me queasy to hear the liberal arts used as aWomanFactory1940s rim-shot. Today, Madeleine Brand, whose new KCRW program Press Play, is among the best news in local media, kicked off her show with the issue. Much of it was an interview with Kate Flint, USC’s art-history chair. They talked about the way the average art-history graduate earns about $50,000 per year — more than the vast majority of factory jobs — how the liberal arts teach one how to think and communicate and become a deeper person, and so on.

Deep in my bones, I believe in the liberal arts dream. (I am a Wesleyan English major; my parents and wife and siblings all studied the humanities.) And I agree with most of the recoil from Obama’s remarks. I’ll point out here, too, that the president’s allowing leadership of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities to languish (both currently have acting chairmen, and the NEA’s historic building was sold to that vulgarian Donald Trump!) makes me wonder sometimes about his commitment to culture.

Anyway, let me stand up for the importance of a nation where everyone studies the arts and humanities, in grade school and in college, and emerges with a commitment to culture — few things are more important than that. But in the discussion over this, let’s not overlook the fact that the national (and international) economy have made it quite difficult for arts and humanities majors. I can believe the fact that college is about “learning how to learn” rather than narrow pre-professional preparation, but must acknowledge, too, that I know many creative types with bachelor’s and master’s from prestigious universities who are out of work or close to it.

My high school and college friends who spent their time in the basement with their computers, or who moved into finance, tend to be doing vastly better financially than those of us who committed to literature, the arts, journalism, and so on. There are plenty of exceptions. The supposed recovery has left a lot of people high and dry so far. And I’m not sure most academics understand this.

The president of my alma mater, Michael S. Roth, has a book coming from Yale University Press (we have the same editor, it turns out) about the meaning and future of the liberal arts, and I look forward to it eagerly.


Art critic/maverick/badass Dave Hickey is one of my favorite commentators even where I disagree with him. He spoke at a MOCA-sponsored event the other night, and one blogger — Carolina Miranda of C-Monster — likes much of his writing, as well, was not impressed. He knocked critics, arts schools, and identity politics, and so on — Miranda’s dissent is here.

There’s been some around-and-around on the issue of classical music’s health because of a Slate story declaring it “dead.” Much of the resistance to this kind of (overstated) article has, I fear, a kind of shoot-the-messenger quality. Those of us in culture need to face up to shrinking/aging audiences and sales and so on rather than just celebrate the arrival of a hot young pianist or an electrifying museum show. (Of course, we need to do both.) This all said, I’m gratified to see this piece by the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, which takes the issue seriously without giving in to despair. Also, she smartly connects tensions in the arts to similar struggles in journalism.

Signing off for now, but I have what I hope readers find a substantial film piece coming over the next few days — please watch this space.

And for what it’s worth, I will see Hilary Hahn play a program of new and old Scandinavian music, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, this weekend and will try to post on that as well. So long and have a good weekend, loyal readers.

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  1. says

    I agree, Scott, that it’s painful to hear something that has been a part of our lives used as a rimshot, but if you look at the current economic landscape and the cost of college, should a 23-year-old start life deeply in debt looking for economic salvation in expertise in Flemish masters? The Spartans have won, and Athens needs to try to ride this out, I fear.

  2. says

    During his first campaign, Obama said he would return the NEA to its pre-culture war level of 190 million per year – though that’s not inflation adjusted. He’s still about 50 million short. And even at that level, it would only be a tiny fraction of what the governments in every other developed country in the world spend.

    Lets look at the city where you live. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to further reduce the city government’s support of the arts. LA spends $2.30 per capita per year on the arts while Berlin spends $391 – which is 170 times more. That’s why Berlin has 7 full time orchestras and 3 full time opera houses, while LA has one orchestra and ranks 180th in the world for opera performances per year.

    In other words, L.A. has the 3rd largest metro GDP in the world, but ranks 180th for opera performances per year. Bravo!!!

    Tell this to Americans and they just make excuses for why the numbers don’t count – usually along the lines of some contrived and transparently rationalizing concept of American exceptionalism.

    Midgette’s article, as usual, seemed mostly concerned with subtly expressing her own intellectual and cultural superiority as she waded into that dead, 1990s debate about the death of classical music. He specialty is opera, but she didn’t mention that Washington ranks 182nd in the world for opera performances per year (while having the world’s 11th largest metro GDP.) Opera isn’t dying in America, because its barely even alive. There’s not much to kill.

    Look at the rankings for a few other capital cities, all list on the website of Operabase:
    Vienna 1
    Berlin 2
    Paris 3
    Moscow 4
    Prague 6
    London 7
    Budapest 9
    Stockholm 14
    Sydney 16
    Madrid 17

    Even Athens in impoverished Greece comes in at 28th.

    And on and on. The comes Washington and 182nd. Our so-called National Opera housed in Kennedy Center is in reality our national joke. And right there under Obama’s nose and all our other fine politicians. And under the noses of all our fine journalists who never say a damned word about these very interesting and telling numbers concerning opera.

    And people shouldn’t try to make the excuse that Washington isn’t our cultural capital. The USA is the largest and richest developed country in the world but only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. The other two, Chicago and San Francisco don’t even make the top 50. One ultra expensive opera house for fat cats in New York does not a cultured country make.

    (BTW, I’d like to see some documentation for the average 50k salary art history grads makes.)

    • says

      I’d feel better about my comment if I hadn’t gotten a bit ranty. On the other hand, maybe its time for Americans to get angry about the status of the arts in our society and the way they are treated.

  3. says

    William makes excellent points.

    In many ways its DOES come down to education. As one who thinks of opera as the pinnacle of the performing arts, I generally assume that if one is merely exposed to it, one will sign on. This does not require a formal curriculum. In fact, a formal curriculum may be damning at certain levels. (Think of the great bit in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” where the schoolboys are bored and diffident watching the master have sex in sex ed).

    When I was in fourth grade, we hopped on a schoolbus and went to see a tall, skinny singer who was so entertaining and engaging, he had us all singing along. By eighth grade, I was subscribing to “Sing Out,” only to recognize that singer in photographs as Pete Seeger.

    I feel that exposure often is enough. Also, if kids can see adults getting excited about opera and placing value in it, that pants a subtle affirming germ that may blossom later in life.

    I am perhaps as naive as Fitzcarraldo, who ran to the bow of the boat under attack with a gramophone, convinced that the sound of Caruso would tame the savages. Unfortunately, the American military/capitalist system may be too toxic to be so easily tamed.

    • says

      Yes, arts education is essential. I’m an American expat who has lived in Europe for the last 34 years. I currently live in the Black Forest area of Germany. There are 9 fulltime opera houses within two hours of my house. Most are in small cities. The population of Lucerne is 60k, Freiburg 200k, Pforzheim 128k, and so on with Ulm, St. Gallen, and Karlsruhe. Basel is mid-sized. Only two of the cities are large, Zurich and Stuttgart.

      The houses in the small cities seat about 500 people. I love hearing opera in such spaces because the experience is so direct and intimate. The singers don’t have to belt at the top of the lungs which also enhances the acting. All of the houses are owned and operated by state or municipal governments. This allows for good seats that everyone can afford.

      In Europe I have observed how important it is that performing arts organizations be local, well integrated into their communities, and locally funded. When also supported with good arts education programs, this localness allows these organizations to become a source of communal pride just like sports teams. Arts education means so much more when students see that the arts are a central part of their community.

      In 2004, I published an article here on AJ that compares the European and American arts funding systems. You can find it here:


  4. says

    Re Mr. Osborne’s worry that he is getting too “ranty”: many aspects of the state of the arts in America lead very naturally to frustration. Remember the words of the great opera singer John Lydon: Anger is an energy.

  5. says

    I am in a small N.E. city, and we have, amazingly enough, two local opera companies that stage an aggregate of 6 productions a year. I, too, enjoy opera in a 500-seat theater, sung by lesser lights, more than The Met. They can sing for vocal beauty, and they get to act. The best Rigoletto and the best Figaro I have ever seen have been in these small companies. The Figaro was sung by mostly musical theater singers (the tessitura is forgiving), and the Susannah was gorgeous, the Figaoro strapping and the acting hilarious.

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