UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon

The clumsy looking title is a new naming convention that may turn out to be just the way to keep track of where I am over various courses, or alternatively an irritating distraction. The full version is
Understanding Art 1: Western Art.
Part one. Classical and religious art.
Project one. Ancient Greece.
Particular topic of this post – the western artistic canon.

This is a provisional post, an initial attempt. Having read the section in the course notes a few times and thought about it a while I attempted to look up ‘canon’ in one of the recommended texts, Art History: The Key Concepts by Jonathan Harris. The entry looks normal – just under two pages giving a high level definition. Unfortunately it turns out not to be in Australian English, or really any English. Ordinary words can’t be trusted. Their use has been refined and/or distorted so that they become unrecognisable – or worse, a pit trap with a surface that looks like solid ground on the top to lull you into a false sense of security, and sharp stakes at the bottom to deal with you when you fall through.

Alright, an indulgent flight of fantasy and classic (if I dare use that word) work avoidance. More objectively, in the entry for CANON CANONICAL the first paragraph of sixteen lines includes 23 words and expressions which need to be looked up in turn. Each of those entries becomes its own labyrinth. Words such as ‘originally’, ‘text’, ‘classic’ and ‘genius’ cannot be trusted. Exciting, an adventure – but daunting and a potential time sink.

Fair enough, in a new field one requires patience and perseverance, plus a willingness to live at least initially with a tentative answer, perhaps a suspension of disbelief. So, subject to later revision, here goes:

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for canon (from the Greek for ‘rule’) has multiple meanings including “A standard of judgement or authority; a test, criterion, means of discrimination”, illustrating its use with a quote from 1601 “…one absolute piece of work, from whence artificers do fetch their draughts…”.

In terms of the history of western art, the ‘canon’ is a group of art works of individual greatness and value to which all subsequent work can be compared and evaluated, and its foundation or springboard lies in ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture. Partially hidden in this definition are the individuals and institutions who over time have had the power to determine what works are canonical. Tradition, education, elitism, power, money and I would guess cronyism have played a part to different degrees.

The canon provides a framework, a context, without which it would be difficult to distinguish one thing from another – nothing stands out. It may give something for later artists to aspire to – to emulate, perhaps join or even surpass, standing on the shoulders of giants. On the other hand the canon could be seen as elitist, self-referential and insular.

A rigid and inflexible canon would discourage innovation and originality. Taking a very long view through history this has not been the case in western art, but perhaps in a single lifetime it would feel like it. This could be discouraging, perhaps lead to self-censorship, or it could stimulate by providing something to react against and protest (probably more a modern idea). Perhaps a truly great artist is able to transcend and redefine the canon (is that a circular definition?).

It will be interesting to learn more about recent evolution or revolution of the western canon. For example the name ‘Fauve’ was a critical, negative, dismissive judgement. I wonder if any works from that movement would now be regarded as canonical. Also perhaps now originality and innovation may be valued more highly than in the past when stability and maintenance of the status quo was vital. Last year as part of my reading during Textiles 1: A Creative Approach I posted about Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking though craft (6-July-2012) and touched on this area. On the one hand Adamson claimed avant garde art was autonomous, on the other it required an “accepted critical account” (page 32). I also quoted John McDonald (2012) writing that when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference”, and Tom Wolfe (1975): “Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting … Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” This now appears to me to suggest strongly that the western canon of art has continued to evolve and remains a significant force in contemporary art, although with a pace of change that can lead an over-enthusiastic critic astray.

The role of the mediating individual or institution is a very disturbing aspect of the canon, the power that attends it. Being recognised as working within the canon may provide access to opportunities, recognition and reward not available to others. As a textile-focused person this is particularly important. I have already researched and written a lot about Art and Craft during A Creative Approach – blog entries are included in categories Reading and Research Point. I won’t attempt to re-cover that ground here – there are likely to be other opportunities during the current course.

Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking through craft. Oxford: Berg.
[anon.] (1971) The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. Abingdon: Routledge
McDonald, J. In with the new [Accessed 6 July 2012]
Wolfe, T. (1975) The Painted Word, quoted in Ellsworth-Jones, W. Never mind the theory…–20120629-21792.html [Accessed 6 July 2012]

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