Most people regard art history as a discipline to be a somewhat fatuous or impractical way to spend one’s educational capital.
What job will one get after? How can one use a degree in art history? Etc, etc. The same goes for, say, an English degree or a communication degree.
Fair points, but I argue that the modern obsession with specialization is a dangerous one, one that could ultimately lead us to live in a closed system of narrow-mindedness and cultural illiteracy. I do not propose that everyone should jump ship in regards to their non-liberal arts major or job and join the legion of alcoholic authors or persecuted painters. That isn’t everyone’s bag, which is great, because if it was, organizational apparatuses and budgeting and an overall gestalt of order would cease to exist.
It’s good to be rational and numbers-oriented — just not in totality. My wish is to inject just a bit of the arts into the lives of the mathematically astute, to ramp up attention to subtlety and to increase cultural and human awareness.
So let’s take art history, a mainly visual exercise. Look at a painting, learn about its cultural milieu, decipher the artist’s attendant movement, desires, and disposition, and come to a conclusion about how formal elements in the painting can express subtlety, feeling or simply just a constellation of artistic orthodoxy.
This may seem dry and boring, but its historical insinuations help contextualize, which in turn can help one contextualize and think about events in their own life. The same goes for literature. Art and books can sort of blast out the mind’s chambers, they can stir something beneath the surface, incite a different, more abstracted concentration, one not based on account balances or investment risk. The issue is that there is no near-future fiduciary reward to reading a book or learning about a work of art, doing such a thing will only make you abstractly smarter, attune you to nuance.
Franz Kafka said of books that “some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.” The idea that literature cultivates is not unfamiliar; however, there is more to it than that. Not only does literature unlock unfamiliar rooms, it furnishes these rooms, with things. It fills them with style and meaning, with invaluable nuance. Why? Because what is the author’s is yours, and what is yours is the author’s. There’s that moment when reading literature where our brains are nicked by alien feelings, exposed to new interpretations of old things. Our slinking through reality turns to a clearer, smoother glide. The subtleties of human interaction are codified and understood and we can move through the outside world as a ghost moves through a previous life, guided by nuance, led by acuity. Through cultivating the liberal arts, the vibrations around us begin to alternately exist in higher resolution.
I have no problem with one specializing as a dentist, a hedge-fund manager or whatever. The issue is that specialization has become concomitant with relying solely on algorithmic interpretation. Life is not algorithmic; life is volatile and annoyingly dynamic. Read a book, study art, learn about oneself and the world in a more acute and polished way. I implore you not to keep your head down; lift it up, look around and absorb. Things can be pretty amazing.