Brexit, Trump and the Overlooked Opportunity of Art History

In light of the England’s decision to eliminate the Art History A-level and America’s election of Donald Trump, I felt a need to defend the study of Art History. The subject, misunderstood as solely for the elite, develops analytical skills while building a visual understanding of our world’s history. In the following years, Trump’s anti-intellectual rhetoric will only further damage Art History’s place in America, despite the benefits of its study.

A few weeks ago I visited the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art with a dear friend of mine from England. We pointed out our favorite pieces, pondered the funnier details in paintings, and of course, noted the people taking photos of themselves with paintings. My favorite was one teenager’s selfie with a portrait that looked eerily like him.

The UK’s former education secretary Michael Gove, as well as many other politicians, including President Obama at one unfortunate point, treat Art History as a “soft” subject. They declare that studying Art History leads to “appreciation” of the arts, but no real job prospects. I argue the opposite that studying Art History before higher education can lead to many diverse opportunities, not just those in the arts. Removal of the Art History A-level closes the door to potential careers.

That much of Art History relies on other disciplines is frequently overlooked. Chemistry preserves artifacts and works of art; Law deals with issues of repatriation and fighting terrorism; Programming builds technologies to experience our past. What of the doctors inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings? Bankers who accept art as collateral? Physicists intrigued by MC Escher? We don’t yet know the effects of artwork being fully available online as more collections and resources connect.

Removing Art History from curricula removes the significance of ISIS’ pillage of cultural and heritage sites, from monuments down to everyday objects. The aim here is not simply to appreciate pieces in a museum. The International Criminal Court now classifies destroying cultural artifacts as a war crime, easing the path to arrest terrorists who profit from the trade of illegal antiquities. Two years ago, ISIS beheaded an archeologist for protecting the location of artifacts in Syria to prevent their sale and destruction. How again is this subject not important?

As we enter a more rapidly changing, ever-evolving visual world, why take away a major opportunity for students to learn about the world differently? I studied Art History as I am a visual learner and found in it the chance to combine my interests in history, sociology, religion, and science in one subject.

Now, top CEOs of startups want employees who know the coding needed, but who can also adapt to shifts in the market when new technologies emerge. The humanities allow for this, which seems to have been forgotten with the dominance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Education under Trump’s presidency, who disregards knowledge daily, is unlikely to focus on the beneficial intersection of the arts and STEM, to our country’s detriment.

Donald Trump has no active stance on the arts, though, considering the people he has tapped so far for his cabinet, I am not optimistic. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who campaigned for Trump and is a close advisor, has an infamous track record of censorship in the arts. His 1999 attempt to cut funding and evict The Brooklyn Museum of Art due to a religiously controversial piece in the exhibit Sensation was halted as it violated the first amendment. This narrow mindedness does not bode well for America’s future.

A month ago my English father married and friends from England visited. One of the most important exhibitions they spoke of was at the British Museum and on the rather divisive issue of the “Celts,” a Greek term reappropriated in the 18th Century to understand linguistic and cultural trends in parts of the United Kingdom and Northern France. Since their visit, America has hurled itself into a political and identity crisis the likes of which it hasn’t seen in generations with bigoted influences that reflect the worst aspects of our past.

As I witnessed at MoMA, people want to connect with art and with their culture. If Brexit and Trump have taught us anything yet, people are not happy with the status quo. Under the threat of England and America becoming more isolated and short-sighted, shouldn’t we instead focus on creating opportunities instead of destroying them?