Why though?

We’ve probably all had to deal with that devil on the shoulder asking if whatever you’ve chosen as your professional career makes any sense – it’s not really worth anything, is it? Most of the time, there’s a relatively easy way out, something to validate the choices made: “I’m a nurse to help save lives” or “I’ll make myself a boatload of cash to have a comfy retirement”. But what if you’re an art historian?

I’ve now been working on my PhD in art history full time for six months, a year before that with a job on the side. Before getting into art history I studied to be a visual artist, and did my bachelor’s degree in art – oil painting, to be more precise. In a moment of weakness, I cried at the graduation dinner with my family, because I felt I’d chosen a useless field as my career. Why couldn’t I have just kept it as a hobby like so many others, and done something sensible, like… accounting? My father was furious. He wasn’t furious because of my choice, but because for a moment I’d lost my faith in myself. He’d supported me financially through studies and bought me paints and canvases since I was a kid. He’d worked his ass off at a stressful job so that I could do what I wanted. And it’s true, I really wanted to ‘do art’. But is it enough?

During recent months I’ve attended a couple of study-related seminars with fellow PhD students. Surprisingly, the same worry about the validity of our research has come up often – only to be debunked time and again by our fantastic professors. However, it seems something many of us share. Majoring in art or researching something other than “hard science” is often portrayed as less valuable or even straight on laughable in the media. Under threat of a – supposed – lack of future work-force politicians are urging young people to choose “useful” careers – and closing down art schools, cutting down humanist research in the universities. So why, then? Why write a thesis in art history, why study visual culture? I can’t speak for others, but I can plot out some of my own reasons.

The lack of measurability used to cause me anxiety about my own research – you can’t exactly count art or measure culture. There’s a method to this madness though, or multiple methods to be exact – and they are self-improving like the methods of natural sciences. See, the way I think of humanistic sciences is like a conversation. And I’m amazed and thrilled to be able to take part in this conversation. What’s the point of this conversation then? To me it’s about perspective. We’re being bombarded with images, and they’re not innocent. It’s crucial to keep in mind they’re not just pictures but things that have meaning and power. Also, I think there’s a growing need for the ability to look at things from others’ perspective – see the grey areas, not just black and white. Cultural sensitivity and understanding need some effort, and cultural research like art history can be useful with that. Art history won’t save lives like medical science, but it can help us better understand how and why we think about illness and/or death – for example – and how we deal with those things, and have dealt with them in the past.

That’s my “why”. What’s yours?


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