Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Austin and Milwaukee: Dr. Carrasco Rides Again

"...a man who carries his sense of self-importance as if he were afraid of breaking it."
--Dale Wasserman on Dr. Sanson Carrasco

Evidently it is busy times in the world of art.  Yesterday, this email came across my desk.
Evidently, last month, while touring a General Electric plant near Milwaukee, President Obama made a flippant remark about art history.  In regards to technical and vocational training, he pointed out that “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”  Which is, at the base, completely true.  It is also completely germain to the discussion of technical education.  However, the President hedged his bets by follow with the point that there was also nothing wrong with an art history degree.

Cue the outrage.  Artists of various stripe came sliding down the slick trench that is internet outrage to weigh in and a petition was sent along with a note from an art history professor who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.  It was pointed out to president Obama that art history majors learn to think and write critically.  Because, you know, that is totally what he was talking about at the time.

Following the president's handwritten apology, (which was referred to as grovelling in the UK's Daily Mail) where he was sure to shore up the fact that he truly loves art history, cue the celebrations.  "Advocacy," (whatever the hell that is... since it seems to cover everything) has won the day and made the mean man apologize for his flippant remark!

And as I sat, coffee in hand, and stared at this brouhaha... all I could think was "What in the ring-tailed rambling hell is wrong with American artists today?"  We have gone from figures like Hurston, Hughes, Bukowski, and Kerouac to stomping our foot and demanding respect when a minor joke is made about one of our disciplines.  Vonnegut encouraged us to go into the arts because it was a wonderful way to live a human life.  Garisson Keillor pointed to the students at University of Minnesota yearning to become scholars as pure free-enterprise.  Artists and intellectuals have almost always stood at the fringes of society in order to comment on it.

So why all the fear?  Why must we scramble for an apology like this?  Is our sense of self, and the sense of worth of what we are doing, so fragile that we tremble with fear and demand redress is someone is less than complimentary?  What is this feeling of wolves at the door, and when did American Arts and Letters become so toothless.

Art history (or theatre, etc) generally doesn't pay as well as a skilled trade.  But that's not the point of them in the first place.  Like many educated North Carolinians, I bristled a little when governor Pat McCrory suggested steep cuts to the liberal arts.  But lets believe in their value inherently, not because politicians say nice things about them.  If we have to continually defend what we do in such petty ways (and cloak it as advocacy, no less!) then perhaps we should reassess the real value that it has.

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