CAA News Today

Dear Fellow CAA Members,

Last week CAA forwarded to its members an article from a student newspaper, the Yale Daily News, on the subject of introductory courses in the History of Art at Yale, without opportunity for comment from the Department. In the statement below my colleagues and I explain what is actually happening, as we move to offer Yale undergraduates a range of introductory courses that do justice to the diversity of our faculty’s research, of Yale’s collections and of the student body itself.

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. 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. Hyperbolic comparisons are rife: the ‘New York Post’ sees us as Visigoths poised to destroy Rome. We read of ‘Stalin at Yale.’ But Stalin murdered nine million people, while our Department is offering four, rather than two, 100-level courses. The parallel is imprecise, to say the least.

As all of us, across the profession, are exploring how to move forward, inspiring students to study the history of art and architecture. This is a matter of urgency in a world where critical visual skills have never been more important. We assert for our discipline a central role in a liberal arts education. Accordingly, plans are already afoot for a discussion around introductory art history teaching at the New York meeting of the Association in 2021. Visigoths will be welcome. I hope to see you there!

  • Tim Barringer, Chair, Department of the History of Art, Yale University

The following statement has been approved by all members of the History of Art Department at Yale University:

For more than half a century, Yale’s History of Art Department has been dedicated to “the study of all forms of art, architecture, and visual culture in their social and historical contexts.”  A particular strength of the Department’s teaching is close engagement with the great works from major world traditions held in the Yale University Art Gallery, where spectacular examples of European and American paintings and sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs sit alongside world class collections of Asian, African and the Indo-Pacific art. The Beinecke Library, Yale Center for British Art and Peabody Museum hold manuscripts, paintings, drawings and artefacts central to our field of study and teaching mission.

Art history is a global discipline. Yale faculty have made field-changing contributions to the study the arts of the Americas (notably Pre-Columbian art and the full range of North American art from colonial to contemporary), African art and arts of the African Diaspora, Asian and Islamic Arts, and European art from ancient times to today.  The diversity of the Department’s faculty and our intellectual interests finds an analogue in the diversity of today’s student body.

Discussions in the Department have focused on how to ensure that this diversity of research and resources can inform and energize our teaching. Offerings at the undergraduate level include upper-level lecture courses that address a full range of subjects (such as ‘Greek Art and Architecture’, ‘African Arts and Expressive Cultures’, ‘American Photojournalism’ and ‘Introduction to Contemporary Art’). Small intensive seminars are more focused still (such as ‘Surrealism,’ ‘Japanese Screens’, and ‘The Global Museum’). We aim for the widest possible selection of courses, balanced across time and region, while we maintain and cherish intensive coverage of western art, from classical Greece to medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, nineteenth-century, modern and contemporary.

But what about survey courses, which aim to introduce a large body of students from across Yale to the History of Art? We have traditionally offered two survey courses. The first discusses the ancient Middle East, Egypt, and pre-Renaissance European art (HSAR 112). The second covers European and American art from the Renaissance to the present (HSAR 115). New introductory courses have been added to these two offerings, such as ‘Global Decorative Arts,’ ‘Arts of the Silk Road,’ ‘Global Sacred Art’ and ‘The Politics of Representation.’ Faculty members have designed these introductory courses to engage the wealth of objects in Yale’s collections but also to move across traditions and periods.

Beginning this past Fall 2019, the Department committed to offering four different introductory courses each year. All of these courses, current or future, are designed to introduce the undergraduate with no prior experience of the History of Art to art historical looking and thinking. They also range broadly in terms of geography and chronology. Essential to this decision is the Department’s belief 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.

As we continue to renew our curriculum while preserving our commitment to introductory teaching of the broadest scope, new courses will replace HSAR112 and 115. Some will engage with the monuments and masterpieces of European and American art, some will introduce other world traditions, and some will be organized thematically offering comparative perspectives. As always, our introductory classes will bring Yale students face to face with works of art and material objects of great beauty and cultural value from across time and place.

We remain as committed as ever to “the study of all forms of art, architecture, and visual culture” and to sharing insights into works of art, from the Parthenon sculptures to Benin bronzes, from Renaissance Florence to Aztec sculpture, from the Taj Mahal to performance and digital art. 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. 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. We are delighted to welcome large numbers of students to Art History classes at Yale now and in the future.

Filed under: Art History, Higher Education