The Utopia of Art History
On being young and idealistic
17 December 2020
*Disclaimer* I acknowledge that this is a highly personal and biased point of view, based on my limited experiences working in art history.
They say every young person is idealistic until they meet ‘real’ life. At that point (apparently) ideology and morals go out the window, as you face the impossibility to grip onto some utopian future you envisioned for yourself.
When I started university, back in 2017, at the question: ‘What do you want to do with your history of art degree?’, I used to reply cheerfully ‘There are so many jobs I would like to do! Curator, Specialist, Professor, Critic… I love any of these jobs and more!’. Then, 2020 happened. This is relevant not only because Covid-19 has created a moment of reflection for many of us, but because 2020 is the year I graduated. During my degree, I learned everything wrong with the field of art history, but nobody has taught me how to navigate through it. However, it seemed to me as no one was struggling with this; I see my peers carry on with their lives and continue to aspire to the auction house job or whatever else. To this day, I still haven’t figured out an answer that works for me. On one hand, you want to be working for a place that promotes art as a catalyst for change, as a situ for humanity. On the other, you are 40000 pounds in debt because your 18 year-old self wanted a good enough education to get a job that will repay that debt easily. However, the job that will repay that debt is not the idealistic career you want to pursue after you learn about the art market ‘warts and all’. This is where I hit a wall. Once I finish this master’s, should I just ‘grow up’ and face reality as any other purpose-driven adult does? Should I stop whining about the perpetual damage this race for success is doing to our society? I sometimes feel like I should come to terms with the fact that art is stained, and so is any other business. Then I start to think about how I could never fit in in the ‘high places’ of art, or at least the experience I had of them. I feel like all the ‘sociality’ revolving around art fairs, biennales, galleries, everything, needs you to be fake. Not in a morally corrupted way, more in a ‘this is your job so you will be professional instead of showing you despise these people’ way. In my ideal little bubble, I wanted to study art history to learn about artists who have raw and indefinite subjectivities, not to talk about dog breeds. I tell myself, you can’t go very far if you cannot talk about dog breeds. I have always felt out of place in scenes that require a social script because I never know the right lines. And at the end of the day… I don’t want to know them. I decided to pursue art history to stimulate myself and my vision of the world, but I am increasingly only finding it more and more depressing. When people now ask me what I want to do I just say I don’t know because my ideal job would be just to think about art and daydream. Then, academia is proposed to me as an option. Academia has always been my backup idea, knowing I would enjoy it if I decided to make it my path. I don’t know if it was writing a dissertation in quarantine, or just graduation exhaustion, but suddenly the famous isolation everyone experiences during a Ph.D. has become an insurmountable obstacle. For the life of me, I am so tired of sitting alone with a book. Plus, petty politics surely do not escape academia. How to give up on ideals? Should I even give up on ideals or does that make me just the hundredth person who gave up on themselves instead of risking security for morals? While some people are inspiring by going out and doing their own thing, I always underestimated how much courage you need for that. Or how much privilege you need for that. It is too easy to blame this on privilege and fall into a self-constructed pity whole. It’s probably a mix; the lesser the privilege, the more bravery you will need, and vice versa. I thought that choosing a university degree and stubbornly coming to London was the decision that was to shape my future for good, but I now see that it is still a buffer zone. I feel more that now is the moment where I have to mold the persona I want to be. What will I achieve if I pursue the mainstream job? Security, social standing, a career. What do I achieve if I don’t? Maybe happiness? Or utter failure as I realise there is no way of surviving on morals?
Maybe this is the real death trap of university, it will educate you on how corrupt society is, and then put you out there so in debt that you have no choice but to be cornered in that corruption, so you just go on, knowing but pretending, until you forget and you stop pretending. This is your world now.