Liberal Arts in Era of Neoliberal Democracy: How Studying Art History Helped Me Succeed
“Pick the field you love, study hard and you'll never work a day in your life. Because no one is hiring.” So says the meme recently being shared on a huge scale by my friends and colleagues – many of them art historians – on their social media profiles. While this statement may be a little brutal (or indeed very brutal), it is not as true as irony would have it be. By being able to make a decision to study a discipline of your choice and especially to study it hard, you are actually creating your own success and building opportunities to achieve even more in the future.
Coming from the Eastern European country of Serbia, a country in transition pushing its way towards the European Union and a better future, I never had any doubts about deciding to double major in Comparative Literature and Art History. Despite the fact that, statistically, art historians are the leading profession in Serbia in terms of unemployment, and although studying art history is considered (as a friend of mine would say) “professional suicide”, I simply followed my heart, like the hero of a good old teenage movie. That decision took me far beyond the borders of my own country, challenged me to perceive the world democratically, partake in its diversity, and, more importantly, to achieve personal success by creating my own steps, which you can read about in the previous post.
The prejudice that many might feel towards the field of art history and towards quite an array of other liberal arts disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, history and literature, is that they are simply unsustainable, and beyond looking at pretty images there is little you can do either for yourself or for anyone else. However, what many people seem to forget is that the arts and culture played a crucial role in establishing democracy as a tool to put politics into action in Ancient Greece.
With the current ongoing refugee crisis, rapid shifts in ideologies, and the redefining of geopolitical borders, it is the discipline of art history that helped me to understand these phenomena and to respond to them. Which discipline can introduce you better to the incredibly diverse range of humanity’s cultural and artistic values than art history? And in the process, it shows you all the beauty of diversity that you can admire, study, and respect.
So, let me introduce you to the secrets of success that studying art history can reveal.
First, during your studies it is highly likely that you will be obliged to learn at least two foreign languages, both classical and modern, in addition to the language used at your institution. Other than degree course in modern foreign languages or international relations, there are few majors that can give you a free language education. The more languages you know, the greater the scope you have for learning and hence to succeed in different environments. By learning the languages needed to understand arts of specific national provenances, you will make yourself more capable of finding opportunities in that country. In my case, I was able to improve my English and learn French by focusing on modern art and also by giving tours at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
With regard to giving tours and being engaged at a museum, you will be challenged to craft your skills in public speaking. When giving a tour, your audience will come from various backgrounds and you need to ensure that your story reaches them in an egalitarian way so that each one of them is able to comprehend it. This practice also proves useful for time management as you are obliged to present specific information within a specific timeframe. Giving tours can benefit you in many ways: you will feel more confident and relaxed in your daily interaction with people, in making contacts, in networking, and in aspiring towards a career that demands public speaking.
Speaking about what you know and sharing it with others, whether in your mother tongue or a foreign language, will inevitably improve your writing skills. The correct use of grammar and semantics, writing with clarity while conveying information and the limitations imposed by word counts might all be the living nightmare of your every essay, but they will come naturally by studying art history. Moreover, if your interests lie more in writing than curating, there is a wide range of careers open to you: academic lecturer, journalist, art editor, even translator. An article I wrote based on research I undertook for an exhibit of Estonian design while interning at Tartu Art Museum is about to be published in an art magazine, while my MA thesis met the museum criteria to be published as an exhibit catalogue.
Networking element that comes naturally through giving tours is of great importance. Through tours on diverse subject, you encounter people of even more diverse background. Besides your friends, family, and regular museum visitors, it is highly possible that other art historians, gallerists, curators, artists or professors will attend your tour. If they do not make their step towards you, initiate a chat after you are done with your tour or lecture. They can point you to further contacts and institutions, and if nothing else, give you positive criticism for improvement.
With all this being said, you can easily start off your personal adventure – that is what I did. As my focus is on fashion history that is not being studied in Serbia at all, I used the knowledge from that discipline I learned abroad to launch a Facebook page, Curated Couture, that aims to educate people in discipline of fashion history, both nationally and internationally. Via this project I made contacts with professionals from Croatia, Canada, UK and many other, being willing to learn about what Serbia has to offer in terms of studying fashion, and moreover to collaborate. An art history themed Tumblr landed my friend a position at a very renowned art publishing. Be creative, and experiment!
To conclude, art history will make a chameleon of you. Studying art history does not confine you to one subject. It brings you to political history, cinema, literature, gender studies, philosophy, religion, even nature and science. If your aspirations are not focused on a career within art history, studying art history will still allow you to move between disciplines, fields, borders and cultures. Many cultural attachés at embassies around the world studied art history or a related liberal arts field. And if this somehow doesn’t work (it will!), maybe being an art history student will make a duke or duchess of you. After all, that’s how Kate Middleton became the Duchess of Cambridge.
Stefan Zaric (Stefan Žarić) is currently a graduate student at University of Belgrade's Modern Art History Seminar, Serbia, focusing on fashion history. Prior to his graduate studies, Stefan studied Comparative Literature and Art History at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, and under US Department of State scholarship at the University of Minnesota, USA, where he interned at Weisman Art Museum. Deepening his knowledge in curating design and fashion, Stefan has co-curated several exhibits in Serbia, and professionally interned at Tartu Art Museum, during his research semester at University of Tartu, Estonia. Stefan is a founder of independent online platform, Curated Couture, which aims to promote fashion studies as an academic discipline in Serbia. His master thesis, exploring connections between Western fashion and Serbian art, is about to be turned into an exhibit, with Stefan being curator in charge and author of publication.
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