Art Humanities

The Core Curriculum is the centerpiece of the first two years of undergraduate study at Columbia. It entails four required courses—Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, Music and Art Humanities—which focus on masterpieces of western civilization and build upon the notion, as Lionel Trilling put it, that "there is a certain minimum of our intellectual and spiritual tradition which a man must experience and understand if he is to be called educated."

By now the Core is so well established that we easily forget its radical roots as a grand experiment in undergraduate education. Before World War I Columbia College had been overshadowed by the University's graduate and professional schools, and its educational mission was undefined. Rejecting the emphasis on preprofessional training, the College forged a new identity after the war based on a liberal arts curriculum.

The establishment of Contemporary Civilization in 1919 announced that new commitment to general education. There were national trends which encouraged this sort of curricular change: college attendance was growing and became a prerequisite for professional training. But Columbia's response was innovative and timely, and the great books approach to general education was taken up nationwide. The other Core courses were introduced in 1937 as a two-year sequence. Freshmen studied literature in Humanities A, followed the next year by Humanities B, which was devoted to music and fine arts. Lit. Hum. was a required course, but Humanities remained optional for ten years while the faculty experimented with its format.

There were concerns whether students who otherwise had no exposure to non-verbal forms of expression could be introduced to music and art in a seminar situation. Consequently Humanities B was originally designed as a lecture course, with lectures alternating on music and art. In 1941, the two subjects were separated, each confined to a semester with three weekly meetings, one mass lecture and two seminar meetings. The lecture was eliminated in 1946, bringing Art and Music Humanities in line with the other Core courses as discussion-based classes of about twenty students.

Since 1947 Art and Music Hum. have been required, and the format has been fixed, but our department continues to debate the extent to which we should bow to the text-based instruction of the overall curriculum. We recently introduced a primary source reader, but many faculty believe that a course devoted to looking and to visual literacy should keep reading assignments to a minimum. The staffing of Art Humanities over the past fifty years mirrors changes in the department, especially the growing integration of the graduate and undergraduate programs. 

The first director of Art Hum. was Everard Upjohn (1904-78), an architectural historian who was probably better known as the great-grandson of Richard Upjohn, designer of Trinity Church on Wall Street. Upjohn had founded the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota before Columbia recruited him in 1935 to develop the undergraduate program in Fine Arts.

Within the department, there were essentially separate undergraduate and graduate faculties, and structural divide which remained until the mid-1960s. At a time when undergraduate teaching was devalued within the department, Uppie's commitment to Art Humanities, which he taught from 1937 until his retirement in 1970, was no doubt important, but he may not have been the ideal person to redefine the status quo. His daily routine involved lunch at the Men's Faculty Club followed by thirty minutes of bridge, and it was no secret, as he told a reporter, that "I can't stomach modern art." 

The first generation of Art Hum. teachers included Paul Wingert, Grand Manson, George Collins, Norris Kelly Smith (the Preacher), and Howard McParlin Davis, whose close connection to Art Humanities spanned nearly fifty years, from the time he joined the faculty in 1944 until 1991. While Howard's teaching became legendary on campus, the course has always involved a large number of faculty ranging from full professors to preceptors.

In the early years, the instructional staff included a number of young instructors who taught six sections a year; David Rosand did this when he joined the faculty in 1964. The system of preceptorships was established in the late 1960s; it enables about sixteen advanced graduate students every year to continue dissertation work while gaining valuable teaching experience. In this way our undergraduate and graduate programs have become interdependent, so much so that the recent university-wide shrinkage of the graduate school presents our department with special problems. 

As for the curriculum, it has changed relatively little. The earliest description I have found dates from 1941: "Discussion and analysis of the place in civilization of selected masterpieces in the visual arts. Such landmarks as the Parthenon in Athens, the Gothic Cathedral , the paintings of Raphael, Picasso and other outstanding masters in art are considered." Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Frank Lloyd Wright and the Skyscraper were also among the original topics. Howard Davis, long-time Director of Art Humanities, added units on Bruegel, El Greco, and Bernini. Since then El Greco was replaced with a pre-Columbian unit on Palenque, which in turn was replaced by Goya, and Amiens Cathedral was briefly replaced by Chartres. The units on modern architecture were also changed giving us the following lineup: the Parthenon, Amiens Cathedral, Raphael, the sculpture of Michelangelo, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Bernini, Goya, Monet, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. 

The title of the course was recently changed from "Masterpieces of Fine Arts" to "Masterpieces of Western Art" in order to acknowledge the focus of the syllabus and emphasize the position of the course within the core curriculum. While some faculty believe that Art Humanities should adopt a multicultural curriculum, we have opted to develop comparable courses in non-Western art. We offer Asian Art Humanities (Japan, China, and Korea) and Indian and Islamic Art Humanities and hope to add African Art Humanities in the near future.

Exemption from the Art Humanities Requirement

All Columbia College and General Studies students are required to take Art Humanities. In limited circumstances, however, students may be eligible for an exemption from this requirement.

Students requesting an exemption must have completed at least four semester-length, college-level Art History Courses with a grade of C or higher. (Please note that visual arts courses do not qualify.) Coursework must cover multiple historical periods, with at least one course on art of the Renaissance era (or an earlier era) and one course on art of a post-Renaissance era.

All exemption requests should be submitted online via our Core exemption link here:

Students should be prepared to submit a transcript of previous coursework, a statement explaining why the exemption is requested, and copies of the syllabi for all Art History courses completed. The exemption request must be made during the student’s first semester of enrollment at Columbia. Deadlines: November 1 for Fall matriculates; March 1 for Spring matriculates.