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Yale against Western Art

Once word got out that this year would be the curtain call for the two introductory Western art courses, students stampeded to enroll.

· 10 min read
Yale against Western Art
The Harbor of La Rochelle by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1851 (Wikicommons)

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.

The Western Reinvented. Again.
It has been 30 years since a Western last won the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. That was in 1992 and the film was Unforgiven [], directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in it alongside Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris.

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.

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