Teaching the Racism of European Art Head-On

tags: racism, art history, European history, renaissance art

Letha Ch’ien is an assistant professor of art history at Sonoma State University.


I love old dead white guy art so much, I got a Ph.D. in the subject.

But even though I adore the Sistine Chapel and the sumptuous oils of Titian, I know that these artworks aren’t free from the all-too-human problem of racism. The Sistine Chapel employs anti-Semitic imagery. Titian slots Black figures into servile roles. These are just two of countless examples, but we rarely mention these issues. Instead, we often prefer to focus on beauty or the artist’s biography. Too often we believe that acknowledging the harmful content of great works of art will diminish our ability to appreciate them. So we sidestep their racist content.

As an art history professor since 2015, I had addressed race as part of the curriculum before, but never as the main event. That’s when I decided to experiment with the standard Eurocentric art history survey course through the lens of critical race studies. This was new territory. I didn’t know what we would discover or what the effects might be. Would we all be able to get through it? Me, my students, art history itself?

I called the course “Race and European Art,” and I embarked with trepidation and doubt that I was the right person to teach it. Although I was raised by parents in a mixed-race marriage, they fed me a diet of great books and white American culture. I was taught to revere classical white marble statues like the Apollo Belvedere and to trust that the British Museum legitimately rescued the Elgin Marbles from Turkish hands.

My love for European art was genuine. Happening upon a photograph of Michelangelo’s “Pietà” at age 11 sealed my fate to become an art historian. My childhood was not easy, but the beauty of that sculpture stood as a promise that somewhere out in the world was something worth surviving for.

I never fully embraced my parents’ beliefs in the superiority of white culture, and I quit them for good when I left my parents’ house as a teenager. But by becoming a specialist in Renaissance art, I joined a field that had grown out of those very beliefs. Art history as a discipline bloomed in 19th century nationalism and its misbegotten ideas of race. While corrections have been made since then, art history and I found ourselves in the same pickle: trying to overcome the racism we were raised in.

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