Friday, May 04, 2012

In Praise of Choosing to Be an Art History Major

An oldie but a goodie:
An American businessman was at the pier of a small Belizean village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large lobsters, and a slew of red and yellow snapper. The visitor complimented the Belizean on the quality of his catch and asked how long it took to bring it in.

The Belizean replied only a little while. The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish and lobster?

The Belizean fisherman said, "I get up early and watch the sun rise, then I fish a little, come home and relax, play with my children, have a big lunch and take a rest with my wife. In the evening I stroll into the village where I sip cashew wine and play music and sing with my friends. I have a full and busy life."
The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave Belize and move to Mexico, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Belizean asked, "But how much time will all of this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15-20 years."

"What then, Gringo?"

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions of dollars."

"Millions? Then what?" 

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move back to a caye in Belize, where you would get up early and watch the sun rise, then fish a little, play with your grandkids, have a big lunch and take a rest with your wife. In the evenings you could stroll to the village where you could sip cashew wine and play music and sing with your friends."
There is nothing wrong with being driven to achieve in business. Some among the driven people have greatly improved the quality of life for all humanity (even as others have inadvertently generated new challenges for us), and no one should stand in the way or pooh pooh someone else's dream so long as the dreamer isn't infringing on any one else's rights. If you wish to get an MBA and work hard for 15-20 years, building an empire, by all means, carry on with your bad ass self.
Just don't imagine that your dream makes you superior to your fellow human beings who have a different dream. 
In what Adam Davidson (in his review in The New York Times) suggests may become the most hated book of the year, former Bain Capital (Mitt Romney's company) executive Edward Conard outlines his argument for why Americans should be happy about the growing wealth inequality in our country (in a nutshell: because it proves the economy is working and because we're all benefiting from it). There are three basic elements in Conard's argument (quotes are Davidson's words): 
  1. "[T]he superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone."
  2. When those investments are successful, Conard "concludes that for every dollar an investor gets, the public reaps up to $20 in value" [note others suggest it's considerably less than $20...others argue it's more like $5 value].
  3. "[W]e should all appreciate the vast wealth of others more, because we’re benefiting, proportionally, from it"
I would quibble with a few of the implied conclusions from this argument. One example Conard uses in particular suggests he's cherry picking examples and then looking at the economy less holistically than a more rigorous scholar would: 
He looks, in particular, at agriculture, where, since the 1940s, the cost of food has steadily fallen because of a constant stream of innovations. While the businesses that profit from that innovation — like seed companies and fast-food restaurants — have made their owners rich, the average U.S. consumer has benefited far more.  [emphasis mine]
A more holistic look at this particular example would need to consider the exploding obesity among the average US consumer, the costs associated with that obesity (in human, medical, and financial terms), and whether indeed the benefits are that significant. One can argue that just because food is cheaper doesn't mean people have to overeat, and of course they're correct, but there's no question that there's a direct relationship between cheaper fast-food and obesity among children.
A more holistic look at this particular example would also need to consider the implications of seed companies' patent enforcement practices. What has humanity gained when a few conglomerates have complete control over the pricing of seed? More importantly, what Conard sees as a relatively short-term benefit stands to become a long-term nightmare.
But in a vacuum, I would agree that the public benefits from wisely invested money and so again I say, if that's your dream, carry on with your bad ass self...go invest that money wisely.
But consider stopping short of viewing what it takes to achieve that dream some sort of universal religion. And most definitely stop short of proselytizing and/or moralizing from that religion's morally questionable point of view.
What's probably going to propel Conard's book to become quite hated is his disdain for people who don't view life's purpose the same way he does:
A central problem with the U.S. economy, [Conard] told me, is finding a way to get more people to look for solutions despite [the] terrible odds of success. Conard’s solution is simple. Society benefits if the successful risk takers get a lot of money. For proof, he looks to the market. At a nearby table we saw three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair. For all we know, they may have been plotting the next generation’s Twitter, but Conard felt sure they were merely lounging on the sidelines. “What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30?” he asked. “I’m sure those guys are college-educated.” Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life. In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs.
“It’s not like the current payoff is motivating everybody to take risks,” he said. “We need twice as many people. When I look around, I see a world of unrealized opportunities for improvements, an abundance of talented people able to take the risks necessary to make improvements but a shortage of people and investors willing to take those risks. That doesn’t indicate to me that risk takers, as a whole, are overpaid. Quite the opposite.” The wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large, he said. That way, the art-history majors would feel compelled to try to join them.
What Conard seems to have no grasp of is that many people are not tempted by extraordinary payoffs. The necessary sacrifices and uncertainty seem ludicrous to many people. The ultimate purpose of an extraordinary payoff (most frequently imagined to be an early retirement that enables one to focus on one's passions from a point of security [Conard himself retired at 51 and now envisions spending his life being, as Davidson phrased it, "a public intellectual"]) strikes many as moronic, given how true security is a myth (just ask Steve Jobs) and the rest of that imagined payoff (living one's dream) is often theirs to be had throughout their entire life, not only after they've retired.
Isn't it smarter to live your life, like the Belizian fisherman, so you get to do the things you enjoy without having to wait 15-20 years doing things you don't enjoy?
Unless you enjoy the sort of business Bain Capital is in, why torture yourself? 

I know, I know, because the wealthy investor is helping humanity. Accidentally at best, mind you, and certainly not always, and certainly not in a way that is accountable to those who can't afford their products (or even for those who can afford their products, as in companies who make consumers sign contracts that prevent them from filing class action suits, etc.), and certainly not at the cost of profit whether the public need is great or not, and often certainly not without risks to the planet and the public's health, and certainly not in conjunction with the best principles of democracy, and certainly get the idea. The suggestion that they're doing God's work is more than a little bullshit. They're trying to get insanely wealthy, and sometimes others benefit from their efforts and sometimes others don't. None of which supports Conard's claim that they deserve even more money, to my mind.
Conard strikes me as a man blinded by his own success. The hilarious irony of him wishing now to spend his retirement teaching others and being perceived as a public intellectual will surely occur to him one day.  If he's lucky, when it does occur to him, he'll be able to reach out to a few art history majors who can help him contextualize and/or channel that epiphany into something more productive/creative than an existential crisis.


Anonymous Fala said...

I'm an art major, all I have ever wanted was to make enough money to afford to do the things that I want: make art, eat well, and travel occasionally. I am doing that in a job that I don't necessarily like, but it pays the bills (ie art school student loans) without me feeling like I'm going crazy, or becoming incredibly unhappy with my non-life-passion job. Have been tempted to change jobs into a higher paying even less passionate one, but right now I have the time to do the things that I like without being stressed out and miserable all of the time. I work for someone who says they love their job, but I don't believe it - they are so miserable all of the time! Yes, they make a heck of a lot more money than I do, have the nice home, nice vacations, etc, but I'd rather be happy on a daily basis and take less of a life risk than being incredibly unhappy and overworked for decades. And, I get to make exactly the kind of art that I want and don't have to answer to anyone about it.

5/04/2012 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The title of Edward Conrads Book should be,,, How to Destroy The American Middle class in 3 Easy Steps. By Shiny White Guy. We all Know Shiny White Guy. Those Lumberjacks in the Coffe shop they Know Shiny White guy. Nothing worse then a pissed off Lumberjack .

Hey Its friday and friday night the best night on television!!!!
Its is so difficult

First up Fringe , A fantastic show . fringe makes you work I dont like to work on friday night and walter gets annoying sometimes. So I tape it. and watch at my leisure.

Second up Grimm wow the show is so rich and sugary I have to go to the denist and run2 miles after i watch it. Great show.

Then My favorite Supernatural. Class AAA show on a B budget .
Reminds me of the 1970s.

Lou Reed Talks about God on You tube.

5/04/2012 01:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Perhaps the only apellation that suggests greater self-indulgence and drain on society than "art-history major" is "public intellectual."

5/04/2012 03:55:00 PM  
Blogger findingfabulous said...

The American version of a Belizean fisherman is a security guard at k-mart working double shifts, and his dream may be to be able to afford to be an art history major.

5/04/2012 07:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 40, Im having an existential crisis of my own, and I was an art (studio) major. with crushing loan debt, 7 plus years of low pay, adjunct teaching, a lackluster art career, unable to afford a studio, i really dont think I would do this again. I love art and making art but this poverty has had such a negative affect on my life i wish I had done something more practical (even though i thought teaching WAS the practical route). Oh well, you gamble and sometimes it pays off for some and sometimes not, in a larger view I can accept this reality. I know the universe owes me nothing. But if i am honest with how i feel i have to admit that if I could have the respect and opportunity as an artist (where I am being invited to show at galleries and such) I would be fine with the poverty. But its just been soul crushing to not be able to do what you love AND be poor at the same time.
signing anonymous because I am sure if i put my real name my honesty would somehow have a negative result.

5/05/2012 06:19:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Pelley said...

Is it just me, or does Conrad's egocentric self justification sound a lot like John Gault in Atlas Shrugged?

5/05/2012 08:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep your chin up Anonymous at 40. Thousand of baby boomers are retiring everyday there will be opportunitys .
Being a Teacher is a very Honorable Profession .You can have a positive impact on a childs life . just think they will remember you when they are old, you inspired them.

Hard Times are good for you, they mold character. your paintings will progress just stick with it.

5/06/2012 12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I had the same response to Anonymous at 40, at first. Empathizing with how frustrating the system can be and knowing it's a huge gamble for artists (because it's a huge gamble for galleries too).

But in the end, my empathy was curbed a bit why wondering whether, despite how tough it is, Anonymous still enjoys making art more than he/she would anything else? If the answer to that question is yes, then I would argue the sacrifices are probably worth it. If and when they stop being worth it, then you know your happiness probably does not down that path lie.

5/07/2012 08:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Is it Conrad or Conard?
A slight alteration Co(n)nard offers this via Wiktionary (profanities theirs, not mine):


connard m (plural connards)

(vulgar) dickhead, fuckhead, motherfucker, cocksucker



canard (plural canards)

A false or misleading report or story, especially if deliberately so.  [quotations ▼]
(aeronautics) A type of aircraft in which the primary horizontal control and stabilization surfaces are in front of the main wing.
(transport, engineering) Any small winglike structure on a vehicle, usually used for stabilization.

5/07/2012 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


My bad. It is Conard, not Conrad. Corrected throughout, with thanks.

Dyslexics of the world, Untie!

5/07/2012 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Oh, and for the record, I consider mocking someone's name in response to disagreeing with their opinions, among the most sophomoric of practices.

5/07/2012 09:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

So would I, but this warranted an exception in my book.

5/07/2012 09:58:00 AM  
Anonymous tskross said...

Ed, this post is a great editorial, equal to the quality found in any of the top tier newspaper's op-ed sections. Thanks for the good read.

As far as my opinion on the matter, well from the above I think its obvious I side with you. But I do have something to add. The thing that the "art history majors" of the world contribute to society is something that is difficult to describe and to quantify. I too feel that this country (and I would argue the entire world) is lacking, not living up to its full potential, but it is certainly not because we aren't driven enough to succeed (and definitely not because we aren't driven enough by financial success, or the promise of it!). At the risk of generalizing, I believe it is because we don't have a true understanding, as a culture, of the added value that creative thinking brings to society. Sure, most people would say yeah of course it is important, but one look at our educational system and it is obvious that we don't understand how truly important it is. Yes we need to excel at science and math to be competitive in the world and to be leaders in innovation, but without exercising the right brain functions (music, the visual and written arts) we cannot truly innovate in those areas. I firmly believe (as a lesson I learned way back in my freshman year at art school) in the importance of the intangible, something that artists of all stripes get intuitively. Without getting too abstract and new age-y about it I liken the intangible effects that the arts have on society to those that dark matter (that mysterious substance that makes up 83% of the matter in the universe but which cannot be seen or measured directly) has on our universe, without which our our universe would not exist.
Yes I love the Belizian fisherman analogy, and that is also how I choose to try to live my life. But it also doesn't mean that I am not contributing to the society in which I live, in ways any less significant than Mr.Conard. It is just that they may not have as tangible an effect as some people think is necessary to a society, that is at least until one wakes up and feels the emptiness that is left after it is gone.

5/07/2012 11:20:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home