History of art majors are expressing outrage this year over the inclusion of some incongruous classes in their non-Western requirement: ones in African-American art.
Though the requirement has been in place for several years, Mimi Yiengpruksawan, the major’s director of undergraduate studies, said the department has received more perplexed student queries about the requirement this fall than ever before. The strong response has led the department to begin a review of the undergraduate requirements, a process that Yiengpruksawan said will eventually culminate in a redefinition of the non-Western art requirement in the major. But students say the increased enrollment in new African-American art history courses this year has shone a spotlight on the department’s outdated mode of classifying its requirements for the major.
Yiengpruksawan said the department has been flooded with students questioning the scope of the courses labeled as non-Western by the department. She said the categorization was a relic handed down over the years, adding that a general lack of student interest in the department’s non-Western courses allowed the mistake to go unaddressed for so long.
“It takes Yale a long time to change some things,” Yiengpruksawan said. “It has worked as a program in the past because most students were interested in Western, European-influenced art and didn’t ask any questions about the non-Western requirement. Students now ask lots of questions.”
Indeed, students interviewed expressed confusion about the department’s disregard for culture and geographic location in determining its Western or non-Western classification.
“My original impression was obviously any class on African-American or pre-Columbian art would be a part of the Western requirement,” art history major Jessica Jollie ’13 said. “When I heard the contrary I was shocked — why would it be considered non-Western?”
Students added that it was also the inconsistent variety of non-Western courses that highlighted the department’s controversial categorization.
A survey of art history courses listed in the Blue Book for the past three academic years reveals that in contrast to 2011-’12’s six courses in African American art, 2010-’11 offered no African-American art courses at all, and 2009-’10 offered only two.
“It really is hard to find something purely non-Western here because there is such a limited availability,” art history major Isabella Lores-Chavez ’12 said. “It is hard to get away from the European canon. I would prefer to study African art from the Congo rather than African art in New York.”
But Yiengpruksawan said that of the 20 full-time faculty members in the department, at least half teach courses that would be considered non-Western.
History of Art Department Chair Alexander Nemerov added that in recent years the department has actively sought to increase its offerings in the history of non-Western art traditions by increasing the number of faculty who specialize in these areas.
“I don’t know that we spend a lot of time thinking about whether a course is definitively Western or non-Western,” Nemerov said. “There’s no strict divide. We really just rely on the different expertise of the different professors.”
Both Yiengpruksawan and Nemerov agreed, though, that the format of the major requirements needs to be rewritten. Yiengpruksawan added that she recently sent an email to all art history faculty about reopening this discussion, and will consult with a student advisory committee before making changes.
All four art history professors interviewed said they would agree with a revised definition of “non-Western art.”
“I think that there needs to be a transformation in the way we understand the term Western and how we segregate it from non-Western art,” said Erica James, assistant professor of history of art and African-American studies. “I don’t regard [African-American art] as a non-Western art form.”
Nemerov said that the nomenclature for the different areas of study will be changed this year as soon as the department has the chance to do so.
The history of art major currently has approximately 50 enrolled majors.