Are you indignant about the history of art being taught at Yale? Worry about the one that is not taught in Italy

The sovereignist and neocon press raged against Yale University's decision to revise introductory art history courses: but perhaps it would be better to worry about the art history that is NOT taught in Italian schools.

It is pleasing to note that a good number of Italian newspapers have rediscovered their passion forteaching art history and spent the weekend just past delighting our intellects with refined analyses of the decisions ofYale University, which, keeping faith with the culturalist paradigm that has for some time distinguished the U.S. academy’s approach to teaching art history, has thought of broadening its educational offerings, introducing new cross-curricular survey courses alongside the two traditional ones (one that, I quote from the university’s official press release, “addresses the ancient Middle East, Egypt and pre-Renaissance European art,” while the other “covers European and American art from the Renaissance to the present”). The issue, in fact, is one of disarming simplicity: the Yale Department of Art History, believing that art history is a “comprehensive discipline” and wanting to ensure that the wide and multifaceted diversity of scholars’ and students’ interests is adequately reflected in the courses, thought it appropriate to broaden the scope of introductory courses, even in accordance with the convience that “no introductory course taught in the space of a semester can be so comprehensive, and that no introductory course can be regarded as the definitive course in our discipline.” Moreover, while it is true that the two traditional courses will be replaced (it is not yet known how and with what titling), the department chair, Tim Barringer, has nonetheless assured that at Yale students will continue to be trained in the monuments and masterpieces of American and European art (and one would be surprised otherwise).

So far, in essence, nothing exceptional: it is, if anything, another addition to the debate on art history declined according to identity politics, and the political correctness of recent times has very little to do with it, since attempts to construct a different art history than the mainstream date back at least to the 1980s. If we really wanted to set a crucial date, we should mark 1993 on the calendar, the year in which what is perhaps the most famous edition in the history of the Whitney Biennial was held: two works such as I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white by Daniel J. Martinez and Synecdoche by Byron Kim can be remembered as the summa of the attempts to decentralize perspectives on representation, diversity, identity, and the very idea of culture that that exhibition advanced in order to question decades (if not centuries) of canons that had been taken for granted. This discourse, since then, has gone on, has characterized the art of the 1910s (cultural decolonization and identity politics, Charles Esche wrote in issue 3 of Windows on Art on paper, represent “generative processes that have gained authority in the last decade” and “could form the basis for a full unmasking and radical reform of the modern holy trinity , composed of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy,” although this is primarily “a goal for the 2020s”) and will continue into the future, even as more and more occasions where it will be explored (think only of the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale).

Byron Kim, Synecdoche (1991Â?; olio e cera su 275 pannelli di 25,4 x 30,32 cm ciascuno)
Byron Kim, Synecdoche (1991; oil and wax on 275 panels of 25.4 x 30.32 cm each)

Yale University, in short, has added a voice to the debate, as many cultural institutions around the world have done, are doing, and will do (one can then argue at length about how the study of art history will change in the wake of identity politics, but that does not mean American students will stop studying Phidias, Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, the Impressionists, and so on). What is it then that made the italic social swarming jump on the couch, those who until the day before yesterday couldn’t think about art history because they were too busy posting ungrammatical posts about migrants in hotels on their Facebook walls, those who last visited the museum unwillingly on their eighth-grade field trip, those who until now had associated the word “Yale” exclusively with van locks? Quite simply, the fault lies with the cherry picking of the sovereignist and neocon press at home (and with some worrying exceptions even among moderates), which clumsily picked up on an article in a university newspaper, the Yale Daily News, evidently not going beyond the point where the authors attribute to the university’s students some discomfort with an “overly white, heterosexual, European and masculine” Western canon (words that, for some bizarre reason, were later put into the mouth of Tim Barringer, chair of the Department of Art History) and stopping just long enough to construct a narrative capable of misrepresenting the university’s intentions, automatically branded as a slave to “the censorship of political correctness,” and guilty of forcing students to do “without Raphael, Leonardo, the Baroque and Picasso” (thus Corriere della Sera, which pulls out of its hat a list of artists’ names never mentioned in the department’s official communiqué, nor in the Yale Daily News article to which everyone is also referring in these hours).

Yet, to get an idea of what is happening at Yale, one need only stop at the Department’s communiqué, where the matter was explained in very clear and aseptic terms, and without hysteria. Or, if it was really necessary to cite a second-hand source without drawing on the institutional memo, one only had to go ahead and read the statements of Yale’s Director of Undegraduate Studies, Marisa Bass, who explained well how the department’s idea is to “rethink and rewrite the narratives concerning the history of art, architecture, images and objects across times and places,” according to the idea that "there has not been just one history of art history. It is, if anything, a view devoted to plurality, the exact opposite of the “censorship” attributed to Yale by certain press (such as, which headlines “Renaissance censored”).

However, since many of those who were immediately ready to criticize Yale’s intentions have shown that they have rediscovered a perhaps dormant passion for art history and its teaching, it will be appropriate to remind them (also in deference to their leitmotif that we must think first of the Italians and then of others) that, if we talk about teaching art history, in Italy we would have different, more numerous and more serious reasons for which to light up and write fiery editorials in the newspapers: the current curricula of secondary schools, provide, just to give a few examples, 0 (zero) hours per week of art history for the two-year classical, linguistic and humanities high school, and 66, or 2 per week, for the three-year high school, and the subject is practically absent from technical and professional institutes, if we make an exception for sectoral ones: for example, 2 hours per week in the three-year professional “services for culture and entertainment,” and the same amount of hours for the technical institute of tourism. Perhaps someone will agree with the writer in observing that, in Italy, art history in school is taught very little, and in some institutions it is not even taught, with the result that thousands of adolescents do not mature the slightest idea about the works they have around them. And since art history, Longhi wrote, is like a living language that “every Italian should learn as a child,” perhaps one can agree that little is being done in Italy to foster this literacy. And so, instead of worrying about the alleged cancellations of an overseas university, should we not rather reason about the real ones in Italian schools, which really prevent many Italian students from learning about the heritage that surrounds them?

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