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. Scullyâ€™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 (â€œIntroduction to the History of Art: Prehistory to the Renaissanceâ€ and â€œIntroduction to the History of Art: Renaissance to the Presentâ€). Art history chair Tim Barringer apparently thinks students will be fooled by those titles into thinking that other traditions donâ€™t exist. â€œI donâ€™t mistake a history of European painting for the history of all art in all places,â€ 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 â€œEuropeanâ€ before â€œArtâ€ 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 courseâ€”a classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse.)
Barringer also claims that it was â€œproblematicâ€ to put European art on a pedestal when so many other regions and traditions were â€œequally deserving of study.â€ The courses that will replace the surveys will not claim to â€œbe the mainstream with everything else pushed to the margins,â€ 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 Barringerâ€™s statementâ€”that previously European art was put on a pedestal and everything else was pushed to the marginsâ€”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 â€œIntroduction to the History of Art: Buddhist Art and Architectureâ€; â€œIntroduction to the History of Art: Sacred Art and Architectureâ€; â€œGlobal Decorative Artsâ€; â€œThe Politics of Representationâ€; and â€œThe Classical Buddhist World.â€ No one was forced into the two Western art courses.
Nor would anyone surveying the art history catalogue think that Yale was â€œprivilegingâ€ 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 â€œJapanâ€™s Classics in Text and Imageâ€; â€œIntroduction to Islamic Architectureâ€; â€œThe Migrant Imageâ€; â€œSacred Space in South Asiaâ€; â€œVisual Storytelling in South Asiaâ€; â€œAztec Art & Architectureâ€; â€œBlack Atlantic Photographyâ€; â€œBlack British Art and Cultureâ€; â€œArt and Architecture of Mesoamericaâ€; â€œThe Mexican Cultural Renaissance, 1920â€“ 1940â€; â€œPainting and Poetry in Islamic Artâ€; â€œAesthetics and Meaning in African Arts and Culturesâ€; â€œKorean Art and Cultureâ€; â€œAfrican American Art, 1963 to the Presentâ€; â€œArt and Architecture of Japanâ€; â€œTextiles of Asia, 800â€“1800 C.E.â€; and â€œArt and Politics in the Modern Middle East,â€ among other courses. The Western tradition is just one among many. Nevertheless, Marissa Bass, the director of undergraduate studies in the department, echoed Barringerâ€™s accusation of Eurocentrism. The changes recognize â€œan essential truth: that there has never been just one story of the history of art,â€ 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 â€œentire fieldâ€”and its varied cultural backgroundsâ€”in one course,â€ 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. â€œChinese Painting and Cultureâ€ covers 16 centuries. â€œPower, Gender, and Ritual in African Artâ€ covers nearly two millennia. â€œIntroduction to the History of Art: Buddhist Art and Architectureâ€ covers seven centuries. â€œIntroduction to the History of Art: Sacred Art and Architectureâ€ 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 â€œquestions of gender, class, and â€˜race,â€™â€ he told the Daily News in an email, carefully putting scare quotes around â€œraceâ€ 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 â€œkey theme,â€ he wrote.
Barringerâ€™s proposed deconstruction of Western art illustrates a central feature of modern academia: The hermeneutics of suspicion (Paul Ricoeurâ€™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 Bassâ€™s words, â€œchallenge, rethink, and rewriteâ€ 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 â€œinterrogateâ€ (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.