President Obama disses culture with “art history degree” punch line

So art history majors are now just a punch line for the President, who encouraged young people at a gathering in Wisconsin to consider getting skilled in a trade because they could earn more “than they might …[with] an art history degree.” Then he seemed to chuckle and realized that he had casually dismissed a discipline that takes as its purview several thousand years of human history and achievement. Please, don’t send him any emails.


President Barack Obama speaks to workers and supporters at the General Electric’s Waukesha gas engines plant in Waukesh, Wisconsin on January 30, 2014. (Darren Hauck/EPA)

But marginalizing culture isn’t trivial, especially when, as president, you have left the position of Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts vacant for more than a year now. So called “high culture” hasn’t fared well under this president who, like so many politicians, seems reflexively afraid of being associated with anything that might be seen as elitist. His second inaugural was probably the lowest point, a festival of lip-synching pop stars and mediocre poetry. He has, however, visited the Kennedy Center when required to preside over the Kennedy Center Honors. One wonders if he made it out to the terrace and happened to see these words, emblazoned there, spoken by John F. Kennedy:

 I LOOK FORWARD TO AN AMERICA WHICH WILL REWARD ACHIEVEMENT IN THE ARTS AS WE REWARD ACHIEVEMENT IN BUSINESS OR STATECRAFT. I LOOK FORWARD TO AN AMERICA WHICH WILL STEADILY RAISE THE STANDARDS OF ARTISTIC ACCOMPLISHMENT AND WHICH WILL STEADILY ENLARGE CULTURAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR ALL OF OUR CITIZENS. AND I LOOK FORWARD TO AN AMERICA WHICH COMMANDS RESPECT THROUGHOUT THE WORLD NOT ONLY FOR ITS STRENGTH BUT FOR ITS CIVILIZATION AS WELL.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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