Last month, Yale University’s undergraduate art history department became an unlikely subject of controversy when the Yale Daily News, a student-run publication, ran an article saying that there would no longer be introductory survey courses focused on Western art. In its place, the department would offer courses with a more global approach. Now, the department has addressed the decision at length.
In a letter sent to the College Art Association, an organization dedicated to facilitating the study of art history, the Yale art history department explained that, in significantly modifying its survey course, it was better fulfilling its mission of presenting a full view of the discipline. The letter, addressed to “fellow CAA members,” was submitted by the department’s chair, Tim Barringer, and was “approved by all members of the History of Art Department at Yale University.”
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“Art history is a global discipline,” the letter reads, later explaining that the department believes that “no one survey course taught in the space of a semester could ever be comprehensive, and that no one survey course can be taken as the definitive survey of our discipline.”
For years, Yale, like most undergraduate art history programs across the country, has offered two introductory courses—one covering everything from pre-historic cave paintings up to the Renaissance (including ancient Middle Eastern and Egyptian art, as well as pre-Renaissance European art), and another covering that movement across Europe and everything after it. Both formed the “Introduction to Art History” survey. New thematically oriented courses—titled “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road,” and “Sacred Places”—will now replace those classes, and according to Yale Daily News, within the next three years, there will be a “substitute class” for the introduction survey altogether.
The potential for a radical revision of art history in an academic setting so vaunted as Yale led to an outcry. Christopher Knight, an art critic for the Los Angeles Times, tweeted, “Seriously, Yale? Seriously? As mistakes go, this one is colossal. Oof.” The New York Post labeled Yale’s attempt to create a potentially less Eurocentric version of art history “PC idiocy.” James Panero, a critic for the conservative outlet the New Criterion, targeted Barringer directly, comparing his leadership to that of Josef Stalin.
“I work with a group of brilliant art historians who are constantly rethinking what we teach and how to teach it—our vision is expansive rather than reductive, in terms both of coverage and of art-historical methodology,” Barringer said in a statement prefacing the letter and posted to the CAA website. “It’s an interesting reflection on the current media ecology that the modest, incremental and generous changes being introduced to Yale’s curriculum could lead to an astonishing outburst of reactionary moral outrage online.”
The Yale department statement likewise blamed the controversy on divisive times—and claimed that it was somewhat of a misunderstanding. “As life becomes increasingly dominated by the visual, through screens and lenses, Art History’s focus on critical visual analysis has never been more relevant,” the department wrote. “Recent excitement on social media about Yale’s curriculum demonstrates just how significant and lively—even controversial—the study of Art History can, and should, be.”