Yale Is Eliminating Its Art History Survey Course Over Complaints That It Prioritizes a White, Western Canon Over Other Narratives

The news has caused an uproar among conservatives online.

Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, 2010.

For decades, Yale University’s art history survey course, covering the evolution of art from 1300 to today, has been one of the department’s most popular offerings. But the school is now eliminating the course as part of a broader overhaul to reconsider how it might tell a fuller story of art in the wake of complaints that the class promotes an overly white, westernized canon at the expense of other narratives.

“Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” is being taught for the last time this spring, albeit with a twist. The course’s instructor, art history department chair Tim Barringer, will use the final installment to demonstrate the importance of taking a more holistic approach to the subject, according to the Yale Daily News.

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

As part of this semester’s syllabus, which will look at art’s evolution in relation to “questions of gender, class, and ‘race,’” Barringer will ask students to submit essays making the case for the inclusion of a work that’s not currently part of the canon. The course retains its official title on transcripts, but in the classroom the professor refers to it as an “Introduction to Western Art.”

Barringer declined to comment further on the art department’s decision, but a statement posted to the department’s website offers a bit more insight into the overhaul. Two of the department’s introductory survey courses—one dedicated to the ancient Middle East, Egypt, and pre-Renaissance European art, and one dedicated to European and American art from the Renaissance to the present—will both be replaced with 100-level surveys of themes or movements, such as “Global Decorative Arts,” “Arts of the Silk Road,” or “the Politics of Representation.”

New introductory courses will be added in the next few years, but they will not be billed as a comprehensive survey. The diversification of the department’s curriculum follows a similar move by the university’s English department, which changed the requirements for its major in 2017 after a petition calling for the decolonization of course offerings went public.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Interest in the course among undergraduates surged following news that this will be the last time it’s taught. During the school’s shopping period, when students sit in on potential courses before officially enrolling, more than 400 people attended the semester’s “Introduction to Art History” class. Due to space limitations, it is capped at 300.

“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,” the Art History department’s statement reads. “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.”

Indeed, the art department’s news elicited a maelstrom of opinions online, fomenting particular unrest among conservatives who perceive it as a disservice to students looking for a broad overview course, rather than more specialized offerings. (Further fringes of the right have long adopted Classical Greek and Roman artworks as symbols of white nationalism, from Mussolini and the Nazi Party to crypto-fascist organizations such as Identity Evropa today.) 

Right-wing publications such as Breitbart, The Daily Wire, and The Washington Sentinel all picked up the story shortly after it went live. “It’s just another example of our system of higher miseducation trying to destroy American education in favor of pushing anti-American and racist ideologies,” says the Sentinel

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