damnant quodnon intelligunt
I am really excited to join the fray again as a guest contributor, and thankful to the team for inviting me. In my other posts I’ll be speaking on behalf of Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann (both of Vanderbilt University), my collaborators in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This one’s just me.
We’ve been asked to post on the state of arts graduates and artistic employment and skills in the contemporary U.S. I think the topic is timely and appropriate for this blog as we’ve discussed the value and relevance of an arts or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who want a BA to avoid service sector and manual labor; the least talented of these are drawn to majors that require the least “academic ability,” namely, the arts and humanities.
I won’t comment on the claim that arts and humanities disciplines require less “academic ability” (except to say that I think it’s bonkers), but I do want to remark upon the fiction that a firewall exists between math and science on the one hand, and the arts on the other.
Math, science, and art have a long and complicated history in which the three have only recently been sorted into a status array in which science and math (are perceived to) require technical skills and great intellect in order to provide useful products that benefit society (while the arts do not). We scientists bear a special responsibility to defend the arts because, to some degree, our work is art (at least in the very concrete sense that it involves the act of composition). As social scientists concerned with the quality of life on this planet, it is our burden to convey the degree to which the arts elevate our mundane existence, bring meaning, connect us to history, educate us, and so forth. Finally, I doubt anyone reading this post sits in a room that isn’t chock full of consumer products that have been worked on and over by an art school graduate, from the digital interface on which you read these words, to the chair upon which you sit, and the commercial you will use to distract you from my finger wagging. In short, I’ll start with the premise that the arts are useful, that artistic skills are a form of human capital, and that many employers need artists and their labor.
[If you’re interested in learning more about the links between math to art, you might check out the syllabus for this “Geometry in Art and Sculpture” class at Dartmouth, or maybe the 2011 LACMA materials for educators on “Geometry and Art” which covers various topics including lines, repetition, shapes and planes, balance, perspective, proportion and includes a set of exercises to do with objects in the collection, including Diego Rivera’s Naturaleza muerta con pan y fruta (1917), a quilt, and a David Smith sculpture. There’s also a whole NPR series on the topic: “Where Science Meets Art.”]
When you see me next, I’ll be back to tell you what we’ve learned about unemployment rates among arts graduates. Until then, a few quotes from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks—a man who achieved excellence in both art and science:
- “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”
- “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” “Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”