The Cost of Art

January 21st, 2011

Yuan Yao

I am finishing my major in Biochemistry this semester and have a lot of heavy science classes on my schedule. But I didn’t want to end my four years at Brandeis without taking a few classes in the arts, given that I’ve always loved the arts. During the registration period this winter, I signed up for Life Paintings and was really looking forward to painting in oils on canvas, something I’ve never done before.

But what I wasn’t looking forward to was the near $250 bill that I ended up paying for all the supplies I needed before I even put the first smears of paint to canvas.

As I sat sulking over the proud fact that I didn’t have to pay nearly as much money for any of my science textbooks this semester, I thought: a college education is expensive enough—is it really worth it to be taking my art class and having to pay $250 out of pocket when I could have taken another science class and bought a much cheaper textbook from Amazon?

This brings me to the question of art’s position in education. I remember that in high school, we had one particularly rough year where our school’s needs outpaced our given budget. Like so many other school budget-cut stories, our arts and music department took the biggest hit.

I think in our time, when test taking and test scores are so heavily emphasized, it’s very easy to say, “okay, the math, science and English departments need the money because their subjects are tested on the state exam, so lets cut the arts department’s budget because we don’t have enough money for everyone.” But I wouldn’t agree with such a decision.

For me, the testable subjects are undoubtedly important; I believe everyone should come out of high school with a fundamental understanding of math so they can at least pay their bills, and sufficient proficiency in English for, well, communicating and interacting with their peers. But I also feel it’s important, perhaps more indirectly, to give students some exposure to the arts. Art has been with us for almost as long as we have walked this planet and far longer than math or language have been. Explore the oldest human caves and you’ll find drawings depicting notable events in the year of a caveman—epic hunting trips, births of children, deaths in the family. Art is a part of who we are and how we think. I know that my first language, Mandarin Chinese, relies on characters derived from early pictures that slowly evolved into the abstract form that it is today. In essence, art enriches our lives and allows us to use language, math and science in the ways that define us from the other creatures that roam our world.

For more information on this topic, check out the Ethics Center Inquiry on arts education at

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