For the first time in over 70 years, the Art Humanities curriculum is the subject of serious review. The art history department hopes to create a more diverse and inclusive syllabus that will be adopted by next fall.
The Art Hum curriculum has remained largely the same since it was formalized in 1947 and became a central part of the Core Curriculum. The course focuses on artistic masterpieces from the Western world, with white male artists featured heavily in its syllabus.
However, after years of informal discussion and a push for change from within the department, the Art Hum faculty initiated a formal process to review the course’s curriculum and pedagogy last semester, creating an interdepartmental steering committee to guide the process and a curricular reform committee consisting of art history faculty, faculty from other parts of the Core, and graduate student preceptors.
The plan to reform the Art Hum curriculum comes after a year of discussions about the diversity of works and contributors in the Core’s syllabi. These discussions peaked last December when Julian von Abele, CC ’21, harassed a group of predominantly black students with a white supremacist tirade outside Butler Library. A video of the incident went viral, intensifying criticisms of the lack of diversity in Core classes, and in April, a panel of professors addressed student concerns about the lack of diversity in Core curriculum and faculty.
This fall will also mark the centennial of the Core, introducing events and discussions centered on its merits and history with diversity.
According to chair of the curricular reform committee Noam Elcott, the changes will mark an effort to make the curriculum more representative of the student body and the art world at large.
“The faculty and preceptors have thought about these changes for many years. [The current curriculum] is a white male curriculum from start to finish. It’s a curriculum that no longer reflects the student body, nor does it reflect the way the history of art is taught at Columbia and elsewhere and is exhibited in major museums,” Elcott said.
He added that the changes fundamentally questioned ideas of canons in art.
“There’s a general shift away from the masterpiece, which tended—and still tends to be—white and male, to a more dynamic and complex landscape of art.”
Elcott declined to share specific changes to the curriculum with Spectator beyond an increased focus on female artists and artists of color, noting that the discussion is still in an early stage and the new syllabus will not be introduced before fall 2020.
“We hope to have a public discussion within the community in the spring, in which a new curriculum would be discussed and debated and hopefully adopted, and rolled out in 2020,” Elcott said. “The curriculum will be reviewed [by a committee] every three years, so we don’t ever end up in the position where we’re working with a 75-year-old curriculum.”
Art Hum professor Zoë Strother, who specializes in African art and is a member of the curricular reform committee, said that the basic goal of Art Hum will remain the same, with a shift toward a more representative group of artists.
Though she noted that one of the challenges in updating the Art Hum curriculum is the limited amount of time allotted to artists, potentially requiring some to be substituted out of the syllabus when new ones are added, Strother emphasized that the central purpose of the class will remain the same following revisions.
“We’re committed to providing students with a basic visual literacy and making them comfortable with works and arts and a wide range of cultures and periods, but we just want to bring in women and bring in people of color,” she said. “Our goal is to put together a curriculum that’s true to the legacy of the course but also attuned to the ethical needs of the present. There are some tough changes: Everyone is going to wish that so-and-so had made it in and regret that so-and-so got dropped, but we hope that the overall mission will be an improvement.”
However, some potential changes have been the subject of some controversy within the department, particularly in regard to how substituting one artist with another may impact the nature of the course. Some note that Art Hum is designed to focus on the masterpieces from the Western world, during a period when female artists and artists of color were suppressed in the United States and Europe, meaning that changes in the artists also require a shift in the overall narrative of the course.
Elcott emphasized that the reform process is a collective effort involving faculty, graduate students, and, eventually, the whole Art Hum community, which will extensively discuss and ideally revise the majority of the units of the curriculum.
“There can be no perfect solution, but for the first time in 70-odd years, there is a deep and good faith effort to make this curriculum as diverse and inclusive as possible,” Elcott said.