The canon refers to a body of work – in this case works of art – that have traditionally been accepted as ‘great’ art and therefore of particular value.
What is the main problem with the idea of a body of great works that other artists try to emulate?
- Who decides? The first problem with the concept of the canon is who decides which works of art are included and which are not? Is this a formal process or an ad hoc one that simply evolves over time.
- On what basis? are such decisions made, what criteria are used to determine whether or not a particular work of art is not sufficient value.
- How do the selectors deal with their own prejudices? We all have our likes and dislikes, can anyone say that a work of art is of great value if they don’t personally like it.
- How do you deal with changing times and circumstances? Can a work of art be immediately classified as of great value or does it need to stand the test of time.
- Can decisions be challenged and how? What if a substantial number of people disagree that a particular work of art is of great value, does that of itself mean that it is not part of the canon?
How relevant is it today?
The concept is as relevant today as it has always been – the works of art recognised as canonical may change over time but the notion of a body of works of great art is still pertinent. Our major art galleries and museums display what they think are their most valuable works of art – the decisions Curators make on what or what not to acquire, what or what not to display are value judgements and must be based on some criteria – the same as the concept of a canon. Even if we did not have the word canon in the language, the concept of a body of the most valuable body of work is still relevant.If you accept that some works of art are better, or more valuable than others then you must be accepting the existence of a canon of works – as this is simply an extension of the idea of comparing works of art – making value judgements – just to an ultimate degree.
Idealisation of the human form?
Over the years artists have searched for the perfect portrayal of the human body and this insidiously conditioned the attitudes of Europeans to themselves and others.
This conditioning continues to the present day – witness the debate about size 0 models in fashion shows and the increasing resort to plastic surgery in pursuit of the perfect body. You can now use software on photographic portraits that automatically removes skin blemishes from the final image.
Not everyone has wanted to follow this path, Oliver Cromwell is reported to have demanded that he be painted ‘warts and all’ i.e. without being unduly flattered by the artist. Some contemporary artists have decided against trying to portray human affection e.g. the photographer Diane Arbus.
Nevertheless the idealisation of the perfect human form does seem to continue, perhaps in some instances driven by commercial interests. But is it in any way dangerous?I believe that it can be dangerousin that it may lead to a view that portrayals of people with a disability ,m with certain skin tones should not be undetaken or would somehow be of lesser value. The human body should be celebrated and portrayed in all its forms and diversity, anything other is, to my mind, discriminatory.