Today I was made aware of this gem of an advertisement in my news feed:
There’s no debating the implications of this statement. Saying “An actor today, a botanist 1 tomorrow” clearly shows an attitude towards the arts of “oh that’s the shit you do when you’re a naive child, but real contributors to society grow out of that pipe dream and do shit like study plants.”
It’s pretty insulting.
To be clear, I don’t think Wells Fargo as a company is to blame. 2 To claim that they’re on some sort of crusade against the arts is ridiculous. Wells Fargo is just guilty of reflecting the “meh” attitudes of our own country towards any career path that doesn’t relate to: technology, business, science, engineering, or medicine. America, somewhere along the way, became obsessed with the STEM fields as the pinnacle of the American dream.
Look, I understand. If you asked 5000 random people living outside the United States to tell you what America’s greatest achievement has been, I doubt many people say “The Metropolitan Opera,” even though it’s the most successful performing arts organization in the world.
Art is just not part of American culture.
The faces of America tend to be technological advances and innovation. The Industrial Revolution began in the United States and spread outwards. Microsoft was the American company of the 90’s. Google and Apple have jockeyed for position as king since the new millennium. A huge chunk of America’s image is in its technological dominance, not its artistic prowess, despite churning out a significant number of incredibly talented artists.
This attitude trickles down through our citizens, too. Hardly anyone knows that America houses the highest budget performing arts organization in the entire world. Rather, our culture is driven by “The American Dream”. Nobody’s parents are upset when their kid tells them “I’m going to get a mechanical engineering degree.” But I have multiple friends that had parents disappointed in them for choosing JUILLIARD. I mean, over Harvard, but still.
It sounds crazy, but American society doesn’t value the “soft skills” that art gives us. Sensitivity to others. Empathy. The ability to solve unconventional problems quickly. The ability to sit with any given group of other people and work together to create a shared product.
We value possessions. iPhones. Teslas. High numbers in our bank account. There is a reason a guy can make a YouTube ad about “being in his garage with his Lamborghini” and rack up over 100 million new views (and counting) on his YouTube channel.
We want ways to show off our exceptionalism. That we’re wealthier, stronger, more attractive, more famous than the next guy. Art doesn’t have a scoreboard. It doesn’t come with bragging rights, at least ones that won’t get you laughed at in a bar.
The Wells Fargo ad is a reflection of our society viewing art as a luxurious item–fluff to be enjoyed once you’re already rich, when it should be viewed as a tool to enrich yourself.
But all hope isn’t lost. Some people do get it. Steve Jobs once said at an iPad launch that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” Most medical schools look favorably on artists, and admit humanities majors at higher rates than those schooling in pure science.
We just need to get everyone on the same page–ads that brush away artistic disciplines as childhood frivolities hardly do that.
I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC recently, where the National Symphony Orchestra performs. It’s a remarkable place. In addition to their paid programming, the Kennedy Center has one free show there every single day of the year. I went to one show, and seats were filled on a Wednesday night in July.
There’s a lot of history on the walls too, especially of how the government used to invest in the arts. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. But one engraving of one quote hit me right in my chest:
JFK looked forward to that day. Maybe he should have looked backwards.
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