Category Archive 'Heather MacDonald'

18 Feb 2020

The Salovey Administration Destroys Another Great Yale Department

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The late Vincent Scully lecturing Eurocentrically years ago.

Heather MacDonald, BK ’70, demolishes the cant being used to justify remodeling Yale’s once-illustrious History of Art Department into a distribution center for Marxist agitprop and Multicultural Identity Stroking.

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.

A must-read.


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