Yale will stop teaching a storied introductory survey course in art history, citing the impossibility of adequately covering the entire field — and its varied cultural backgrounds — in one course.
Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.
This spring, the final rendition of the course will seek to question the idea of Western art itself — a marked difference from the course’s focus at its inception. Art history department chair and the course’s instructor Tim Barringer told the News that he plans to demonstrate that a class about the history of art does not just mean Western art. Rather, when there are so many other regions, genres and traditions — all “equally deserving of study” — putting European art on a pedestal is “problematic,” he said.
“I believe that every object I discuss in [“Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present”] (with the possible exception of one truly ghastly painting by Renoir) is of profound cultural value,” Barringer said in an email to the News. “I want all Yale students (and all residents of New Haven who can enter our museums freely) to have access to and to feel confident analyzing and enjoying the core works of the western tradition. But I don’t mistake a history of European painting for the history of all art in all places.”
Instead of this singular survey class, the Art History Department will soon offer a range of others, such as “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road” and “Sacred Places.” Barringer added that in two or three years, his department will offer a substitute class to “Introduction to Art History.” But the new class “will be a course equal in status to the other 100-level courses, not the introduction to our discipline claiming to be the mainstream with everything else pushed to the margins,” Barringer said.
While concerns about the class’s singular focus in Western art has led to its cancellation, student enrollment in Barringer’s course skyrocketed this semester after the department’s plan was announced. Over 400 students shopped the class last week, though the course is capped at 300 due to constraints in the number of sections that the YUAG can host.
Phoebe Campbell ’22 — who was among the lucky 300 to enroll in Barringer’s course — said student interest likely stems from positive reviews, as well as the fact that the class is being offered for a final time.
According to Barringer, the class will still cover Western art chronologically from 1300 to the present and hopscotch across European art movements under the roof of the Yale University Art Gallery. Students in sections will still examine objects directly from Yale’s vast collections.
In his syllabus note to potential students on Canvas, an online course management tool, Barringer wrote that the emphasis would be placed on the relationship between European art and other world traditions. The class will also consider art in relation to “questions of gender, class and ‘race’” and discuss its involvement with Western capitalism, Barringer wrote. Its relationship with climate change will be a “key theme,” he wrote.
Barringer has also focused attention on the course’s written assignments. He said that he will invite students to write an essay nominating a work of art that has been left out of the course’s curriculum or its textbook. Like the changes to the course itself, this essay is designed to challenge long-held views of art history.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what works the students come up with to counteract or undermine my own narratives,” he wrote.
In an interview with the News, Campbell said she appreciates Barringer’s efforts to point out the limited scope of the course.
“The class title is ‘Introduction to the History of Art: Renaissance to the Present,’ but in lecture and on the slides, [Barringer] calls it ‘Introduction to Western Art’ because he is aware, while teaching it, that it is not a comprehensive introduction to the global history of art, and that everything we talk about is from a Western perspective,” Campbell said.
Campbell added that while is supportive of the changes, she hopes that the pre-modern Western course material will not be lost amongst the shuffle.
But other students expressed certain dissatisfactions with the Art History Department’s decision to get rid of Barringer’s class.
“My biggest critique of the decision is that it’s a disservice to undergrads,” Mahlon Sorensen ’22 said. “If you get rid of that one, all-encompassing course, then to understand the Western canon of art, students are going to have to take multiple art history courses. Which is all well and good for the art history major, but it sucks for the rest of us, which, I would say, make up the vast majority of the people who are taking [HSAR 115].”
The decision to get rid of this survey art history course resembles the English Department’s move to “decolonize” its degree requirements in 2017. At the time, the department made a sequence titled “Major English Poets” optional for majors.
For years, the Directed Studies program — a six-credit sequence for first-year students focusing on philosophy, literature and political philosophy — has also fielded criticisms about its exclusive focus on the Western canon.
But in an interview with the News in 2018, humanities professor and then-Director of Undergraduate Studies of the program Kathryn Slanski said while many of the authors discussed in the program are “dead white men,” everyone can learn from their texts as long as they perform nuanced and analytical readings. While concerns regarding the diversity of texts taught in Directed Studies are perennial, the University is “up-front that Directed Studies is an introduction to the Western tradition and its influence,” Slanski said.
Political science professor Steven Smith, who teaches a Directed Studies class in the fall, agreed that there is no course that can address everything and that Directed Studies already covers plenty. Still, some students are pushing to increase minority and female representation among authors in the DS curriculum.
Over the past several years, structural changes in the art history major have come largely in part to the department’s active response to similar student suggestions. According to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Marisa Bass, students motivated the creation of courses like “Global Decorative Arts,” “Sacred Art and Architecture” and “The Politics of Representation.”
“Yale’s History of Art department is deeply committed to representing the intellectual diversity of its students and its faculty, and we believe that introductory surveys are an essential opportunity to continue to challenge, rethink and rewrite the narratives surrounding the history of engagement with art, architecture, images and objects across time and place,” Bass said. “These surveys and those that we will continue to develop in the future are designed in recognition of an essential truth: that there has never been just one story of the history of art.”
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