Sara Reads No. 14

A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.

If You Love What You Do
I attended a local philharmonic performance this weekend. The orchestra in question was performing with Yo-Yo Ma, who joined them as soloist for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor. Dvořák’s cello concerto weighs in at an impressive 40 minutes, which is about 10 minutes longer than most soloist pieces I have seen performed, and is an absolute marvel of a balancing act between a boistrous orchestra and a subtle and cunning cello. The brilliant Yo-Yo Ma unsurprisingly played the piece to perfection, and then delighted the audience with an encore performance of the Catalonian “Song of the Birds” as arranged for cello by Pablo Casals.

Then he came back after the intermission and joined the cello section for the orchestra’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major.

Now, I’ve been attending classical concerts since I was a child, and I have never seen a soloist return to the stage after the intermission to play out a concert program for the sheer joy of playing. But that is what Mr. Ma did. It struck me, as I watched his unmistakably characteristic bow flourishes, that I had the privilege of observing one of the purest expressions of the old adage that “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Of course, that is patently untrue. If you do what you love, you’ll actually work harder than you ever imagined possible. And that is as it should be. Because it’s not about avoiding work, it’s about avoiding work that deadens your soul. There’s no question that Yo-Yo Ma works hard every day in exchange for the joy his music playing so obviously brings him, but work—when loved—is its own rich reward. And it was incredibly moving to witness that profound truth played out on the stage for all of us to see.

If Others Do Not (Love What You Do)
There was a fascinating article in The New York Times the other day about the removal of the History of Art A-Level exam in the UK and the state of art history’s relevance as a whole. Interestingly, the author explores the question of art history’s relevance from the perspective of the art market rather than academia, suggesting that the rise of digital technologies that more widely disseminate art to the masses might potentially create a wider demand for specialists in the field at the gallery, museum, and journalism level. Of course, I think this is indeed likely (and certainly to be hoped for), but it’s curious to me that this hypothesized demand doesn’t extend to educators as well—even if only as a brief aside.

My degree, for those who don’t know, is in art history, and I spent several years working as an educator in that field. Though I have largely left academia to pursue other career goals, I remain invested in its future—which strikes me as perilous. The ivory tower is a flawed and tarnished institution, as revelatory essays about the bankruptcy and prejudices of the system regularly suggest, but it is an institution with so much potential to do good, and the discipline of art history is a sadly undervalued asset in its arsenal.

Art history is often described as a “soft” subject—as are many of the humanities. As the NYT article notes, even President Obama had something to say about its so-called lack of earning power. (And he’s not the only one. Once, long ago, when I was working as an accounting clerk for a wholesaler to put myself through college, I mentioned—in passing—my intention to take a graduate degree in art history to a client. Their response? “You’ll starve.”) (NB: I did not, in fact, starve. But it must be said that I got lucky. And it must also be said that starving in grad school is less to do with subject matter and more to do with the exploitative nature of graduate education itself.) (But to return to the subject at hand…)

I would argue that art history is, in fact, not even remotely a “soft” subject. Indeed, if I had a nickle for every time a neurosciences major, or a chem major, or an engineering major took one of my art history courses for an easy A and quickly found themselves in danger of blowing their GPA, I would be a wealthy woman. Because art history—like many humanities subjects—is hard. And art history teaches invaluable skills—skills that will serve their bearer in any field they choose. In order to excel in the field of art history, you must be exceptionally detail oriented, you must have (or develop) an aptitude for visual analysis and critical thinking, and you must know how to research. Put those three abilities together and you know what you have?

The potential to do practically anything.

And, oh, how I wish more people understood that.

Final Thought: On Procrastination and Being in Good Company
I am an inveterate procrastinator, and like all great procrastinators I am often in great turmoil over my seeming inability to buckle down and focus whenever I want. It was therefore with great pleasure that I read two articles this week—one at the beginning and one at the end—that enabled me to feel less vicious with myself about such shortcomings. John Scalzi wrote about the impact of election stress on his productivity (and on the productivity of friends and colleagues who have found themselves in the same news-refreshing cycle of sloth). Dani Shapiro discussed the value of procrastination to the process of digging down into oneself to find not just the necessary will for creation but also the wit without which art cannot sing.

May we all fight the good this week, and may we be gentle with ourselves on those occasional, yet inevitable, days when we lose.

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