The Canon: Friend or Foe?

When you think of the “best” artists in the world, who do you think of?  Old masters like Michelangelo, Leonardo or Raphael (and Donatello, I guess, if you’re going for the Ninja Turtle effect)?  David? Picasso? Monet? Rothko?

Why do you think of these men?  Because theirs are the art pieces and names you’ve seen and heard the most in pop culture?  Sure.  But why?  What makes an artist a “great” artist, and why do we know Picasso’s name over someone else’s?

An explanation for the repeated popularization of the same artists over the decades in two words: The Canon.

The Canon is both a staple and somewhat of a terror for Art Historians.  It refers to the body of works concocted by people like Horst W. Jansen and Helen Gardner in their massive anthologies dedicated to chronicling the best and the brightest, the most creative and interesting artists, their lives and their works.

Front Cover, Jansen's "History of Art"

Front Cover, Jansen’s “History of Art”

So what’s the big deal with The Canon?  Is this collection of “great artists” potentially harmful?  Granted, it is certainly helpful at times, especially for people whose main interest is not Art and Art History, to have a sort of quick reference list.  And trust me, I’d rather have people know at least a little about art than nothing at all (hence this lovely blog)!

Gardner’s “Art Through the Ages”

But all of that aside…when you think of great artists, why are the overwhelming majority of them white or European, male, and supposedly heterosexual? There exists an overwhelming bias within these text books that discounts the prowess of female artists, Eastern artists, or any mention of homosexuality.  Any artists that exist outside of this specific type are either tacked awkwardly onto the end of these survey texts, or their skill is explained away through some form of biographical aberration that made them stand out (traumatic childhood experience, exposure to certain training, etc.).

It’s as if art production didn’t exist outside of Europe and the United States.  And seeing as it most definitely did exist, its exclusion from The Canon essentially tells everyone who reads these books (namely, beginner Art History students) that that art didn’t and/or doesn’t really matter.  And if that’s the message that Art Historians have been getting, then the general public is getting an even more watered down “Art History for Dummies” version (which explains why everyone goes to see the Mona Lisa and has no idea why they are supposed to care.  See previous blog.)

When praised in today’s marketplace, in which most survey texts wear their methodologies on their sleeves, it is for its objectivity–a euphamism, perhaps, for the book’s “fair and balanced” if a bit dull reporting of the history of art. -Jaffee, p. 205

Now again, I am not saying that knowing a little isn’t a good thing.  But it is a major problem that the history of art is completely biased toward Western, white, male-centric art, and that it is viewed as an unbiased historical account.  Why?  Because that isn’t even remotely representative of the global population.  And what is art if not representation of culture?

Further, this Euro-centric, anti-feminist view of the world has implications for our current global situation.  By not taking cultural norms and practices unlike our own into account, we as a country have made some pretty stupid decisions with grand cultural implications (ie colonization, war, assuming that our type of government is the best type of government for everyone everywhere, assuming that veiled women are oppressed, etc.).  Maybe our views and values are not necessarily transferable from country to country, and are not always “right” for everyone.

Luckily, scholars in the last few decades have wised up to this fact, and new scholarship and different types of survey books have been written and used in the classroom.  However, Gardner and Janson are still overwhelmingly used in classrooms, and perpetuating these very narrow-minded ideas about what good art should be.

Sources used:
Barbara Jaffee, “‘Gardner’ Variety Formalism: Helen Gardner and Art Through the Ages.” Partisan Canons, Anna Brzyski, ed. (Durham, Duke University Press, 2007): 203-222.

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