Art history major develops new requirements

New requirements in the art history major will address complaints that the curriculum is too “Eurocentric.”
New requirements in the art history major will address complaints that the curriculum is too “Eurocentric.” Photo by Victor Kang.

Starting next year, students majoring in art history may be better able to determine how to study art across time periods and geographic regions.

After complaints from students about the current requirement that majors take a select number of classes labeled as either Western and non-Western, Mimi Yiengpruksawan, the director of undergraduate studies in the History of Art Department, said she is hoping to change how the requirements are classified so students can more easily plan cross-cultural paths within the major. This year, the department has been developing a new set of requirements to address these concerns and to move out of a “Eurocentric” model, she explained. Though the Committee on Majors has approved of the changes — which will categorize classes in a five-by-five grid that crosses different time periods and geographic regions — the Faculty of Arts and Sciences must discuss the changes and put them to a vote at a faculty meeting in December.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is think about our responsibility in teaching a global art history,” said Edward Cooke ’77, chair of the History of Art Department. “We’re really interested in expanding and taking advantage of what the faculty is interested in, which is oftentimes transnational boundaries, in thinking about a larger universe, and not just a typical history of art that’s told through western European eyes.”

Come next year, requirements for the number of courses majors must take in different areas will not change. Instead, the grid simply allows students to look at their options in a more comprehensive way and decide how to navigate a pathway through the major, history of art professor Kobena Mercer said.

The new grid structure changes the way in which students distinguish between courses that look at different geographic regions and time periods. Rather than categorizing courses using the binary of Western or non-Western art, the grid offers students a clearer way of seeing the array of time periods and regions from which they can choose. Three faculty members said they hope the grid will not only provide students with a visual representation of the major but will also allow the department to see where it needs to improve.

“What I like about the chart is that it makes it clear where we are weak, and any strong program will always work to strengthen its coverage because our competitors — other institutions — look better on that grid than we do,” Yiengpruksawan said. “Often a visual representation will be much more alarming, and it provokes a response.”

Yiengpruksawan said she hopes Yale’s underperformance on the grid will prompt the department and university to focus more on increasing the number of art history faculty members who specialize in global art history. In the last two years, the department hired Youn-Mi Kim, a specialist in Chinese art who also studies Korean art, and Erica James, a Caribbean art specialist.

The new requirements also address the department’s need to cater to a more global student body, Yiengpruksawan added. She explained that students, many of whom come from diverse backgrounds, are beginning to think more “transregionally” and are increasingly interested in courses that cover more than one specific area and discuss the interactions of multiple cultures.

“Students are often interested in learning about their heritage in a global context,” she said.

Three students agreed that labelling classes “Western” or “non-Western” is unrepresentative of the department’s offerings. Thomas Burns ’13 said courses on African-American art were previously considered “non-Western” under this system, though that label has since been removed.

But three students interviewed said they feel that the department has already done a good job developing a more diverse course load.

“I think they do a good job forcing people to take non-Western art and art from different ages that aren’t in their special interest,” Janne Salo ’14 said.

Sinclaire Marber ’15 said a class cross-listed in the Islamic Studies, History of Art and Humanities Departments is a sign that Yale is moving to a more “interdisciplinary approach.”

“That type of class, which is integrating the different cultures and time periods and how they interacted, is a step in the right direction that I think Yale is definitely taking in regard to that,” Marber said.

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