Abstract Ambitions

During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh sold exactly one painting, “The Red Vineyards near Arles,” for $1100, and died penniless at the age of 37 in 1890. Today, his name appears seven times on a list of the most expensive paintings ever sold, and those seven works alone were sold for over $712 million.

According to Teresa Chen (11), the belief that artists “[won’t] get famous until after they [are] dead” has been wrongfully conflated with the idea that pursuing a humanities degree is not as practical or worthwhile as is studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM subjects.

“For some reason, [society] is still stuck on the concept of the starving artist,” Chen said. “People keep basing their opinions of art on what happened in the past and think about art as having a very set image. They don’t really think about how art and design [can be] essential to society.”

Chen, who intends to major in illustration and work in publishing, wants to “influence people and change their way of thinking about things,” like the “set ideals for women” portrayed by Vogue Magazine.

“In advertisements, everyone says, ‘embrace your body,’ but all the models are still size 0,” Chen said. “I want to incorporate diversity and a different image of them. I want to change people’s minds about stereotypes and misogyny and misandry and feminism and that kind of thing; I want to put out a message that art is not just worthless.”

According to TPHS science teacher Brinn Belyea, however, the association is not without basis. Belyea believes that STEM subjects are important for “solving problems in society and driving the economy” and said that issues “like global warming [are] going to be [solved] by scientists and engineers, not politicians or anyone else.”

“Most of the tangible, practical stuff is related to STEM,” Belyea said. “If you follow TP grads, you’ll see that they do all sorts of things. But [STEM] is considered to be safer, or more likely to [provide] a job … The number of jobs given to the middle class is so small, especially if things go on with the economy. [People] are writing off cars, writing off houses; it’s just so bad out there.”

Pushed by her parents to pursue medicine, Director of La Jolla’s Madison Gallery, Malissa Saghatchi, did a “loop around” with her studies before settling down to work in the art world.

“I was about to go into the medical field and I had completed all the courses that needed to be done, but there was a creative sense of me that couldn’t let go of the art industry,” Saghatchi said.

After completing a psychology program at Binghamton University in New York, Saghatchi stayed an extra year to finish a second major in fine art, with a concentration in graphic design. She followed her undergraduate studies by taking on “every internship and volunteering at every art fair in New York City” while completing the Master of Arts program in art market at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Both Chen and Saghatchi say that people misconceive pursuing art as solely creating works to sell on the market.

“Honestly, with art you can go into so many different things,” Chen said. “For illustration, you can still go into scientific or commercial illustration — you can make a career out of anything nowadays.”

Chen believes that because of this misconception, some students are forced into STEM and are not given the opportunity to study what they want.

“I think a lot of kids do want to make their parents proud of them, so they put what they want by the wayside,” Chen said.

Saghatchi said that even if people go into areas of study they are unsure about, they will always find themselves pursuing the same interests and “end back up [doing what they truly want to do].”

“I think we can train our minds to be any which way that we want, but there’s also what we really want, so it’s a dichotomy we have to figure out how to balance,” Saghatchi said.

But while some of her peers may feel obligated to pursue a career in STEM, Apoorva Mylvarapu’s (12) passion for science has her set on majoring in either biology or bioengineering in college.

“Both my parents are engineers, so when I was a kid, they’d take me and my brother to museums and buy books related to science and problem solving,” Mylavarapu said. “The people around me — family friends, relatives — were all engineers or researchers. They’ve definitely encouraged me to pursue science, but they’ve never made that the only option.”

According to Belyea, most students who take interest in STEM careers, like Mylavarapu, have in fact been influenced by their families, who “are doing [STEM] for a living and have chosen to cultivate [their children’s interesting] in STEM between the ages of 0 and 5.”

Although both of Jien Sun’s (‘13) parents work in STEM-related fields — her mother is a dentist and her father an engineer — she decided to go against her relatives’ scientific “grain” and is now majoring in theater, with an emphasis on costume design, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Sun said that among the student body there is still a prevailing stigma that those in the arts are not only less challenged, but also less likely to be financially successful.

“I’m going into my second week [of college], and I have seen that already [in] our theater class … we kind of joke about the starving artist kind of thing,” Sun said. “During my orientation, actually, one of my roommates, a science major, asked me what my major was, and I said, ‘costume design.’ She said, ‘Why does everyone else have such easy majors? Why did I choose science? It’s so hard.’”

According to Sun, it was initially difficult for her parents to accept her decision to venture into an artistic field, but her work at TPHS in theater and costume design swayed them in her direction.

“Doing the classes with [drama teacher] Marinee [Payne] and the theater, and just really seeing my designs on the stage, really cemented it for me,” Sun said. “I did definitely feel pressure at first to kind of conform to what my parents wanted. What helped them really start to support me 100 percent was the fact that I was successful in designing costumes in high school. I had won one award and a couple of other ones, too. I was determined that I wanted to do this, so they saw the progress I had made.”

Reflecting back, Sun’s father, Ben Sun, said that he and his wife raised their children in an environment where they were free to explore any of their interests. The real formula for success in any career, according to Ben, is “90 percent hard work, and [only] 10 percent opportunity.”

“Every kid has a dream that they have, and their own interest that they want to pursue,” Ben said. “We give our kids freedom … [but] no career is easy. If you want to do well … first, you have to learn the knowledge of that field. Then you have to work hard, [otherwise] you will never be ready to wait for an opportunity to come.”

Belyea credits high salaries in medicine and computer engineering to rigor and the fact that they may be “less enjoyable” than careers in the arts.

However, while money may be a factor in finding a career for some people, Chen believes it is less important to “live life for the sake of making money,” and more important to be “happy with yourself and your choices in life.”

“I’m never going to live up to [my parents’] expectations, and they’re never going to live to mine,” Chen said. “I think it’s important for me to be happy with the person I am. I don’t want to grow up to realize that I became my parents and became what my parents wanted me to be, but not something I cared about.”

According to Mylavarapu, who is strongly interested in art and graphic design as hobbies, the notion that careers in STEM fields and artistic fileds are polar opposites is misguided.

“I have an internship at UCSD, and that’s led me to experience how research is done in the lab and how you communicate your results to the scientific community,” Mylavarapu said. “A lot of science is about problem solving, and you need to be creative in how you approach the issues you’re looking at. It’s a different kind of creativity.”

Similarly, Jien said that her parents’ careers have inspired her to “take more of a scientific view of design.”

“I [do] extensive amounts of research, because getting the period right and getting the details on the costume right [are] very important,” Sun said. “I try to combine fashion trends and scientific things to make designs really unique.”

Van Gogh along with artists like Paul Gauguin or Claude Monet, who were considered unsuccessful during their lifetimes, helped contribute to the “starving artist” stereotype. But the many avenues open to those who study the arts or whose hearts are tied to artistic expression may begin to chip away at the perception that science, math, medicine and computer engineering are the only careers worth pursuing.

by Alex Jen and Emily Sun