Alexander Adams: Canon Fodder – November 2017

Alexander Adams
November/December 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 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 the time of his death Buffet was utterly forgotten; more than half of younger readers will never have heard his name let alone seen a Buffet painting in person. 

The canon makes short work of poseurs such as Buffet and the technically gifted but banal such as Mengs. So, if you despair of the artists of today who are promoted as living links to the canon, fear not. 

Modernism and the Canon

Traditionalists beware: the canon is not a sword of truth which makes aesthetic distinctions and slays the dragon of Modernist art. There is no objective aesthetic standard which applies to all art in the canon. Even if we set aside Modernism, in aesthetic terms the canon ranges from the schematic (Byzantine), symbolic (Neolithic), semi-abstract (Cycladic) and decorative/abstract (Celtic manuscripts) to the naïve (Fontainebleau school), idealistic (Michelangelo) and realistic (Caravaggio). Modernist art cannot be excluded from the canon; it has already entered it. The only aesthetic criterion is excellence within a defined field. 

Those who state “Raphael is part of the canon; in aesthetic terms, Pollock cannot be compared to Raphael; therefore Pollock cannot be part of the canon” are in error. Consider the rules of the canon. Raphael and Pollock are comparable in that they are both great exponents of their schools; their art is artistically influential, culturally important, original and typical of their period and place. In strictly canonical terms, Raphael is closer to Pollock than to Raphael’s own assistant Gianfrancesco Penni. Reverse engineering of what the canon is in order to exclude art one does not like is dishonest. Consider: the canon exists as a collective enterprise regardless of personal taste. One can dislike Pollock; one can argue against his art; one cannot exclude Pollock from the canon ex cathedra. One can propose and advocate for additions or subtractions regarding the canon but propositions will be decided upon collectively over a lengthy historical period.

Bear in mind that the canon is not necessarily the best art ever produced. It is a collection of the best art that is commonly known and which it is vital (or useful) to be known by artists, scholars, art lovers and those more broadly interested in visual culture. The fact that you might have the world’s most beautiful painting hidden in your attic does not invalidate the canon because the canon is a collective body of knowledge which is comparative, commonly understood, widely accessible and not entirely based on aesthetic worth. There are plenty of beautiful works which are not canonical and plenty of canonical works which are not beautiful. If an ugly work of art meets the criteria for inclusion then it can be included. I would propose Asger Jorn’s more shocking “disfigurations” – defacements of junkshop pictures – as examples of ugly art which has already entered the canon.

Counter-intuitive as it seems, it is a fact that no aesthetic criteria will fit the canon. Therefore, though aesthetic criteria are crucial to our judgement of art, aesthetic rules cannot generate a canon. Consider the cases of Mengs and thousands of gifted academicians whose art is tediously accurate and which will never supplant the wonky anatomies of Delacroix and Goya. In the article “New Order”, I suggested that viewers, curators and museum directors should continue the traditional approach of selecting and judging work on the bases of primarily aesthetic quality and secondarily historical value. This is not in conflict with the canon. Art appreciation is a personal matter which we practise every day; the canon is a collective endeavour which no individual (or single national or professional body) can arbitrate.

Masterpieces and Blind Spots

Due to the way art is discussed, there is a tendency to highlight masterpieces. They provide common reference points. The human memory has a limited capacity and books have limited pages, so (for the non-specialist) Cimabue’s Crucifixion serves to stand for his whole output. However, the canon can select works which are atypical. Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Teacup (1936) is an iconic work of Surrealism and is celebrated as such. It far surpasses the quality of all her other work. (Trust me, I’ve slogged through the monographs.) In that respect Fur Teacup is actually atypical of Oppenheim’s art, being so much better than her other work. The canon being efficient as it is, has pared down her entire output to the only good thing she made. Likewise, Richard Oelze’s masterpiece Expectation (1935-6) is the only work of his that is worth giving time to. The canon recognises masterpieces by journeyman artists.

Consider the converse. The canon also admits bodies of works when no masterpiece exists. Paul Klee is an established figure in the canon, but there is no single painting, or even handful of paintings, which sums up Klee’s achievements. In Klee’s case any typical painting serves as an introduction to the diffuse body of works. 

The canon does have weaknesses, mainly due to its didactic presentation of progress. There are marginal cases of artists who do not fit easily into eras or schools. The canon tends to overlook remarkable outsiders. Balthus springs to mind. I would say Balthus deserves to be in a canon of 20th-century painting on merit but he could justifiably be left out as being “unnecessary” to explain any era or movement. William Blake and Stanley Spencer are only relevant to the story of British art and can be completely omitted from an overview of Western art of their times.

Another weakness of the canon is it has historically undervalued secular subjects, such as the still-life, landscape and marine. Grand subjects often overwhelm intimate reflection. A final series of weaknesses concerns the hierarchy of mediums. Since the rise of the reproduction print and photographic illustration, sculpture has been forced to the margins while painting has taken centre stage. Likewise, while separate canons for printmaking, watercolour and drawing have developed, they are generally viewed as subsidiary to painting and find only marginal places in histories of art.

Post-Modernists and the Canon

Post-Modernists loathe the canon for its specific qualities and its existence. The canon accretes slowly and selectively; it cannot be changed for political reasons and it cannot be legislated upon. The fact it does offer recognition for women/minority artists makes the canon even more hateful to Identarians. It is too slow and selective to comply with social-justice-activist demands that women/minorities be elevated en masse immediately and accepted universally. The canon compels no one to like or respect art. The canon rewards accomplishment not identity and – in Identarian eyes – effectively “bribes” women/minority artists by offering recognition to any artist who accepts the status quo and who makes art worthy of the canon. Identarian opposition to the status quo precludes participation in a canon which rewards application, patience, excellence and individuality; Identarians prioritise conformity, victimhood, impatience, birth rights and the right to demand instant change and exercise totalitarian control. The very existence of the canon is repugnant to Identarians, who feel it impedes social justice.

There is no need to force women into the canon because the canon absorbs great art regardless. One cannot write of 20th- century portraiture or the legacy of Symbolism without mentioning Frida Kahlo, likewise with abstract sculpture and Barbara Hepworth. There are many other examples. Berlinde de Bruyckere is the most original and powerful sculptor of the figure since Giacometti and it would be surprising if her art did not find its way into the canon. Much to our editor’s dismay and disagreement, I suspect Jean-Michel Basquiat is also canon-bound. Traditionalists dislike the speed with which art accretes to the canon and it offends them to see non-traditional schools appended to the Golden Age of (insert preferred artist/school/era here). Traditionalists should propose recent makers of great art and await history’s verdict. The canon may discard all recent art and record a fallow period, as it has done for whole countries and eras. 

Post-Modernists too reject accretion to the canon. For them the accretion is too slow. They have two views on the canon – that it must be abolished or rewritten. Neither of these authoritarian tendencies can be achieved in a permanent form. Abolition is impossible because people have a natural tendency to form groups, celebrate exceptional excellence and class things in terms of quality and thereby reach group consensus. Rewriting is impossible because no one group can dictate the canon and – as we have seen with political appointees such as Socialist Realist and National Socialist artists – the canon rejects bad art. 

Post-Modernists hate the canon partly because they do not believe in group consensus. They do not believe that art progresses or that a narrative (other than a socio-economic one) can be drawn from art history. Post-Modernists contend that the idea that multiple groups and individuals over eras can reach agreement is an illusion which conceals collusion, oppression and exclusion.   

So, if abolition and rewriting are impossible, why now write an article addressing Post-Modernist attitudes towards the canon? 

Firstly, art history students are suffering because they are not being taught the canon in a thorough way, thus limiting their understanding. Even to oppose the canon you must at least know it. Secondly, we all suffer when political activists manipulate education and curation of art. Thirdly, elevation to the canon is a prize to be striven for and fame has inspired plenty of artists to perform to their best. Fourthly, symbolic changes, even ineffectual ones against weak opponents – and there are no weaker opponents than the dead – encourage further encroachment in other areas of life. 

Lastly, if traditionalists and moderates wish to oppose Post-Modernism effectively they should examine what the canon really is before they invoke it. If you support the canon you must acknowledge it in its totality, even with schools and artists you dislike, and you must accept it will accrete new art. As I have previously written, traditionalists who battle both Post-Modernism and Modernism will drive away Modernists and moderates, who are their natural allies in opposing Post-Modernism. Traditionalists, Modernists and moderates today all have common cause against Post-Modernist authoritarianism, quota programming and identity politics. They have differing tastes but their principles largely overlap. 

In the past many Marxists agitated against the canon whilst covertly enjoying its art. They understood that dissidents savour the moral superiority of principled protest while enjoying the fruits of a system they ostensibly oppose. What is different now is that New Left agitators are in positions of power unopposed by conservatives or connoisseurs within institutions or the political class. They can alter curricula, defund research, publish propaganda as art theory and take down pictures in museums; they are in a position to actually suppress and – in the case of historic statues – destroy. 

The canon is nothing less than a manifestation of our civilisation. To learn from and contribute to the canon (as writers, makers and art lovers) is to contribute to civilisation and is to affirm our belief in collective wisdom, consensus and progress, regardless of our personal taste in art.