Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Yale Teaches World Art

Spanish, late 17th century. Iron-mounted bone; inlaid, painted, and partly gilded walnut. Yale University Art Gallery, Enoch Vine Stoddard Collection, bequest of Enoch Vine Stoddard, B.A., 1905. (Yale University Art Gallery)
A good survey course should look at beauty in the West and beyond

As distinguished as the History of Art Department at Yale might be, its two introductory survey classes weren’t newsworthy until now. These two courses — the first, from the prehistoric to Renaissance eras, and the second, from the Renaissance to today — have traditionally focused only on European and American art and architecture. Starting next year, Yale will, controversially, offer four thematic survey courses covering art across the globe.

Instead of two surveys of Western art, what Yale is offering are four thematic surveys: Sacred Places, Global Craft, the Silk Road, and Art and Politics. Their anchor is the art of Western Europe and the classical world. No adult in authority said Yale’s changing things because the old surveys were “too white, straight, European and male.” That gem came from the analysis of the Yale Daily News. Now, I’ve been reading school newspapers for 30 years. Cub reporting should be taken not with a grain of salt but with a boatload.

First of all, what’s an art-history survey? It’s both delicate and monolithic. Taken broadly, it’s an overview of visual culture — everything we see that’s designed. A professor with will, enthusiasm, and a point of view can pick and choose among objects to create a refreshing, idiosyncratic take on art. Sometimes, he or she will teach the survey for years and it becomes a school icon. This scenario is rare.

While most professors have a point of view, few want to teach a survey. I loved doing it. To take impressionable young minds and impress them with my many art eccentricities and biases — that’s irresistible. Alas, most professors think it’s a throwaway class and a gloomy assignment no one wants. They’re not teaching their specialties. The students are mostly freshmen, seniors who aren’t listening, and kids who want a soupçon of art to sound smarter at cocktail parties. If forced, teachers will pull together a listless grab bag. This happens more often than not.

I looked at the syllabi for Yale’s pilot classes leading to its new program. It seems no one else among the commentariat has. They’re very good. They’ll have oomph, and I write as an old-fashioned curator and an American-art specialist. I’m a boundary-buster, though, and these classes are outside the box. I wouldn’t recommend to everyone what Yale is doing. It works for Yale. Yale has the immense hoard of art for teaching and the senior professors specializing in the four core topics.

Japanese, late 16th century. Hinoki cypress with black lacquer, sprinkled gold lacquer, inlaid mother-of-pearl, and bronze fittings. Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from the Japan Foundation Endowment of the Council on East Asian Studies and with the Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Yale’s two old surveys teach a linear history using great objects. In confining inquiry to Western Europe and the United States, these courses hid aesthetic treasures from China, India, Mesoamerica, Africa, ancient Persia, and the Pacific Islands. It doesn’t make sense to exclude them, since Western art is so influenced by art from all over the world. Moreover, young people today are saturated in images. Their visual vocabulary is immense, international, and muddled. A worldlier inquiry helps them make sense of what they see. By tailoring the themes, each course can explore and compare many aesthetics.

The courses also make maximum use of Yale’s 20 on-campus museums, whose collections are deep and broad. Surveys normally feature two lectures a week to the entire class. Every week, the class is divided into small sections. These sections go to Yale’s art gallery — or whatever museum is a good fit — for up-close looking. The best surveys teach art history, but they also teach visual acuity. Students learn how to look. Yale has just expanded its art gallery to show its superb African, Asian, and Mesoamerican collections. Why not integrate them into the introductory surveys?

This doesn’t denigrate American and European art. The courses keep coming back to them. They’re Western-art classes that acknowledge what everyone knows: The best American and European artists and patrons have always been inquisitive about world aesthetics and willing to adapt them. Students are hungry to know about Western art — their cultural heritage — but know it’s never been pickled in aspic.

Let’s look at these new survey classes. I went to Yale and enjoyed my time there. Still, I look at today’s Yale more often than not with despair. It’s PC on speed. These new courses, though, are pedagogically sound.

Sacred Places is the art of spirituality. “Is there someone out there who made the universe?” and “What happens when we die?” are questions that span cultures. They’re humanity’s common denominators. Aside from physical needs such as hunger and shelter, they’ve occupied our heads for 100,000 years. Over centuries, art made the divine — what’s potent and invisible — seem real. The aesthetics of worship and the afterlife, studied across borders and cultures, sounds like a rich, rewarding hook to engage young people.

In limiting spiritual aesthetics to the Christian brand, you miss too much: Inca gold, Hindu sculpture acrobatics, creepy African masks, King Tut’s stash, and temple urbanism such as Angkor. Aesthetically, pretty much everywhere, worshiping God or gods meant laying it on thick. For every culture and faith, religious art is the zenith of beauty, sublimity, sophistication, and awe. European cathedrals are unique. They’ll dominate the course, as they should.

The Global Craft class is awesomely good and smart. The best thing Yale is doing is giving craft — what used to be called decorative arts or material culture — a place of pride. Art history has always had hierarchies, with painting on top and craft at the bottom. This is so wrong, and Yale’s correcting the imbalance. An easel painting might be worth more than a pot or a carpet, but painting is a late phenomenon. Ceramics and textiles start their history at the same time humans start theirs. That’s where art history needs to begin. Over time, if we want to understand the human urge for excellence, we need to look not only at American Colonial furniture but at Japanese glazes, Iranian tiles, Ghanaian weaving, and Bengalese metalwork. I’d take this class in a minute.

Craft travels. It’s portable. Dissemination of new styles, and the merger of styles, was fast, thanks to Spanish galleons, immigration, empire-building, and technology. I’m curious to see what Yale will do with the Silk Road. It was the Internet of its time, slow-speed and mind the blowing sand. It fostered an international aesthetic marketplace. Venice was a Western and Eastern city. Business, and I mean capitalism, transformed art everywhere in Europe through international trade. This is one of the oldest facts of life in artmaking.

Yale will offer a survey in Art and Politics. It’s easy to say “Art shouldn’t be political,” but that’s naïve. Politics suffuses lots of great art. You can’t, for instance, teach Jacques-Louis David without discussing the part he played in the imagery and narrative of the French Revolution. Michelangelo worked for the Medicis and the popes. He was their visual guru. Hudson River landscapes are beautiful but deeply ideological. Goya was political but played multiple sides.

Sounds good but the class still smells fishy. “Politics” is a loaded term. To me, it’s “who gets what, where, and how.” To others, it’s a substitution for religion. It gives life meaning. It devolves into anger, aggrievement, and victimhood. Art that’s only political — and that’s identity art, which I’m afraid this course will privilege — turns one-dimensional, tiresome, and bad, fast. So does most protest art.

I’d suggest a course in Art and Power — “the Ins got it, the Outs want it” art. Persepolis, Nineveh, the Ara Pacis, the Palace of Montezuma, Versailles, the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, the Alhambra, Velázquez, the art of the Napoleonic era, Guernica, the art of the Stalin, Hitler, and Mao epochs, feminist art, the art of the civil-rights movement, postcolonial art, gay-liberation art. Now, that’s a meaty class, my apologies to vegans.

Yalies look with reverence at the old survey Vincent Scully taught. I think it was wonderful and moving. It started with prehistoric art and ended with Michelangelo. It focused mostly on Europe. Scully taught it for nearly 60 years and had a strong point of view. He saw art and architecture as battlegrounds on which humanity contested its relationship with the divine. Land and oceans, made by “someone up there,” were among the prizes.

Why not keep teaching it that way? We can’t. The course was Scully’s viewpoint, and he’s dead. His class had content based on his specialty, which was architecture, and it was mesmerizing performance art. It was uniquely his. Yale wants a compelling new program that will, like Scully’s class, become an icon.

The second half of Yale’s survey, from the Renaissance to the present, was almost always a snooze. Nobody wanted to teach it, so it was usually foisted on junior faculty. It was often team-taught, which makes for a mishmash. The best iteration of it happened in my day. The great — and senior — scholar Creighton Gilbert sometimes taught it. He taught it backward, starting with Jeff Koons and finishing with Caravaggio. It was mind-blowing and very fun, but most students were more confused than beguiled.

So, Yale has developed a new idea. Its four new surveys can cover more objects. They embrace what we all know: Classifications of art can be porous and artificial. There’s another reality. A good teacher meets students where they are. When Scully started teaching his class, his students were all men. We’d just won World War II. The Cold War was under way. American culture was macho and hegemonic. The Yale student body today is international. Their choices are expansive, not confined. Students are less focused on individuals, linear history, or national schools. They think about issues and themes. They want to apply art history to what they see today, and what they see is a great big world.

The chair of the art-history department said climate change would be a topic. Good luck with that. Climate’s certainly ubiquitous, and on our 4 billion–year–old planet it’s always changing. I’m not sure how this has any role in the history of aesthetics, but I’ll give it a stab.

I’d suggest that professors present climate change in the rich context of apocalyptic art. “End of world” doom art dates to the Middle Ages but had its heyday in Romantic-era disaster art. Cole’s Destruction, Turner’s The Deluge, and countless scenes of volcanic eruptions accompanied apocalyptic religious movements. They suggest a vocabulary similar to that of today’s climatistas, preaching with aroused urgency that the wicked will get their comeuppance and take the rest of us with them, soon, by fire, flood, hail, heat, cyclone, or tsunami. The end’s always around the corner but never seems to arrive.

I doubt anyone at Yale will take my advice.

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