This past summer, I walked into the Art Institute of Chicago, presented my CUID for the student discount on admission, and strolled through the wide main entrance. It was my first time in the museum, but my steps were purposeful. Although not of a European background myself, I marched right past the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Himalayan, African, and Native American art, all of it, and into everything Western.
It was not until I had looked at all of my favorite European and American artists—Seurat, El Greco, Cézanne, Sargent, and Hopper—and exhausted all the Western art the museum has to offer that I finally crept into the exhibits I had missed: the decorative masks, the calligraphy, the sculptures of Vishnu and Shiva. In other words, the non-white, non-Western art.
Like many of us here, regardless of background, I am embarrassingly Eurocentric. In the late ’80s, my parents left Beijing and moved to Manhattan, where my mother was charmed by all the museums that the city had to offer. My earliest memories include walking through the Met holding her hand, and our home is cluttered with her framed prints of Miró, Matisse, and Klimt. What you’d never see in our house are the pieces you’d imagine decorating a stereotypically Asian-American home: scrolls, pottery, a beautiful folding screen. Any art at all by Asian artists, whose names are less well-known in the United States.
When senior year of high school rolled around and I applied to Columbia, I had a hearty list of European art to answer the question that asked about our favorite recent exhibitions. I was proud of how much I knew—of how well I’d be able to socialize at a cocktail party of elderly white museum donors (should the occasion ever arise), and of how aligned I felt with Columbia and the list of Western greats engraved on Butler.
But now, having been exposed to new voices at school who criticize the Western emphasis in our education, I feel differently. Now, I feel a combination of guilt and shame for unthinkingly walking past the art of my own people, even in museums that are new to me. For looking so disinterestedly upon those delicate prints and jade sculptures that I admittedly know nothing about when I do finally take a timid step inside a museum’s Oriental wing. And for ever having felt superior or well-educated simply because of my knowledge of Western art, as I disregarded how largely ignorant I remain to the art of the rest of the world.
In many ways, Columbia fosters this Eurocentric attitude. Art Humanities itself is called Masterpieces of Western Art, and though it may offer a broader learning experience for students who might never learn about art otherwise, its curriculum is limited to the artworks of the West. And when it comes to the art of language and thought, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization are just the same. The Core could offer so much more diversity—although it boasts of a well-rounded education in academic subjects, it fails to achieve that quality of inclusiveness culturally.
This is not a new argument. Columbia students have, time and again, protested the Eurocentrism of the Core, as well as the predominantly white male names engraved on Butler. But I would argue that this specific issue with art is just as strong outside of our bubble of education—that it is evident in the sizes of Western collections at famous museums around the country and around the world, broad and well-explored enough to divide into time periods and movements, while the non-Western works are labeled only by region. And I would argue despite the fame of, say, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, that one could easily list a number of European pieces that are better known and considered highbrow by the masses.
Instead of being reinforced by a class like Art Humanities, this exclusive and outdated cultural attitude toward art should be rectified within the classroom. And instead of waiting for our required classes to catch up, we should be seeking this expansion of cultural knowledge ourselves.
Although I appreciate my mother showing me the beauty of Western art, I think I’ll take my future children to see the rest of each museum, too: the rooms where fewer people linger, the pieces I used to rarely pause over, the displays of all the porcelain and the ink that my ancestors once mastered but so few of us who live in the West seem to learn about.
We know that the world is different now, that it is a postcolonial and a diverse one, that all histories deserve to be learned, that all arts deserve to be appreciated—and the Core should reflect this accordingly. But as we wait for that change, we have to take initiative ourselves, both in school and outside of it. For now, I’m committed to taking more classes about Asian culture, in addition to classes that focus on Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. And I urge all students at Columbia to do the same, to start the process themselves, to open their eyes to art and cultures that they have yet to see.
Monica Gu is a Columbia College sophomore studying political science and history. She still hasn’t taken a Gossip Girl picture on the steps of the Met. MoHi with Monica runs on alternate Mondays.
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