Yale’s Envy of Excellence

Yale recently announced the cancellation of HSAR 115, “Introduction to the History of Art: Renaissance to the Present.” This decision cuts off university students from an in-depth study of one of the greatest periods of artistic achievement in human history. The reason given by the Art History department chair was “…student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.”

3 key points to address:

  1. The claim that students were uneasy
  2. The claim that the Western canon is idealized
  3. The claim that the canon is the product of overwhelmingly white, straight, male artists

In my experience, “student uneasiness” with course material typically leads to a 10 minute chat during office hours, not the cancellation of a course. Attributing the decision to student feelings is peculiar given not a single student complaint has been quoted in any of the reports (not here, here, or here). Without any statements from students, it’s difficult to know if the decision was truly student-led. Surely a decision of this magnitude would’ve been the result of much more than a few petulant students. On to the second claim.

In no milquetoast fashion, it must be stated that the Western canon of art has been, and should continue to be, idealized. It has been rightly recognized in the history of art for what it was —exceptional. Just as the 4th-6th c. in ancient Greece was a golden age of matchless cultural advancement, likewise, the European Renaissance was a monumental time of growth in various disciplines, including the arts. The world’s museums testify to this in countless galleries featuring the work of this era. Perhaps the students’ uneasiness may be more accurately described as a dislike of the period’s superiority over and above other cultures of the same time. Yale’s decision to cancel their core class in Art History is another clue that American society is slithering toward sameness, against which the study of Renaissance art stands forcefully opposed. Apart from the envy of excellence, perhaps there is something else about Renaissance art that leads to vexation. What could it be?

From Encyclopedia Britannica:

It was in art that the spirit of the Renaissance achieved its sharpest formulation. Art came to be seen as a branch of knowledge, valuable in its own right and capable of providing man with images of God and his creations as well as with insights into man’s position in the universe. In the hands of men such as Leonardo da Vinci it was even a science, a means for exploring nature and a record of discoveries. Art was to be based on the observation of the visible world and practiced according to mathematical principles of balance, harmony, and perspective, which were developed at this time. In the works of painters such as Masaccio, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzettii, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Titian; sculptors such as Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Michelangelo; and architects such as Leon Battista Alberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Andrea Palladio, Michelozzo, and Filarete, the dignity of man found expression in the arts.

Could it be that the underlying uneasiness over the Western canon concerns the influence of the Christian religion? Renaissance art threatens the claim of atheistic materialism which says we’re only matter in motion, descended from tree-swinging apes. It points toward the dignity of man, which is only smoke and mirrors on an atheistic worldview, not to mention the objectivity of beauty, which atheism cannot account for. Renaissance art speaks the naked Truth—that humans are made in the image of God, not apes, and that we are endowed by our Creator with the ability to think logically, solve math problems, make moral judgments, and create art. It is quite possible that this is the aspect of Renaissance art Yale finds fretful. Though religion is not mentioned in Yale’s announcement, it’s difficult to avoid the assumption given the enormous influence of Christianity in western Europe at that time. Renaissance art diminishes atheism, revealing its woeful inability to address the longings of the human soul and provide answers for mankind’s great existential questions.

Point three is as predictable as a flaking fresco. Is the Renaissance to be summarily dismissed because artists were male and pale? Questions typically asked in the study of art history include, “What led the artist to create the work? Who were the patrons of the work? Who did the artist study under? Who was the intended audience? What historical forces shaped the artist’s work? There is much more to the study of art history than the narrow Marxist aesthetics being foisted upon it by Yale’s art department. To demand that art from the past meet the expectations of modern social trends is bizarre and smacks of Orwellian revision, seeking to erase the past, so as to control the future.

For those who truly love art history, this decision is tragic.  The shelves from 700-799 of virtually every library in the country are full of myriad tomes dedicated to glory of Renaissance art. Will Yale remove such books as they endeavor to rewrite history? The director of undergraduate studies, Marisa Bass, confesses:

“…we believe that introductory surveys are an essential opportunity to continue to challenge, rethink and rewrite the narratives surrounding the history of engagement with art, architecture, images and objects across time and place…”

There you have it.

Despite the efforts of disgruntled students and progressive professors, however, the European Renaissance will always stand out as a time of artistic excellence and grandeur; the works produced during that time represent not only the height of European achievement in the 15th and 16th centuries, but brilliantly display truths of the Christian faith and the dignity of man.

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