Civilization Is History at Yale

Great art is too ‘white, straight, European and male,’ so it’ll have to give way to the latest agitprop.

By Roger Kimball Jan. 29, 2020 6:57 pm ET

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Illustration: Barbara Kelley

Yale announced last week that it will stop teaching its famous survey course, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present.” Taught for decades by Vincent Scully one of Yale’s most celebrated professors, the course was a riveting introduction to pulse of humanism.

It is being cashiered for all the usual reasons. Its focus is too white, too European, too male, too “problematic,” as Tim Barringer, chairman of the art history department, puts it. Mr. Barringer will substitute a course that challenges such Eurocentrism and promises to be very up-to-date. Mr. Barrginer says he’ll introduce a “global” perspective. Naturally, he writes, the course will consider art in relation to “questions of gender, class and ‘race.’ ” (Why the scare quotes around “race”? Is today one of those days when race is only a social construct?) It will also ponder art’s “involvement with Western capitalism.”

Globalism, gender, class, race, capitalism. Has Mr. Barringer neglected any trendy concern? How about the Greta Thunberg gambit? On it! Art’s “relationship with climate change will be a ‘key theme,’ ” the Yale Daily News reports.

The Daily News adds that the removal of “Introduction to Art History” 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.”

It is also yet another sign that Yale has succumbed to a life-draining decadence. A decadent institution isn’t necessarily impoverished or licentious. Rather, it is desiccated because it has lost the life-giving pith of its purpose. To a casual observer, a decadent institution may look healthy. The buildings may be expensive, well-kept and plentiful. Tidy, well-heeled people may bustle about. But the animating élan has evaporated. A decadent institution is one that has repudiated itself.

Readers of these pages will recall many warning signs of self-repudiation from Yale. A few years ago, bowing to student pressure, it rebaptized a residential college named for John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was a congressman, senator, secretary of war and vice president, one of his generation’s most brilliant orators, and an effective defender of limited government and free trade. But he was also an avid supporter of slavery, so any other consideration had to be erased. Statues and other representations of Calhoun were removed from public view, as were stained-glass windows depicting slaves laboring in fields from the dining hall of the college formerly known for John.

Shhh! Don’t tell anyone, but many of Yale’s residential colleges are named for men who supported slavery. One whose position was very close to Calhoun’s was Samuel F.B. Morse. You probably know Morse as inventor of the telegraph and namesake of its code. He was also a staunch believer that slavery was a positive good. Apparently, Yale’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming—I’m not making that up—hasn’t gotten around to Samuel Morse.

Nor has it gotten around to Elihu Yale. A philanthropist whose benefactions helped found the university, Yale was also an administrator in India, where he was deeply involved in the slave trade. He made sure that ships leaving his jurisdiction for Europe carried at least 10 slaves. I am still waiting for the Committee on Renaming to tackle Elihu Yale. My own suggestion is that they rename the university for a more important early benefactor, Jeremiah Dummer, who recruited Elihu Yale as a donor.

Yale’s habit of self-repudiation targets much more than impermissible attitudes toward slavery. In 2017, Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces first covered and then removed a stone decoration from an entrance to Sterling Memorial Library that depicted an American Indian and a Puritan. The Puritan was holding a musket—a gun! Susan Gibbons, of Yale’s librarian-censors, sniffed that its “presence at a major entrance to Sterling was not appropriate.” Why not? She didn’t think it necessary to say.

The Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming and the Committee on Art in Public Spaces: Yale University has been impressed by Robespierre’s Committee on Public Safety, which had a similarly censorious and even more kinetic approach to heterodox opinions.

Also last week, Yale tapped Angela Davis as its Martin Luther King Day speaker. Ms. Davis, a two-time Communist Party USA nominee for vice president, is best known for fleeing justice after being charged with the 1970 kidnapping and murder of Judge Harry Haley. (Although she had bought the gun used in the crime, she was later acquitted.) Ms. Davis wanted to destroy America: She became a Communist, she wrote, because “the only true path to liberation . . . leads toward a complete and total overthrow of the capitalist class in this country and all its manifold institutional appendages.” Obviously she is a fitting speaker for Yale.

The political philosopher James Burnham once observed that “suicide is probably more frequent than murder as the end phase of a civilization.” As Yale has been demonstrating for some years now, elite institutions are eager to take the lead.

Mr. Kimball is president and publisher of Encounter Books and editor and publisher of the New Criterion.