Alexander Adams: Canon Fodder – November 2017

Alexander Adams investigates the status of the canon in art under Post-Modernism and the dangers of undervaluing it

The canon of great art has never been the target of greater ire than it is today, but many leftist critics and their traditionalist opponents misunderstand the canon. The truth is unsettling for both groups. This essay seeks to clarify the nature of the canon at a time when it is an especially contentious subject.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

Last year art-history A-level was scrapped due to low take-up, then, after a campaign to reverse the decision, it was reinstated. This allowed New Criticism a foothold in school art-history teaching. When the new curriculum was developed, there was a downgrading of the master artists of Europe. Sarah Phillips, designer of new art-history syllabus, said “It is a global specification. Students won’t just study the work of dead white men. They will have the opportunity to study Islamic architecture and work by men and women of all colours and creeds.” Perhaps students will be tested on artist skin colour in exams.

“Art history is the study of power, politics, identity and humanity; it makes perfect sense to keep the exam,” said Jeremy Deller. One doesn’t envy students wanting to learn about painting only to be dragooned into political-education courses and harangued on the purported crimes of their forefathers, who were more likely to have been agricultural labourers toiling in fields than redcoats bayonetting babies in India. Perhaps A-level art history would have better remained decently defunct.  

Leftist critics characterise the canon as a white male Christian club. That view excludes ancient pre-Christians, undisclosed atheists/agnostics and recent additions to the canon but – those exceptions aside – white Christian men were ones making large-scale oil paintings and stone carvings up until recent centuries so Western European art is necessarily their art. Critics confuse corollary with cause. The canon has never been based on the identity of artists. Indeed, it is heedless of artist identity. Art in the canon is judged on intrinsic and extrinsic qualities without regard to maker. Numerous anonymous ancient and medieval art works are canonical.

Incidentally, dismissing art because of the maker’s masculinity discards contributions of countless female models, patrons and collectors, not to mention wives, sisters and daughters who worked in studios and even painted parts of pictures. These women believed in and helped to make these paintings; if they could see activists agitating to have these paintings removed from sight they would likely be appalled and baffled at careless condemnation of art they loved.  

The Exquisitely Efficient Machine

The canon is both the group of generally accepted masterworks (and, by inference, their makers) and the principles underlying that selection. Art historians, artists and knowledgeable enthusiasts have approximate lists of great essential art though details vary. There are major and minor figures in the canon and canons for specific countries and mediums.

The canon is a distillation of informed judgement over the course of centuries. It is an exercise in both discrimination and tolerance as one accepts the whole without agreeing with every part. Crucially, personal taste is irrelevant. You may not care for Rubens but he is important, influential and innovatory; he cannot be removed by you. The canon provides broad consensus while at the same time compelling no one to praise falsely. The canon cannot be imposed from above by either scholars or social activists. The canon endures despite fashion and politics but the contents of the canon are provisional.

Dissent regarding the stature of an artist does not damage the canon; on the contrary, it strengthens it by forcing supporters of an artist to examine and refute (or accept) criticism. This process of continual testing winnows substandard art from the canon and proves the fitness of that which remains. It is an exquisitely efficient (though slow) machine for refining our understanding of art. The canon, far from being a machine of oppression and exclusion, is a meritorious mechanism for selecting the most important art on fairly universal principles for the education and pleasure of everyone. The canon has no racial, gender, sexual or personal prejudice. It is regional but not nationalistic. It accepts the professional and amateur, the sacred and profane.

What is this “Canon”?

There is no authoritative list of canonical works. The canon, by definition, cannot have a single fixed form. If you want to produce a list of canonical works take all narratives on art history, starting with Pliny going through Vasari and ending today, add respected monographs covering individual art movements and books of masterpieces of art. Add up all mentions or illustrations of individual art works then remove the least frequently cited third of that list, remove all works made in the last 40 years, remove anything made by a living artist. What remains is the canon.

The weaknesses of this definition are that it gives greatest statistical weight to recent views, to published (rather than privately expressed) opinions and to works of which we have photographic images. Frequency of citations proves nothing and does not qualitatively measure works. Popularity proves nothing except itself.

The canon is not democratic nor is it just. It rewards audacity. The cuckoo which ejects the host’s chick from the nest will survive and prosper, so too the brilliant adopter can displace a talented but flawed inventor. Justice has never informed the canon nor can it. The canon is a hierarchy of competence which reflects societal appetite for exceptional achievement and it does not arbitrate historical priority or factual (or emotional) justice.

Canon Criteria

The presence of a single work (or body of works) produced by a now-deceased artist in the Western fine-art canon is due to it having at least one of three attributes still considered to apply today: (a) importance or influence, (b) originality or innovation, and (c) outstanding quality within an aesthetic field; with two minor attributes valued: (d) timeliness, and (e) lineage. To be a minor figure an artist needs only one of the minor attributes.

Attributes (b), (d) and (e) need further comment. Originality need not be actual invention but being the outstanding exponent or populariser of a new material, style or subject. For example, no modern historian now assigns the invention of oil painting to the Van Eyck brothers but they were the first artists to bring the technique to perfection in panel painting and were historically credited as originators. Priority on its own is not enough.

Timeliness is zeitgeist – encapsulating a particular culture during an era. Lynn Chadwick is a minor canonical figure. His metal sculpture of the 1950s embodies the spirit of an age (post-War figurative sculpture) while it is not strong enough to make Chadwick a major artist. Lineage is an attribute of the canon’s traditional didactic purpose. Perugino, a figure on the periphery of the canon, would probably have sunk from our view if he had not taught Raphael.

Man Proposes, the Canon Disposes

There is something unusual about the way the fine-art canon operates, which may not have been remarked on before. Every artist who is – or has been – in the canon rises once and remains or sinks but he/she never rises for a second time. I cannot think of an example where an artist we regard as canonical has ever dropped out of the canon and later returned to the canon as significant as he/she was before. This is not a matter of fluctuating popularity but one of absolute neglect – a time when an artist was no longer taught or link mentioned in general texts, only for that artist to be resurrected. It seems that once history has downgraded an artist gravely, it is a permanent change. I have never read this observation elsewhere.

During his lifetime Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79) was considered a genius comparable to Raphael. His paintings displayed great skill; his life drawings are excellent. His place in history seemed assured yet Mengs disappeared from the canon quickly and is hardly more than a footnote in art histories. Viewers found Mengs’s good qualities in other artists and nothing great or original to distinguish his art. Technical brilliance is no meal ticket to Parnassus.

Consider the case of Bernard Buffet (1928-99). In France, Buffet was the most lauded painter to mature in immediate post-War period. He was very successful in Japan, where a Buffet museum was founded. For several decades Buffet was hugely famous, fabulously rich and perhaps the worst ever painter to be considered great. His work is as crude, ugly, bombastic, modish and shallow as anything that has been shown on museum walls. Despite prizes and critical acclaim, by