Last October, the Yale community came together to honor the legacy of a larger-than-life instructor and revered literary critic: Professor Harold Bloom. Infuriating to some, inspiring to most, Professor Bloom possessed — among a wide array of qualities — an unyielding love for the Western canon. He did not deny the historical arbitrariness underpinning the notion of a “canon,” nor did he blindly revere all of the so-called “Great Books.” But he recognized that because canonical works have shaped, for better or for worse, the lens through which we see the world, all defenders of the liberal arts ought to keep on learning about and from them.
After reading that Yale will stop teaching the well-known course “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present,” I wondered what Professor Bloom might have thought about such a decision. In one of his most famous books, Bloom said, “Originality must compound with inheritance.” In other words, in order to progress and innovate, we need to engage with and understand our past.
Of course, his response focused on literature, not art. But the very same arguments can be applied to the Art History Department’s recent decision to stop teaching one of Yale’s most celebrated courses.
According to a recent article in the News, the decision stems from widespread “student uneasiness.” I am sure that this is why, after the decision was announced, more than four hundred students rushed to take the class — making it one of the most popular classes offered this semester.
These four hundred students certainly did not seem “uneasy;” and, as someone who attended the first lecture, I can assure you that they were not students merely interested in glorifying Western culture, but rather students who wanted to scrutinize, analyze and question it. We cannot put something under the microscope if we do not have access to it.
And yet, it is true that some students do feel uneasy about the course. Depending on how it may have been taught in the past, they may well be justified in thinking that it promotes Western supremacy. Considering Yale’s long history in prioritizing the study of white male writers and artists in the classroom, this possibility should frighten and alarm us.
I reject the idea that we should bow down in front of canonical works, remain passively in awe of their supposed greatness and blindly accept all the cultural norms they promote. Machiavelli, himself a canonical author who revered his predecessors, once wrote that we should not just “chew” the works of illustrious artists and thinkers, we should instead “taste” them, criticize them, transcend them, throw them under the bus, violently undermine the things that they may defend.
I find the expression “standing on the shoulders of giants” atrociously misleading. First, it forgets to mention that some of the giants may well be ugly: Machiavelli openly advocates for murder, Aristotle is at best ambivalent on the question of slavery and Gauguin portrays people of color in a caricaturized and dehumanizing way. And they are not alone: the Western canon has an obvious and pervasive tendency to ignore voices long silenced and erase peoples, cultures and experiences across the world.
Second, this expression presupposes that some people are giants in the first place, which too often plunges us into the idealization of a past that never existed. If all of these writers and artists are larger than life, where does that leave us? Are we but a collection of ants forever in their shadow?
But the greatest weakness of the expression “standing on the shoulders of giants” is that it does not go far enough. We do not merely “stand” on the shoulders of giants — we see the world through their eyes. From the very best of our collective virtues to the very worst of our societal biases, all of our value systems are shaped by the past. “The dead govern the living,” Auguste Comte once wrote.
When we are so presumptuous as to assume that we can do away with our most influential predecessors, we delude ourselves into believing that we make history more than history makes us. We assume that we are not the end of history but its beginning. We revere the present in the same myopic way that the worst reactionaries did in the past.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the course should remain exactly as it currently stands. All works of art should be approached critically, if not suspiciously. We need not agree with George Orwell that “all art is propaganda” to realize that all art is necessarily powerful.
When analyzing artworks that have been historically glorified, we should be especially careful to expose the flaws and limitations of artists and their worldviews. But changing the way in which we approach the course does not imply scrapping the course altogether. Institutions at Yale that focus on canonical studies, like the Humanities program, have found ways to reform themselves without losing their purpose.
The Art History Department has proved unwilling to reform a beloved program they should have defended. If we want to combat the injustices of our age, we need to learn where they come from and why they represent such an integral part of who we are. Avoiding studying the Western canon will not make its influence disappear. It will merely stop us from understanding its value, limitations and the ways it has shaped the world we live in.
We should not tear our eyes out because they show us a world we refuse to see — our world, with all of its menacing imperfection.
MATHIS BITTON is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .