tallhare asked:

Hello, I really like your recent comment in relation to a MedievalPOC post where you pointed out that objectivity is culturally defined. I've never considered that point before and would like to understand it. Can you tell me more, i.e. how it is culturally defined; how we know it is culturally defined etc. - I'd be very grateful.

I think it will make more sense if we consider academia a subculture. This may sound weird, and academics don’t tend to consider themselves as part of a subculture (they often consider themselves sort of acultural—not really a word that I’m aware of but you get the point). But a subculture simply defined is a culture that lives within the context of a larger one but has some common rules and ideas that are different from those of the larger culture. To wit: academia has its own meeting places (ie universities), forums for discussion (ie academic journals), even has its own jargon (as medievalpoc as discussed before) for talking about the issues they are jointly interested in that is not readily understood by the culture at large. For another, the roots of academia are very much white, Western, male, and upper-class—and traces its origins the Scientific Revolution. Those with leisure time—like landed gentry in Europe—could devote themselves to academic study as opposed to having to learn and practice a trade. They developed systems of finding and dispersing knowledge that we still use today, such as the scientific method and, yes, objectivity.

Academia tends not to think of themselves as having their own culture, and this is where problems arise. While the notion of objectivity in of itself is a wonderful one—this is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

The quality or character of being objective; (in later use) esp. the ability to consider or represent facts, information, etc., without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions; impartiality; detachment.

The problem arises when we remember that we are all influenced by our culture, no matter what. It was even a culture that created the notion of objectivity and agreed upon its meaning and how it should be practiced! Objectivity is not a universal truth. It even has its own history—people who study scientific history are very interested in it, and there’s even a book about it! This definition Oxford has given us has been made by people, and people, no matter how noble their intentions, are shaped by the cultures we participate in, often in ways we aren’t cognoscent of. That’s a big part of the mission of art history—that through images, we can understand the multifaceted social, political, cultural, religious and psychological circumstances that the artist operated in. But scholars of the humanities, no matter how pragmatic we try to be, are also shaped by the same factors that shape history and art, and if we pretend that we can escape them entirely we really can commit dangerous errors—the effects of which are quite tangible and catastrophic.

Popular thought would dictate that if we can’t find historical record of something, then it never was there. History is regarded as rote, comprised of facts set in stone, untouched by human opinions. But that’s not true. The thesis of medievalpoc’s entire blog, and the hard work of many revisionist historians have shown, this traditionally white male elite group has shown its prejudice through the ages, transmitting information they saw as important and excluding what they didn’t. Even if it is committed unknowingly, the effect is the same: erasure of marginalized groups. 

I hope that made sense! It’s really important to know, so I’m glad you asked :-)

How Art History Majors Power the US Economy: Virginia Postrel

The value of an Art History major— and all liberal arts majors— has come under fire recently due to a remark and subsequent apology by President Obama. This article, written prior to this sordid pundit-tastic affair, is quite an eloquent argument. 

I could wax poetic about how the liberal arts are valuable to our culture, but instead I will get straight to the economic point. A diverse economy, one that values the humanities and arts in all its forms, is a healthy economy. I’m not an economist, but I know putting all your eggs in one economic basket (I.e., everyone in STEM) is potentially catastrophic. Ask a history major what happened to the Dutch and their tulips. Oh, wait— that’s a useless major! Guess you’ll never know.

You know you’re in a room full of museum geeks when you say “I saw Savage Beauty” and everyone instantly starts cursing your name