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Obama Fails Art History

31 January 2014

Barack Obama has nothing against art history. He just doesn’t see the point of it. That’s the unexpected upshot of his talk at a GE plant in Wisconsin yesterday. While speaking in support of the manufacturing industries, The US President delivered these rousing lines:

‘I promise you that folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… Now, there’s 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.’

Poor art history. Obama isn’t the first public figure to make a passing comment at the subject’s expense. It isn’t quite a year since the writer Julie Burchill took a shot at the Duchess of Cambridge’s subject of choice, and it’s often painted as a sort of picture-book history for the posh or idle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some art history majors have taken offence. The College Art Association responded like this:

Later they gave a more considered response, arguing that ‘many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities’, as well as making the wider case against cuts to the humanities in university education.

The fact that Obama took a passing pop at art history in order to win over an audience more interested in his support of the manufacturing industries might seem like a storm in a decorative teacup. But it does beg the question: is the best way to encourage people into skilled manufacturing really to make the admission that too many humanities majors can’t make a good living?

Update: Obama’s apology to art historians

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Correction: Julie Burchill’s comment about the the Duchess of Cambridge’s art history degree was originally attributed to Hilary Mantel. In fact, Burchill was writing in response to Mantel’s own critique of the Duchess’s public role and image. This has been amended.