What is art history for?

The simplest answer is the one that applies broadly to all study of the humanities: it helps us better understand what it means to be human and how, as humans, we have attempted to describe and preserve our experiences.

Over 15 years ago, Roger Kimball argued that the reason to teach and study art history was “partly to familiarize ourselves with humanity’s adventure in time” and to understand “aspects of a huge common inheritance.” He also offered an early warning about damaging trends in the teaching of art history, especially at elite universities.

“Today,” Kimball noted at the time, “the study of art history is more and more about subordinating art—to ‘theory,’ to politics, to just about anything that allows one to dispense with the burden of experiencing art natively, on its own terms. This is accomplished primarily by enlisting art as an illustration of some extraneous, non-artistic, non-aesthetic narrative. Increasingly, art history is pressed into battle—a battle against racism, say, or the plight of women or on behalf of social justice. Whatever. The result is that art becomes an adjunct to an agenda: an alibi for . . . you can fill in the blank by consulting this week’s list of trendy causes.”

Unfortunately, the trend Kimball identified has only accelerated. The most recent example of the politicization of the humanities comes from Yale University, which announced that it is eliminating its introductory survey course in Art History. According to the Yale Daily News, “This change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western ‘canon’ — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.” Note that undergraduate sensibilities have become so attuned to the demands of social justice that even the word canon must now be surrounded by scare quotes. It isn’t just students who are uneasy; the chair of the department said that it was “problematic” to put European art on a pedestal.

The cancellation of the class raises many questions. The Daily News described the class as “storied,” and “one of Yale College’s quintessential classes.” Is student “uneasiness” really enough of a justification to cancel such a class? Are students equally “uneasy” about learning the laws of physics, given that so many of those laws were outlined by dead white men? If so, should those classes also not be taught?

As a practical matter, eliminating a popular survey course also harms Yale’s students.

Survey courses help students find their bearings. Without them, students lack the critical ability to learn about a subject in its historical context. If you don’t know that hundreds of years separate the Rococo period from Abstract Expressionism, you’ll never be able to fully appreciate or understand either style. For a student who isn’t majoring in Art History and doesn’t have time to take numerous specialized classes but still wants to learn about the subject, survey courses are invaluable.

If the objection to the class isn’t its usefulness to students but its focus, why not simply specify that the survey focuses on Western art (a rich and worthy subject on its own) to assuage the diversity complainers—who, it should be noted, have plenty of other diversity-minded classes they can take in Yale’s Art Department.

In fact, it’s not lack of need or lack of interest that led to the elimination of the class; it is part of a broader ideological mission long pursued in the humanities to purge the curriculum of more traditional courses and replace them with ones that view the study of the past as a power struggle with clear villains and victims.

Ironically, this effort to pander to modern ideological sensibilities hasn’t made the humanities more popular. As Mark Bauerlein writes in First Things: “As the humanities have become more diverse and less Western, enrollment has plummeted. Since 2011, the number of majors in history has fallen more than 30 percent, with the number of English, philosophy, and foreign languages majors falling more than 20 percent.”

Courses on Western Civilization have experienced a similar denouement, as Stanley Kurtz outlines in a new report from the National Association of Scholars. Even when students demand a return to more traditional courses, they are met with resistance. When conservative Stanford University students attempted to reinstate Western Civ through a campus-wide ballot initiative, they lost. During the campaign, Western Civ was described as perpetuating “European-Western and male bias” and “sexist and racist stereotypes.”

Such controversies extend beyond the university. Even when writers or artists attempt to appeal to a socially conscious audience, the risk of being seen as culturally appropriative is high. As Jeanine Cummins, the author of American Dirt, a much-hyped novel about Mexican immigrants that Oprah chose for her Book Club, found, even the imprimatur of the Queen of Daytime TV isn’t enough to protect someone from call-out culture. Cummins has been accused of exploiting the suffering of immigrants by fictionalizing and profiting from their story because she is not herself a Mexican immigrant. “The white saviorism is tough for me to swallow, and not just because I’m a Chicano writer,” David Bowles wrote in the New York Times.

The controversy has become so heated that Amazon is now limiting online reviews of American Dirt to verified purchasers. Even actress Salma Hayek, who is Mexican-American, was forced to apologize for expressing enthusiasm about the book. Hayek deleted an Instagram post featuring a picture of herself posing with the book and praising Winfrey for “giving a voice to the voiceless & for loving harder in response to hate.”

Some critics claim the outrage isn’t over the fact that the author isn’t Mexican, but that the book is just not well written (one critic said the prose was reminiscent not of Steinbeck, as the cover blurb enthuses, but of Vanilla Ice). But if the outrage is really about the quality of the book, why aren’t people protesting Oprah for her poor judgment and not the author for the sin of cultural appropriation?

Culture has always had its policemen and judges–the critics and elites who defined what was acceptable and what was not. It’s also always had artists who pushed the boundaries of their genre (and sometimes of taste) in their work. Recall the uproar in the 1980s over public funding for the controversial works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe?

There will also always be someone who will be offended by something, of course. The difference today is the enthusiasm with which institutions themselves (which once defended the display and teaching of controversial works) are dismantling their own cultural capital in response to such perceived offenses.

The final iteration of Yale’s Art History survey course is being taught this spring, but it’s a far cry from the surveys of old. The instructor told the Yale Daily News that “the emphasis would be placed on the relationship between European art and other world traditions. The class will also consider art in relation to ‘questions of gender, class and ‘race’’ and discuss its involvement with Western capitalism.” Climate change is also a “key theme.” This is all quite appropriate given the ideological confusion in which the department, and far too much of the humanities in general, is now drowning.

Today, it’s not the Moral Majority clamoring for censorship; its self-described progressives on Twitter and university administrators. As Yale’s Art History debacle shows, the call is coming from inside the house.

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