When you’re surrounded by Mechanical Engineers and Medics at University, letting slip that you’re an Art Historian can provoke a flood of scathing comments. When I broke the news to my father that I had decided to study it for my undergraduate degree, he lamented, “but you got 4 As, why don’t you become a lawyer?”

It turns out that Barack Obama is on his side, in a recent speech in Wisconsin the president argued, “a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Admittedly his ill-worded speech was more aimed at the lack of skilled labourers in the US, but it still re-enforced the tired stereotype that Art History as a subject is soft, pompous and most crushingly, pointless. Though I’m sure Obama isn’t in fact an iconoclastic philistine, his speech still got me thinking as to why such a stigma around the discipline remains.

Sure, compared to being a pilot or banker, a career in the arts may not be as immediately lucrative, but its role is still immensely important. Throughout history, the visual image has been an extremely significant medium to express views of different cultures, particularly in today’s society where the image increasingly displaces words. Art reflects the major ideas, values and concerns within societies, and as a discipline can help us achieve an understanding of the identity of both the individual and wider cultural movements. The cultural power of a nation should never be overlooked and is an important asset, besides the economy.

Indeed, art is arguably one of the most important, reliable and lucrative asset classes to invest in in the current turbulent economic climate we live in. This is due to the combination of a lack of capital gains tax attached to art and a consistent popularity for buying and selling artwork globally. Ultimately, the only change is the countries that are buying, depending on the strength of world currencies.

Official figures also reinforce that art is not such a soft industry after all: in 2012 international art sales reached a total of $64 billion, indicating that it is in fact a lucrative industry with significant economic benefits. However, the real power of art lies in its inability to be reduced to numbers, statistics and currency. It’s an extraordinarily complex, stunningly and fascinating product of human activity, vital to understanding both the past and present nature of our societies.

By Kitty Malton

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