Stereotypes and myths about being an Art History major

As an Art History major, I’ve run across a lot of questions about what I do, what I study, how my major is important, and how am I going to survive with my degree. Also, a lot of pre-formed and often erroneous stereotypes about me and what I study.

So, time to de-bunk some myths:

1. Art History is a dead-end major.

Art is a universal value in every culture, regardless of language, race, or sex. Art reflects the history of the time, along with the values of the society it was created in. In addition,  art often reflects the artist’s personal values, opinions, and ideas about the time and place he/she created the art in. Art also provides us a view into things like costume and scientific theories of the time, as well as the science of the actual art (what paint was used? How did the sculptor do this and this with said materials?).

Anthony van Dyck is judging you. 

2. Art History majors can’t find jobs.

This is one I get a lot. Many of my fellow students, friends, even family members, think that my major is a black hole of failure when it comes to finding successful jobs. This is extremely false. Here are a few jobs/careers that somebody with an Art History degree can acquire:

Curator (usually requires Masters/PhD)

Professor/Teacher of Art History (Also Masters/PhD)

Art buyer- purchasing works for people and companies, working within their budget and taste.

Collections manager

Work at an auction house- appraisal of value, authenticity, etc.

Art conservator – assessing and repairing works with various levels of damage

Art writer/critic

Art researcher- pursuing ideas and theories about works and publishing papers on said research

Archivist- working within a museum or collection’s works

These are just a few careers.

I’m not going to an unemployed dreamer living off of other people’s handouts!

Come on, really? 

3. Art History majors are shallow and very much centered purely on their majors, and if you don’t understand art will scorn/ostracize you.

So false! If you don’t know Michelangelo from Lichtenstein, we can still be friends, I promise! As an Art History major I’m schooled in basic science, theories, ways of thinking, and historical and contemporary politics, as well as religion, symbolism, the use of language, etc…a jack of all trades, you might say. I’m also a human being with interests outside my major, like television shows, the news, politics, feminism, etc…

I can, and will, talk about almost anything. Even if I make some of it up.

Art History majors are generally really passionate about their studies, but the same goes for other majors as well. Also, we don’t discriminate against the art-illiterate. Never. Don’t feel “stupid” for not knowing that my favorite painting is a German Expressionist work.

Art is, again, universal. It has so many emotions and connotations attached to it so that everybody can relate to at least one piece of art. My major isn’t meant to isolate you, it’s meant to branch out your knowledge and increase your love for art. That’s why I study it.

Really? All you think I’m good at is talking about art? Oh, darling, I’m good at a lot of things….

4. Most Art History majors have their parents pay for college, and are generally from wealthier families where “less useful” majors are okay to spend money on. Or, worse, the Art History degree is code for the “MRS” degree

This is a big one. People automatically assume that my parents make bank because I’m an Art History major, as a result of the stereotypes attached to it that it’s useless and for more “flippant” individuals. My daddy isn’t getting me a gallery job after school- quite frankly, my father doesn’t give a damn what I do after I graduate as long as I pay off my debt and find some form of happiness. I’m on my own finding a job and a secure future.

I’m paying for college with help from my parents. I am up to my ears in debt, but it’s not going to be for nothing. Many Art History majors are scrappy individuals who may not be going into more lucrative majors in sectors like finance and banking, but we have faith in our own abilities. We come from all different backgrounds. Some of us are from well-off families, some of us not.

Kate Middleton was an Art History major, now married. Back when women went to college to become wives, the Art History option was pretty popular, but just until Mr. Right put you in the suburbs. This has changed. Art History is not just for the passive or for the wealthy.

5. All we do is look at pictures of art.

We read research papers, study history, read art theories and literature regarding the understanding of art, and sometimes we even make our own art. While yes, many of my classes are devoted to visually absorbing and gathering knowledge about works, I don’t just look at pretty things. Sometimes we look at hideous art, too!

I’m a real looker, I know. 

6. We’re all women.

You’d be surprised at how many dudes quietly live their lives pursuing Art History degrees. I’m not claiming it’s the sausage-fest that engineering is, but dudes are present.

Along with that, women do have more Art History degrees than men. However, for whatever reason, men still hold the best art positions at prestigious museums and universities! I find this to be ridiculous, because Art History is not easy to understand, and is pretty competitive field, but somehow most of the people with vaginas are deemed somehow unfit for the top-notch positions.

Awkward…

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope I have put to rest some perceptions about Art History majors and what we do. If you have questions or comments or insight to add, please comment or somehow let me know!

Also, if you are an Art History major and you want to add any stereotypes or ideas to this, feel free! Feedback is awesome! I’m going to end this post with a self-portrait by Ferdinand Hodler, because he’s sort of awesome.

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22 thoughts on “Stereotypes and myths about being an Art History major

  1. “I can, and will, talk about almost anything. Even if I make some of it up.”

    This reminds me of your habit of seeing a(ny) bird in the sky and saying, “Oh look! A _______ falcon!”

    Oh, and I loved the post. Keep busting down those stereotypes with well chosen pop culture and art references.

  2. Keep on questioning, please. I’ve been an art historian for more than 40 years and still find that people want me to justify my choice of career. Who cares what people think. Just do what you want to in life and you’ll be fulfilled. There are so many things you can do as an art historian. I’ve worked as a college professor, a consultant to the state education board, as a researcher at the Smithsonian, and much more. Most recently, I worked for a year as a well-paid consultant on a historic house project that blew me away. I have a PhD, but there are many jobs that you are qualified to do with just an undergraduate degree. Thanks for your great post.

    • Thank you so much for your encouragement! I’m so glad that somebody who’s achieved so much with an Art History degree can attest to it’s usefulness! I’m so excited for the future with this degree!

  3. “art often reflects the artist’s personal values, opinions, and ideas about the time and place he/she created the art in”

    i hope that some day people will understand that this is what art is really about

  4. I really liked this article! I’m majoring in Art History right now and I’m doubting if i should do now. It gives me hope and encouragement but still a little worried. What should I do? Im freaking out and time is running out.

    • Hey, so I personally stuck with Art History because:
      A) I love it
      B) It’s something I like working hard at

      If you love Art History but you aren’t sure you want to revolve your life around it, maybe consider a minor in it, so that you can still learn the concepts/ideas, and still be involved, but not feel like your future is monopolized by what can be a very challenging career field. Honestly, if you can’t see yourself without museums,art, or this lust for visual things, at least minor, if not major in it. It’s a worthwhile major, even if people trivialize it because it is not one of the STEM majors.

      Good luck!

  5. I’m looking to major in art history and my parents completely shot down the idea. I printed out this page and giving it to them. THANK YOU!

  6. I came from a lower-middle class background (think ‘nice’ trailer park) and went though college in the 1980’s without parental financial assistance. So when my dad tried to forbid me from majoring in art history, I said, “You can have a say when you cough up some tuition money.” That shut him up. LOL. I’m an art librarian now, and I use my major every day. Art history is so full and fresh and alive; it touches on every aspect of living. I would do it all again, except maybe throw in some studio classes as well.

    • Thank you so much for reading my post! I’m really happy to be studying what I do- it really does relate to every aspect of life in one way or another! I’m so glad you pursued your degree, do you like being an art librarian?

      • Goodness! Just saw your note! Tells you how much I’m on WordPress.

        Yep, I’m pretty happy as an art librarian. I get to be Grand Poobah of Special Collections, too!

  7. How did you know you wanted to study art history? I’m a college freshman and I’m really overwhelmed by all of my study options… I’ve never studied art because I had no teacher, but that’s not an obstacle now. The Chicago Art Institute really inspired me today.

    • I looked through old art books in my teens that my aunt had, with giant prints of paintings and the stories of the artists behind them! Honestly if you want to begin learning more, go to Google Art Project and begin going through collections, or head to the library and spend an hour or two looking at books on the basics of art history! And remember, if you’re unsure if that’s what you want to completely major in, you can always minor in Art History if you think it’s not “practical” enough or if you have other interests!

  8. I so completely agree with number 4. While my family isn’t particularly struggling, my dad isn’t some business mogul either. People always seem to assume that I’m from some kind of super elite background while in actuality, I’m from a normal family that supports me studying and pursuing what I love. Life is seriously so much better when you’re actually doing things that you enjoy. I took an advanced science class once for a requirement… worst experience ever.
    Number 5 is so true too. I feel like so many people take art history classes thinking that it’ll be an easy A. What they don’t know yet is that we also have to understand philosophy, history, societal norms, politics, ect. ect. ect.
    Not only is art history really interesting, but I think history is one of the most important things that people tend to overlook. After all, if people don’t remember history, it’s the same thing as it having never happened… and plus, we all know that history repeats itself.

    My favorite part of being an art history major: people assume that anything I say about art must be true. A couple days ago, I was joking and said “Michelangelo based David’s butt on a female’s” and I thought they knew I was joking but they had taken it seriously hahahaha

  9. B.A. in Art History; admitted to MFA, MSW, Law School Programs & finally chose MBA, where I met many other Art History Majors. I have parlayed my education to work in the public sector, private sector & be self-employed (designing & building homes). I believe Art History Majors are lifelong learners because they are interested in all aspects of human history, and that curiosity is unceasing!

  10. STEM majors are more worthwhile; a bachelor’s alone is enough to secure a good salary. Look at the BLS handbook: Engineers have a starting salary close to $60K. For other humanities majors like art history, a master’s or better is needed to be comparable.

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