Mr. Warburg taught Fine Arts at Bryn Mawr after his graduation but resigned to become director of The American Ballet which he helped found. He is a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and is recognized as an authority on modern painting and sculpture. From his experience as a teacher and executive, he has written this article to help undergraduates at Harvard choose a field of concentration.
Somewhere in one's Freshman and Sophomore years the great decision has to be made: What shall be my field of concentration? That decision is based all too often on immature considerations and only years later are the true consequences realized. This article is being written in the hope that a lifting of the veil in at least one field may be of some service to those who are at this crossroad.
When a man has surmounted the final hurdle and finds himself, much to his amazement, with diploma in hand, he begins to wonder--what next? Perhaps he is spared this decision by birth: some kind of a job awaits him because of family or connections. But perhaps, like thousands of others, he is faced with a free choice of career in which he hopes not only to earn his living, but attain so-called happiness. It is natural at such a time for him to think over the past and to try to figure out what his particular talents are, and in what way he has anything more to contribute than the thousands of others graduating not only from his college, but from the many other colleges both here and abroad. It is almost inevitable that one of the things he will consider as a primary asset is the knowledge he has acquired through his "concentration." After all, he has had a certain amount of experience in that field, and therefore has that much advantage over the rest of the world. If he decides, as is most often the case, to continue in this field and make it his life work, he will see how important that decision was in his Sophomore year in shaping his career.
Fine Arts Impracticable
Now in a field such as the Fine Arts, the material which he will have acquired by the time he receives his diploma will always stand him in good stead--with one possible exception: he will find it a questionable asset in earning his living. I think it is highly debatable whether the Fine Arts can be considered a profession--it is rather, a "cause." Not that there aren't many jobs connected with the Fine Arts which have in the past, and will in the future, yield a tidy income; but in the first place these jobs are few and far between; secondly, they are on the top and rarely to be obtained until middle age; and thirdly, the prerequisites of these jobs have for the most part little to do with one's knowledge of the Fine Arts. Most of these facts ought to be fairly self-evident and in no sense catastrophic if they are realized in time. The tragedy, and it is a real tragedy, comes when an individual finds himself, at the end of several years of hard work, faced with these realities for the first time and unable to make the necessary sacrifices.
Opportunities Open to the Graduate
Let us look at the set-up that faces the Fine Arts graduate.
First of all there is the career of the pure scholar. In this field he has the greatest opportunity for creative work in the Fine Arts without having to temper his activities to the requirements of his surroundings. But naturally there is very little chance of making such a career self-supporting. In some way his work has to be endowed either by the foundations or through private subsidy. Such support is more than difficult to obtain and rarely given over any long period of time. Usually a compromise has to be made and so the pure scholar devotes a certain amount of time to teaching in order to make both ends meet. The result is, more often than not, disastrous. A man whose main interest is scholarship rarely combines within himself the necessary qualities of a good teacher. We must remember that teaching is a profession of its own. To be a good teacher requires not only enough knowledge about one's subject to be able to convey it to other individuals, but a complete understanding of his students. This latter knowledge can only be acquired after much experience, and a close study of and contact with these students. It is an all-absorbing task, if done correctly, and tends in itself to exclude preoccupation with other fields of pure research. Nevertheless, I think that most of the people in the Fine Arts have at one point or another been forced into this compromise and the standards of creative research as well as the standards of teaching have suffered accordingly. It is a certainty that the scholar would be more than delighted to be relieved of his teaching duties if some means of supporting him were available. And likewise many a teacher would breathe a great deal easier if he were allowed to go on with his problem of teaching without having to break into print from time to time in order to keep himself established as a scholar. A great deal could be accomplished in the field of Fine Arts if these two activities were successfully separated and not placed, as they now are, in competition.
Museum Work Hampering
In recent years, and to a certain extent at present, many of the graduates from Fine Arts departments have gone into the field of museum work. During the days of prosperity, museums were springing up like mushrooms all over this country. Naturally men were needed to head them and to complete the necessary staffs. Today few new museums are being built and it is questionable whether the absorption point has not been reached as far as this kind of employment is concerned.
Even when once achieved, the position of Museum Director demands many qualities other than those to be acquired in academic circles. A great deal of his time is bound to be spent in the role of a business executive. Likewise, he must be an accomplished diplomat, not to say politician. His museum exists through the support of the public and the rich patrons who usually make up his board of directors. He must, therefore, cater to these people, and with the money thus placed at his disposal, (usually with innumerable strings attached) he tries to maintain in the execution of his tasks not too unpopular quality standards. A difficult row to hoe!
Besides the director there are often many other subsidiary positions in connection with the museum field. However, since they are under the director's supervision, they allow even less freedom for the scholar and are more bound up with the execution of standard routine tasks, few of which demand scholarly knowledge and training. It must also be pointed out that the financial possibilities for men holding these positions are rarely adequate; and often the locality offers but little opportunity for private research and study.
Art Dealership Offers Compromise
Perhaps one of the most maligned branches of the World of Art is that of the dealer. The dealer has always been considered a rather crass materialist completely lacking in ideals or principles. This is more of a prejudice than a reality. Many of the dealers have combined most remarkably the pleasures of private collecting with the business of selling. The exhibitions organized under their auspices have often supplanted the inadequacies of the local museums and they also have been most useful in supporting, perhaps more in good times than at present, the contemporary artists worthy of patronage. One must, paradoxically enough, be somewhat of an idealist to be a dealer nowadays. The lean years have an unfortunate way of eating into the fat years. But for the man who wants to be connected with art and at the same time earn a living, the dealer's field can often offer quite a satisfactory means of compromise.
There are many other alternatives to the field of employment in the Art World. Nevertheless, I think that from the above certain facts may be realized which are of importance to a man contemplating work in the field of Art. First of all, this field offers but little chance for great financial gain. Secondly, it is a field in which there is greater competition every year without corresponding growth. Thirdly, that this competition is rarely on the basis of scholarship as much as it is on the personal adaptability of the individual to the problem. Finally, it rarely offers either the advantage of a business, i.e., possibility of eventual financial gain, or the freedom for pure intellectual pursuits.
As I have said before, all this is fairly self-evident and not necessarily catastrophic if realized in time. But as I have observed from personal experience, too often minor decisions such as the choice of a field of undergraduate concentration, can force the individual into a position where later on his choice of career is not only limited, but beset by obstacles which he is not anxious or willing to face. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to claim that there have not been in the past and will not be in the future, many, who having choose the field of Fine Arts for a career, did not find values which not only offset but compensated for the disadvantages I have enumerated