Education

Yale Plans to Ditch an Art-History Class Because It’s Too Straight, White, and Male

Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia Museum in Florence, Italy. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
An attempt at diversity by subtraction

Yale University is set to cancel a popular introductory art history class after this spring’s session, citing department concerns that its focus was too Western, straight, white, and male.

According to an article in the Yale Daily News, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once “touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes.” Now, the college is canceling it over what it calls “student uneasiness over an idealized Western ‘canon’ — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight European and male cadre of artists.”

(Note: The claim that there had been “student uneasiness” about the class is not further detailed anywhere else in the article, nor could I find any other material regarding it. The article does, however, report that demand for the course “skyrocketed” in its final semester — with 400 students vying for one of its only 300 seats. Although I can’t be sure, this leads me to suspect that, if there had been any complaints, it seems more likely that “uneasiness” represented the views of a small group of students rather than a campus-wide, or even majority, attitude.)

Tim Berringer, the chair of the art-history department and the course’s instructor, explained the decision to discontinue the course this way:

“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,” he wrote in an email to the Daily News. “But I don’t mistake a history of European painting for the history of all art in all places.”

Unlike previous versions of the course, the Daily News explains, its final installation “will seek to question the idea of Western art itself.” According to the syllabus, it will also examine art as related to “questions of gender class and ‘race’” as well as Western capitalism. Its relationship to climate change will also be a “key theme.”

Instead of one single survey class, the art-history department reportedly plans to offer various others, including “Art and Politics,” “The Silk Road,” and “Global Craft,” and plans to offer a replacement “Introduction to Art History” class within a few years. The new class, however, as Barringer puts it, “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.”

Not everyone is happy about this change.

“My biggest critique of the decision is that it’s a disservice to undergrads,” a student, Mahlon Sorensen, told the Daily News. “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,” Sorensen added.

In other words? It is quite likely that, because of the removal of this course, fewer Yale students will be graduating with knowledge about historically significant works of art. To me, an educational institution (let alone one that’s supposed to be among the best in the nation) making a decision that will directly limit its students’ educational opportunities seems counterintuitive at best.

It’s not, of course, that I think Western art — or straight, white, male art from any region — is somehow more important than other kinds. I simply happen to agree, rather, with Reason’s Robby Soave, who stated in his piece on this issue that, although it is “good to include more perspectives,” “diversity by addition is vastly preferable to diversity by subtraction.”

In fact, not only do I agree with this view personally, I also don’t understand how anyone could fail to find this approach preferable to the one that Yale has taken. It isn’t, after all, like Yale’s art department just hated the existing course but didn’t know exactly why. That could be a case for just scrapping the whole thing.

In this instance, though, they were able to diagnose a single, specific issue: The course was, in their eyes, too eurocentric, straight, white, and male. Since the problem was specific, since they were able to put their finger on it, they had the opportunity to fix it with a specific solution: To make the course less eurocentric, straight, white, and male. Why not just do that? You’d never hear a mechanic, after all, say that he had figured out exactly what was wrong with your car — and then, rather than advise you to replace the problematic parts, tell you to just trash the whole thing. That would be idiotic, and yet that’s exactly what Yale is doing here.

What’s more, I also reject the idea that Western art (or anything else, for that matter) is automatically less worth studying simply because it is so straight, white, and male. Unfortunately, this does seem to be the exact view of some, particularly in higher education. For example, as Soave notes, Reed College recently scrapped its introductory humanities course after a group of students demanded that all of its European works be replaced with non-European ones.

The truth is, the view that a creator’s whiteness and/or maleness inherently makes them less worth studying (or, in the view of those students at Reed, not worth studying at all) is nothing more than a close-minded, limiting outlook parading as the opposite. After all, it makes just as little sense to condemn a work as worthless because of the author or artist’s race, gender, or sexuality as it does to prioritize one for those same reasons.

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