A Dying Art

 “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”
– Francis Bacon

Liberal arts and humanities programs in colleges across America must be feeling the heat. Several months ago, President Obama committed a rare faux pas: he offended one of the traditionally Democratic support groups by belittling the value of four-year degrees in the Arts. He asserted that people can make more money in the skilled trades and have a better career than in “say, Art History.”

Despite his hand-written apology letter to art historian Ann Johns and the Arts community at large, the message has continued to resonate: are traditional four-year colleges and their required courses in the humanities worth the investment of time, effort, and money for both the colleges and today’s students? Or are these requirements really just frivolous, over-valued, theoretical indulgences taught by elitist, out-of-touch professors who dwell on the past and hinder the progress of career oriented students?

This is a very different debate about the value of education than the one fifty years ago. Following the Civil Rights Movement, there was growing concern over the “tracking” of high school students. Students with lower achievement levels were discouraged from going to college and basically railroaded into blue collar jobs. Inner city Blacks were especially prone to tracking, and so policies were implemented to derail this trend. College was to be for everyone, not just the privileged. More and more minorities joined the ranks of college students across the country. For many from low-income and middle-class families, the college experience was not just about career preparation. It afforded them a chance to experience something previously inaccessible: great works of art of all kinds, and exposure to art culture.

Many Boomers remember the days when colleges were hotbeds of controversy and culture. In most classrooms and campus hangouts, it was assumed that you had some degree of aesthetic sensibility. It was cool and sexy to be able quote Camus or Castaneda or Dylan Thomas, or to point out the intense dissonance in a Wagner symphony, or the twisted reality of Van Gogh. Some of our most poignant memories are of concerts, plays, art exhibits, poetry readings, and theatrical performances that were often free. We got our degrees, and much more. We got to know people who were not like us, who came from different worlds and walks of life and career paths, and our personalities became imbued of these relationships. College was a great life, and graduation was, for many of us, bittersweet.

The mood is very different today. Traditional four-year colleges and public schools across the country are experiencing substantial cuts in funding for developmental programs as well as the Arts. The emphasis is heavy on math and science as America tries to catch up with countries that have accelerated in those areas. And given the stagnant economy and grim outlook for the future, it is no wonder young people want to get into some kind of career as quickly as possible. They feel that they have no time for the Arts because of the dog-eat-dog world out there.

Many TV ads these days promote various private colleges that offer streamlined curriculum for degrees in business and technology. The ad strategies focus on beelines to success, convenience of classes, and special one-to-one attention (despite their preponderance of online classes). In one ad, we see a student in her pajamas touting the amazing accommodations of one of these instant institutions.

Of course these schools don’t offer much in the way of humanities, and the ones they do offer are generally online. They embody the values of what seems to be the new education motto: get in, get out, and make the most money for the least amount of work. It is far more important to be computer literate than culturally literate.

If the trend continues, it will guarantee several changes. First, because there is less reward, there will be less competition among artists, and ultimately a lowering of the bar for what qualifies as art. For the non-profit support communities in cities across the country, public interest will wane, resulting in fewer displays and performances. Art will become something esoteric and elite. For Americans in general, the decline of art appreciation will result in a disconnect from the past, a dimmer view of the future, and a present that is less inclusive, less ambitious, less ingenious, and far less mysterious.