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Week 12 – Aspects of Canoncity
Vernon Hyde Minor, chapter 18,
Hudson & Noonan-Morrissey, chapter 5
The meanings of the word `canon' throws many of the issues touched upon so far into relief.
The literary critic John Guillory provides a useful overview of the origin of this term. The idea of
the canon, he suggests, “has its roots in the ancient Greek word for reed or rod and implies a
rule or a law."
Guillory goes on to discuss the use of the term canon in Christian disputes in the fourth century.
He argues that in these debates the term canon signified a series of preferred texts—which we
now associate with the Bible and certain early theologians—in opposition to rival Christian
This is significant, as Guillory notes, because it implies that the canonical tradition is based on a
process of active selection and repression. On the one hand, some texts are canonized while on
the other some fall outside the law
o The different ways the supposed universal norms of canonical art history were built on,
reflect an implicit conception of both artist and viewer: a conception that conforms to a
very specific and very small section of the European public. While these different
perspectives frequently overlap with Marxist-feminists, post-colonial feminists, and so
on, it is important to recognize that different, and rival, versions of art’s histories are
o Contemporary art history is to a large extent made up of just these differences
The standard way in which art history has organized and presented works of art is as part of a
single narrative of an evolutionary progress structured around individual artists—their oeuvres,
and movements—a structure arguably traceable to Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) Lives of the
Artists written in the sixteenth century. The underlying pattern of assumptions and values
involved in these narratives constitutes what art historians refer to as the canon of Western art.
The canon is a term that covers the set of works of art that are thought, at a particular moment,
to embody the peaks of Western civilization. These artworks are seen to encapsulate the height
of artistic excellence and aesthetic value. The works in this category are the ones which art
historians have traditionally seen as worthy of study
Museums as much as books participate in this construction of a canon. In fact, it can be argued
that the major museums of the West act as the repositories of the canon. The works that are
hung on the walls of these galleries are the results of art historians and curators deciding what
they think is worthy of being seen. In turn, these prioritized works tend to be the ones that get
illustrated in books because they are the best known and the most easily accessed for
reproductions. It can be argued that as long as we continue to find it valuable to look at, and
think about, works of art, some framework of comparison and evaluation is unavoidable. Short
of abandoning art history altogether, some form of canon will exert a powerful claim on our
o As you know by now, during the last fifty years or so the canon of Western art and the
values upon which it rests have been challenged from a variety of perspectives.
o Moreover, from the middle of the nineteenth century through to the end of the first
third of the twentieth century the canonical academic values were questioned by a
range of radical avant-garde artists and movements.
o Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists undermined the technical norms of academic
practice, concentrated on what had been seen as minor genres, and rejected the
idealization of the human figure; the Fauves and the Expressionists elevated (non-local)
colour, and asserted `primitive' intensity in direct contravention of academic and
classical values; the Cubists and the Dadaists, `distorted' the figure and fragmented the
picture plane. By the I960s even the anti-canonical tradition of modern art had come to
seem conservative as ambitious artists increasingly abandoned the traditional forms of
painting and sculpture for new media and practices
A second impetus for re-evaluating the role of the canon came from the radicalization of many
intellectuals that took place in the wake of the 1960s.
o In the first phase this radicalization involved a reawakening of academic interest in
Marxism. For art historians the revival of Marxism led to a questioning of the ideological
role of art in class society and to a search for moments when artists had identified with
the laboring classes. This perspective challenged the dominant view that suggested the
making and viewing of art was above social and political interests.
o Much traditional art history claimed to speak in the name of universal human
experience. In contrast to such universalist assumptions Marxist historians insisted that
works of art had to be seen as the products of specific social actors working in particular
social conditions and emphasized the historical production and consumption of
meanings and values
o Another phase in the development of new critical priorities in art history as in the
humanities more generally, derived from the impact made by what have come to be
known as the ‘new social movements’: the women’s liberation movement, the gay
liberation movement and a range of anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements.
o Art historians working from within these different perspectives have all called into
question the systematic exclusions and assumptions that underpinned the canon
A generation of feminist art historians have sought, in contrast to Janson's apparent comfort
with this situation, to understand why the canon is almost exclusively composed of the works of
o One feminist response to the justification for the canon's overwhelming dominance by
men has been to uncover large numbers of women who had made art throughout
history and to propose that the canon be extended to incorporate them
The Western canon, by definition, is built on the work of European and North American artists.
In much art history, however, the force of this point has been inadequately recognized. The