Art, Education, Top Stories

Yale against Western Art

For decades, Yale offered a two-semester introductory sequence on the history of Western art. The fall semester spanned the ancient Middle East to the early Renaissance; the spring semester picked up from the High Renaissance through the present. Many Yale students were fortunate enough to take one or both of these classes while the late Vincent Scully was still teaching them; I was among those lucky students. Scully was a titanic, galvanizing presence, combining charismatic enthusiasm with encyclopedic knowledge. When the lights went down in the lecture hall, the large screen behind him, on which slides were projected, became the stage on which the mesmerizing saga of stylistic evolution played out. How did the austere geometry of Cycladic icons bloom into the full-bodied grandeur of the Acropolis’s Caryatids? Why were the rational symmetries of the Greek temple, blazing under Mediterranean light, replaced by the wild vertical outcroppings of the Gothic cathedral? What expressive possibilities were opened up by Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel?

Such questions, under Scully’s tutelage, became urgent and central to an understanding of human experience. Trips to the Yale Art Gallery supplemented his lectures, where it was hoped that in writing about an object in the collection, students would follow John Ruskin’s admonition that the “greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” I chose to analyze Corot’s The Harbor at La Rochelle, being particularly taken by the red cap of a stevedore, one of the few jewel colors in a landscape of silken silvers and transparent sky blues.

By 1974, when I enrolled at Yale, its faculty had long since abdicated one of its primary intellectual responsibilities. It observed a chaste silence about what undergraduates needed to study in order to have any hope of becoming even minimally educated; curricular selections, outside of a few broad distribution requirements, were left to students, who by definition did not know enough to choose wisely, except by accident. So it was that I graduated without having taken a single history course (outside of one distribution-fulfilling intellectual history class), despite easy access to arguably the strongest American history faculty in the country. Scully’s fall semester introductory art history course has been my anchor to the past, providing visual grounding in the development of Western civilization, around which it is possible to develop a broader sense of history.

But now, the art history department is junking the entire two-semester sequence, as the Yale Daily News reported last month. Given the role that these two courses have played in exposing Yale undergraduates to the joys of scholarship and knowledge, one would think that the department would have amassed overwhelmingly compelling grounds for eliminating them. To the contrary, the reasons given are either laughably weak or at odds with the facts. The first reason is the most absurd: the course titles (“Introduction to the History of Art: Prehistory to the Renaissance” and “Introduction to the History of Art: Renaissance to the Present”). Art history chair Tim Barringer apparently thinks students will be fooled by those titles into thinking that other traditions don’t exist. “I don’t mistake a history of European painting for the history of all art in all places,” he primly told the Daily News. No one else would, either. But if the titles are such a trap for the Eurocentric unwary, the department could have simply added the word “European” before “Art” and been done with it. (Barringer, whose specialities include post-colonial and gender studies as well as Victorian visual culture, has been teaching the doomed second semester course—a classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse.)

Barringer also claims that it was “problematic” to put European art on a pedestal when so many other regions and traditions were “equally deserving of study.” The courses that will replace the surveys will not claim to “be the mainstream with everything else pushed to the margins,” he told the Daily News. Leave aside for the moment whether the European tradition may legitimately form the core of an art history education in an American university. The premise of Barringer’s statement—that previously European art was put on a pedestal and everything else was pushed to the margins—is blatantly false. The department requires art history majors to take two introductory-level one-semester survey courses. Since at least 2012, the department has offered courses in non-Western art that can fulfill that requirement in lieu of the European surveys. Those classes include “Introduction to the History of Art: Buddhist Art and Architecture”; “Introduction to the History of Art: Sacred Art and Architecture”; “Global Decorative Arts”; “The Politics of Representation”; and “The Classical Buddhist World.” No one was forced into the two Western art courses.

Nor would anyone surveying the art history catalogue think that Yale was “privileging” the West, as they say in theoryspeak. That catalogue is awash in non-European courses. In addition to the introductory classes mentioned above, the department offers “Japan’s Classics in Text and Image”; “Introduction to Islamic Architecture”; “The Migrant Image”; “Sacred Space in South Asia”; “Visual Storytelling in South Asia”; “Aztec Art & Architecture”; “Black Atlantic Photography”; “Black British Art and Culture”; “Art and Architecture of Mesoamerica”; “The Mexican Cultural Renaissance, 1920– 1940”; “Painting and Poetry in Islamic Art”; “Aesthetics and Meaning in African Arts and Cultures”; “Korean Art and Culture”; “African American Art, 1963 to the Present”; “Art and Architecture of Japan”; “Textiles of Asia, 800–1800 C.E.”; and “Art and Politics in the Modern Middle East,” among other courses. The Western tradition is just one among many. Nevertheless, Marissa Bass, the director of undergraduate studies in the department, echoed Barringer’s accusation of Eurocentrism. The changes recognize “an essential truth: that there has never been just one story of the history of art,” Bass told the Daily News. But Yale does not tell just one story of the history of art. Department leaders have created a parody of their own department simply in order to kill off the Western survey courses.

Those courses must also be sacked because it is impossible to cover the “entire field—and its varied cultural backgrounds—in one course,” as the Daily News put it. If this statement means that the span of time covered in each of the one-semester Western art classes is too large, non-Western survey courses are as broad or broader. “Chinese Painting and Culture” covers 16 centuries. “Power, Gender, and Ritual in African Art” covers nearly two millennia. “Introduction to the History of Art: Buddhist Art and Architecture” covers seven centuries. “Introduction to the History of Art: Sacred Art and Architecture” covers several millennia. None of these courses is facing extinction.

Barringer promises that the replacement surveys will subject European art to a variety of deconstructive readings designed to pull that tradition down from its alleged pedestal. The new classes will consider Western art in relation to “questions of gender, class, and ‘race,’” he told the Daily News in an email, carefully putting scare quotes around “race” to signal his adherence to the creed that race is a social construct. The new courses will discuss the involvement of Western art with capitalism. Most intriguingly, the relationship between Western art and climate change will be a “key theme,” he wrote.

Barringer’s proposed deconstruction of Western art illustrates a central feature of modern academia: The hermeneutics of suspicion (Paul Ricoeur’s term for the demystifying impulse that took over the humanities in the late 20 century) applies only to the Western canon. Western academics continue to interpret non-Western traditions with sympathy and respect; those interpreters seek to faithfully convey the intentions of non-Western creators and to help students understand what makes non-Western works great. So, while the replacement European art survey courses will, in Marissa Bass’s words, “challenge, rethink, and rewrite” art historical narratives, the department will not be cancelling its Buddhist art and architecture class due to the low representation of female artists and architects, nor will it “interrogate” (as High Theory puts it) African arts and cultures for their relationship to genocidal tribal warfare, or Aztec art and architecture for their relationship to murderous misogyny.

In the replacement European survey courses, however, Tim Barringer will ask students to nominate a work of art that has been left out of the curriculum or textbook, in order to challenge long-held views of art history. Barringer is looking forward to seeing how students will “counteract or undermine” his own narratives about Western art, he wrote in an online syllabus note. Will students in “Painting and Poetry in Islamic Art” be asked to nominate an excluded art work? Unlikely. The idea that a Yale undergraduate knows enough to “counteract or undermine” the expertise of Islamic scholars would be seen as ludicrous. Only with regards to the Western tradition are ignorant students given the power to countermand what was once the considered judgment of the scholarly profession.

Students exert pressure over what gets taught not just through explicit pressure but also through their mere existence, if they possess favored identity traits. The “diversity of today’s student body” guides the art history department’s curricular thinking, department leaders explained in a statement on the cancelled survey courses. But the ephemera of students’ race and sex have no bearing on the significance of the past. The sublimity of Chartres Cathedral, a focal point of Scully’s fall semester course, transcends the skin color of the latest round of freshmen. If the University of Lagos suddenly received a large influx of students from Idaho, that would not change how Yoruba bronzes would be taught or interpreted. It is only in the West where scholarship and pedagogy are held hostage to some students’ demographic profile.

Yale has cancelled other landmark courses on identity grounds. For decades, English majors were required to take a yearlong course called “Major English Poets.” I had the privilege of taking that course as well in 1974. We read Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and William Wordsworth, among others—authors whose stylistic achievements and influence over British literature are incontestable. No one at the time thought to complain about the race or gender of these literary giants. We were—remarkably—simply allowed to wallow in the glories of their language and to enter the vast imaginative realms they created.

But that course was defenestrated from its gateway status for English majors in 2017, following a student petition griping preposterously that a “year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

Rather than push back against this ignorant nonsense, members of Yale’s English faculty validated its premise. Professor Jill Richards announced that it was “unacceptable that the two semester requirement for all majors routinely covers the work of eight white, male poets.” But Medieval and Elizabethan England simply did not have black poets writing in the English language, a pattern that continued through the Augustan and Romantic periods. Females were only slightly more represented, but none of them had the influence of the course’s focal authors.

Never mind. Yale upended its requirements for the major, making “Major English Poets” optional and creating new introductory courses—such as Anglophone literature (i.e., Third World literature in English)—to take in its stead. Whatever the merits of that latter body of work, it plays only the most recent and marginal of roles in the English literary tradition. (Jill Richards, who specializes in global modernism, gender and sexuality, citizenship, human rights, critical legal theory, revolution, social movements, cinema, avant-gardes, and young adult literature, is another example of the trahison des clercs: terrifyingly, despite her contempt for “white, male poets,” she teaches the now-optional “Major English Poets.”)

Yale’s lust for curricular cancellations has picked up steam since Major English Poets lost its required spot in the English major. The art history department appears to be eliminating the Western art introductory courses on its own initiative, without the pretext of a student petition or other agitation. The only possible grounds for doing so is a political hatred for the Western tradition, since the axed courses were voluntary and surrounded by numerous non-Western alternatives. Barringer did not respond to an email asking for a preview of the mysterious relationship between Western art and climate change. He also chose not to reveal whether African, Asian, and South American art will now be “problematized” along with Western art.

The one-sided subjection of Western civilization to the petty tyranny of identity politics will only worsen. Yale is one of four universities to have received a $4 million grant to infuse the theme of race into every aspect of humanities teaching and scholarship. Brown, the University of Chicago, and Stanford are the other recipients of that Andrew W. Mellon Foundation bequest. (The Mellon Foundation, once a supporter of apolitical humanities scholarship, has been captured by the identitarian Left.) Race, Yale announced in its press release about the Mellon grant, is critically important and indisputably central to the humanities.

Actually, it is not. The humanities are about matters far more compelling than the trivialities of race, which in any case we are supposed to believe is not even real. For centuries, poets, painters, novelists, and architects sought to express essential truths about the human condition. Race may have played a role in a few classic works, such as Othello or The Heart of Darkness, but it was hardly “central” to the entire tradition. Those who seek to make it so do so in the pursuit of political grievance, not scholarly accuracy.

Some students know better, however. Once word got out that this year would be the curtain call for the two introductory Western art courses, students stampeded to enroll. Though the courses were not in fact a required gateway into the study of art history, it would have been perfectly appropriate to make them so. The primary obligation of education is to pass on a particular civilization’s cultural inheritance with love and gratitude. Yale, like nearly every other college today, has lost the will to do so. It has therefore negated its very reason for being.


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The Diversity Delusion. You can follow her on Twitter @HMDatMI

Featured Image: The Harbor of La Rochelle by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1851 (Wikicommons)


  1. “Most intriguingly, the relationship between Western art and climate change will be a “key theme,” he wrote.”

    These people have lost their minds. They must all be Prius owners:

  2. Well it makes sense. If you want to blame everything on racism, then you are pretty much forced to declare everything to be racist - art, literature, math, Betsy Ross flags, red hats, Dr. Suess, Lord of the Rings, etc.

  3. I found this story incredibly tragic and sad, only the latest in a long line of stories showing a pathological hatred of Western Culture and the Western Tradition. That previous generations have tried to rewrite history cannot be in doubt. The story of “no taxation without representation” is largely a fiction- whilst attempts were made to lobby for representation, British taxes on goods had largely been eliminated, and it was political power along with the ability to exert control over their own markets, that the colonists were really after. But whilst previous generations were content to edit history, with an eye to the impact revisionist interpretations might have on modern culture and politics, the current generation seems to want to not only burn the original annals, but also the entire library housing inconvenient truths.

    What makes this whole project even more sad, is that it is in service to a political and cultural project that is doomed to fail. The evidence of history shows that Socialist societies have never worked, can never work and will never work. In countries such as Britain, the Scandinavian States and those situated in Northern Europe, strong democratic processes have led to flirtations with Socialism, often leaving useful legacies, but always the brief flirtation is followed by a jilting at the ballot box, as voters reject the economic stagnation and decline that inevitably follows. In the rest of the world, less than resilient democratic mechanisms, or the lack of such provisions has caused untold human suffering, with over 100 million victims, and a laundry list of failed States. But you wouldn’t know it, if you have been recently educated in most Western countries.

    But there is growing evidence to support the contention that the Left’s political project will always fail at the ballot box, before they have ever had the chance to implement their sweeping Socialist ‘reforms’. It’s because their electoral Maths is flawed. First, it makes the assumption that minorities and most women will always vote for the Left, in their own interest. This ignores the fact that Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London twice, largely through the largesse of the older, more conservative “marginalised” community members, many of whom had moved to Britain to escape the failed Socialist regimes of Africa. Recent polling suggests that Latino voting will support Trump at around 30%, with a recent Emerson poll put the percentage of African American voters intending to vote for Trump at 34%. And remember this is President Trump we’re talking about- a populist candidate willing to make the fine distinction that we should care about the migrant communities that are already here legally, is likely to fare much, much better.

    Socialist professors intent on changing the world through indoctrination, would do well to read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Perhaps then they would realise that there are structural limits to the percentage of any population that will be psychologically liberal. No matter how wealthy a society, there appears to be a hard limit on the percentage of people who are of sufficiently aspirationally high in social status and posses the parental educational backgrounds to grow up psychologically liberal. Besides which, many moderate liberals are rejecting the Left-wing authoritarianism of the intersectionalists, because of their insane encroachments on tolerant speech, the liberal worldview and the deliberate infantilisation of women, minorities and the gay and lesbian communities.

    But the biggest mistake of the Left, is that it has betrayed it’s traditional constituency of the working class. They don’t understand that politics is no longer a unidimensional spectrum, but a sphere with two axis (axes?). Back in the Clinton era, it might have been possible to win power with a shrinking working class vote in Reagan’s America by moving to the centre, but this is no longer the case. Now anyone who does so risks alienating Middle America, as well as significant portions of the blue collar vote in the Democratic strongholds and purple States. For those intent on swinging to the Left to capture the populist vote, it is necessary to reject identity politics driven to extremes by woke wealthy white iliberals. Jeremy Corbyn certainly didn’t do himself any favours by announcing his pronouns in the run up to the recent UK election:

    So what are these two axis? Well, the first is the economic spectrum that wins over the centrist core of moderates, independents and radical centrists. It can be either Left or Right, but it needs to be centre Left or Right. More importantly, it needs to work. The second is the axis of culture, which is where Jonathan Haidt comes in. Because there will always be a small majority of voters who are prefer their own culture, who feel most comfortable with the familiar and have a strong sense of community, identity and custom. Trying to cast Western culture as irredeemably evil, or promoting other cultures at your own cultures expense, is always going to piss off a huge portion of the electorate, and calling them racists or deplorables really isn’t going to help.

    The only rational choice along this axis is the centre right position, because psychological conservatives care about their culture, liberals don’t, and it is only the woke iliberals that will really complain, and for every one young woke person you alienate (who won’t vote anyway), you gain four older voters. It’s a pattern that’s been repeated across the West, whether in America, Europe and the former Dominions. In Europe, people care so much about these cultural issues, which might seem small to some, that they are willing to vote for far right parties:

    But back to culture, which is the topic of the article, after all. An interesting development for aspiring creative writers (myself included), is the rise of nonfiction within the publishing industry. Whilst this is no doubt of benefit to writers like Heather Mac Donald (I’ve bought one of her books myself), does it bode well for those who peddle fiction? Well, at the moment it appears that new fiction sales have not yet declined, but this may not be the case indefinitely. Above all, we need to question why people patronise the Arts at all?

    It might be the case that Great Art has the duty to inform, but in doing so doesn’t it also need to entertain or uplift, in order to get the message across in the first place. Might patrons become bored with those who feel the need to condescendingly lecture them, without offering anything of value in return? Gen Z certainly seem to think so, with many questioning the advisability of studying University courses that develop ‘soft skill’, in favour of more vocationally orientated scholastic programmes. The phenomena of “Get Woke, go broke” would seem to suggest that the same is true for movies, and likely true for literature. And even if woke iliberals buy woke literature, it is unlikely they actually read it, buying it instead as an adornment for coffee tables.

    Plus, if we really want to encourage Latino artists and Black writers, why can’t we have more works that celebrate accomplishments, and uplift us with the wonders of the modern age? Life is stressful and depressing enough at times, without being forced to wallow in the misery of others. By all means, create stories that show individuals triumphing over adversity, but for once can we just have it about a Black person overcoming poverty and family adversity, instead of them defeating an evil and wicked system of racism? How about a window into the peculiarities of different cultures, instead of treatises on their innate superiority to Western tyranny? Woke iliberals might be able to feel patronisingly better than everyone else, by showing how aware they are of other peoples suffering, but to everyone else it just seems a bit shallow, narcissistic and vain.

  4. So university professors now hold up a cave painting and a Renoir and claim both are of the same worth.
    The question is why this happening. So, yes, political correctness is part of it, but I would like to posit an argument as to why this PC mentality took hold: It has to do with laziness.
    For example, when I studied English literature at university, I noticed the women professors largely only spoke on books by female authors. In the total history of English literature, female authors are comparatively sparse, and their books are usually a great deal shorter and less complex than those of male authors. It is a lot easier to tackle Jane Austen than Melville, Joyce and Shakespeare. Plus, they could fill a lecture with a lot of feminist blather if they wanted. This was in the 1990s. I couldn’t help noticethat “feminist literary criticism” largely comprised two forms: debunking male writers on moral/ emotional grounds and praising female writers. This is the basis for “equality”: higher status for less work.
    You get the same situation in “black studies”. Like it or not, be it in history, art, or science, a whole lot less happened in Africa over the same time frame as what happened in Europe. So it is the equivalent of an easy A for professors.

  5. Disciples of Foucault. The whole world is nothing but power games on top of more power games. If so, the only possible goal is to take some power for yourself, and it will have to be taken from others. Western Art and the Western Canon represent to these people a cultural power bloc, a hegemony, which must be completely and absolutely shattered if anything beyond it is to gain any attention or value.

  6. Let me start with an aside on usage. ms McDonald refers to a course that is cancelled as being “sacked”. I have never seen an American use the term “sacked”. In my experience it is a British and Commonwealth term which means “fired”. Only a person can be sacked. So the idea of a course being sacked seems odd. But maybe it’s an American idiom with which I am unfamiliar.

    What saddens me about the actions of the Yale academics in this instance is their ghastly oikophobia and the philistinism that forms it’s foundation.

    The Australian university experience is so different that it is hard to quite put the Yale faculty’s oikophobia into context. We never had courses that all undergraduates have to take. And in any case, most of the undergraduates aren’t even doing a BA. The oikophobia is thus spread out through all the Arts (i.e humanities) departments. If only a few people take art history as a minor or major whilst doin a BA, then no one will really make a big thing when the introductory course is changed so as not to “privilege”western art.

    I suppose the good news is that the bulk of students studying for professional degrees, all of which are undergraduate degrees in Australia, are not exposed to wanky leftist agitprop and oikophobia.

  7. Like many other universities, Yale enrolments in arts and humanities are likely tanking as people have wised up to what @PeterfromOZ calls “wanky leftist agitprop” — hence the pressure to “innovate” and the institutional support for egos that thrive on introducing trendy changes into a longstanding and meaningful curriculum. Selfish egoism cares nothing for broader meaning, only immediate self-fulfillment — and this is exactly the type that seeks to fill key university positions. By the time it takes to show this “improvement” exercise has failed to produce significant enrolment changes, the Chair will have moved on to a more senior academic administrator position.

  8. Speaking of tragedies this to me is one of the great failures of academia. I find it so bizarre that I have to assume that there must be political powers actively stopping the dissemination of what African history we currently do have and at the same time obscuring why there is a lack of recorded history from Africa. At least compared to European history.

    I’m not a historian but from what I have lightly researched “stuff” did happen in Africa, the only problem is that the “villians” in the story of Africa pre-1500’s were not white. This would undercut their argument that we are in a uniquely evil culture. It also would make academia discuss whether Islam had a detrimental role in the development of Africa. Academia does not want to tear down European culture then build up other cultures. They want to use other cultures as a weapon to beat down European culture and then build the new dominant culture in their image.

  9. Which fallacy is it, that to present one thing is synonymous with stating the other does not exist? It’s painful to think for even a minute that an academic would actually believe this. Yet this blather was provided in a recent class in which I asked the students whether a Waterhouse painting of Hylas and the Nymphs should be banned (A Manchester Museum had removed it temporarily in 2018 as a #Me Too stunt). The students (mainly Chinese) reproduced the anticipated blather: It should be banned because the women are portrayed as having “only” sexual power. It shows only heterosexuals. (It doesn’t.) At least MOST of the students had not yet been poisoned in this way. But the ones that had knew their lines and produced them earnestly. In the ensuing weeks, we’ll be looking at the myth, and what nymphs represent, etc. And the most indoctrinated were most shocked to learn that Hylas had slept with a man…

    In response to a comment above, indeed, this erasing of our own history is an effect of matriarchal oppression. What is the matriarchal lens? A complete incapacity to see outside one’s self. An inability to empathize with men.

  10. It’s not true that progressives hate America. They hate all of Western Civilization.

  11. I agree that people should not be required to take such courses unless they choose to take art history as a major or minor in the course of getting a BA.

    What I object to in this case is the tin eared justification that the Yale “academics” have used in announcing their decision and the oikophobia thus revealed.

    When I was in 5th form (year 11) our school gave us the best art appreciation course one could ever have. Every week of one term the whole form of about 90 boys went to the school hall and watched an episode of Kenneth Clark’s great documentary series Civilisation on a large screen. It is tribute to Lord Clark that he could keep the attention of 90 16 year old boys, though I suspect the fact that trouble makers would be caned by the punishment master might have helped.

    I watched the series again recently on DVD. It is still the best survey of culture ever made for the medium. It’s even on YouTube. I abjure all parents to get their children to watch it, before they go to college, so that they know in advance what civilisation is and how progressive fads are barbaric rather than civilised.

  12. I agree 100%. And of course the replacement culture would presumably appreciate the vast potential of the academic community as leaders in the new “justice reality”. Beyond that , however the details become a bit vague; to be determined at some later date by…well it doesn’t say by whom…but I’m sure they will be up to to the challenge and have everyone’s best interests at heart. All good!

  13. Indeed!
    And we have already seen what that society looks like: theocracy. I’m abprof and see this close-up though the attitude where I currently live on the Continent is more cloistered and less willing to take any responsibility let alone for actually blueprinting society than in the Anglosphere and Scandinavia.

    There it’s become a pseudo-priesthood who’d dearly love to have the authority of the medieval church to enforce their cosmogony and social blueprint with their moral dictates. The separation of canon law from civil law is a footnote of history to people today because it no longer includes the powers to flog, burn, seize property etc but it did and the new pseudo-priesthood have already brought back much bite into ‘institutional policy” making akin to Church Canonical law.

    HR departments, uni and public school administrations etc now have wide powers to ruin anyone’s life is not yet imprison them.

  14. That’s why it is more useful to think on the liberalism-authoritarianism axis.

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