Art Term Tuesday: The Canon

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Until quarantine, I was never a fan of podcasts; I find talk radio grating, and likened it to the podcast world, convincing myself without even trying that listening to them wasn’t “my thing”. Then, I stumbled upon Katy Hessel’s podcast, Great Women Artists. Born from the Instagram account of the same name, art historian Katy Hessel sits down with either the artist themselves or curators, writers, and other art connoisseurs to discuss their favorite woman artist and debate the question: Why have there been no great women artists? As I listened to the podcast, all I could think was: Why HAVE there been no Great Women Artists and why have I never heard of most of these women artists? 

A woman stands in front of a fireplace, her face turned downwards away from the viewer. Wearing a sumptuous blue dress, dark coat, and blue hat, the back of her head is reflected in the mirror above the fireplace. She appears to stand in a sitting room, next to a table with yellow flowers and blue chairs.
Currently on display in “American Impressionism”, out of all the works on exhibition there is only one by a woman, pictured above. Many women had trouble gaining access to cafes, boulevards, and other everyday places to paint, as it wasn’t proper for a woman to frequent those establishments, especially alone. Ashton Wilson, American, 1880-1952. The Blue Gown. Oil on canvas, n.d. On loan from the Huntington Museum of Art, Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Granted, as a history major in college, I only took two survey art history courses; and herein lies my problem: a survey course, whether high school or college, focuses on the canon. Note one “n”, not two. The canon is, essentially, the immutable, conventional timeline of artists who are considered the “Old Masters” and “Great Artists” as judged by disparate institutions over time. Their works represent the ideals of aesthetic and form, and are studied, copied, learned from, and revered. These are the names you know even if you know nothing about art history: da Vinci, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso (Interestingly, often the artists you know by one name). Who, or what, are these institutions that have empowered themselves to name the “best of the best” artists? 

Judged and selected by a system that has changed over time, from artists themselves and artist associations, like guilds; to art academies and the state; to art dealers and critics; to the art market, art historians, and art museums of today; the actual criteria for selection remains murky. This veil imbues the canon with austerity and reverence, turning the judgement into a mystical process. Though certain criteria can be deduced, for example, the art historical hierarchy places history and religious paintings above still life for acceptance into academies; today, genre is less a condition of perfection thanks to the abstract movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. While often viewed as a static construct, this shows that the canon is a changeable hierarchy of curated works. What works? Historically, masterpieces painted by white, European men.  

A still life of a table scattered with bird feathers and postcards of paintings atop a patterned tablecloth. In the back, a pink flower in a pot, that sits atop a book, wilts.
Still life artist Katja Oxman, despite the intricacy, detail, and technique of her prints, may not have been accepted by an academy because of her chosen subject matter. Katja Oxman, German American, b. 1942. In an Adjoining Room. Copperplate etching and aquatint, 1997. Gift of the Artist, 2016.160. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Recent articles, podcasts, and other media have brought to light not only why there have been no great women artists, but also minority artists, geographically diverse artists, and artists in other media outside painting and drawing. It is easy to explain why there are less women and minorities in the historical canon: historically, there were fewer women and minorities making art. By asking why there were no great women artists, the focus is shifted from the institutions naming these “great artists” to women, whose lack of greatness lays in their lack of genius. In reality, women’s (and minorities) position in society rendered them incapable of achieving greatness. Due to societal constraints, women didn’t have access or means to supplies, study, or the historic guilds and academies that initially made selections. Unable to draw humans from life, they were automatically blocked from the foundational beginnings of art. For those well-off enough to study, being an artist wasn’t a seemly career for a woman to pursue. A hobby, yes, but there was no need to strive for excellence in anything outside the domestic sphere of husbands and children. Therefore, women and other minorities, who had less power and voice due to social status, economic status, and geography, were purposefully excluded by men, who had the capabilities to get their art seen by the men who held influence in the art world. This is not to say that no woman has entered the taught timeline of art history, Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith Leyster immediately come to mind, but these women were not the norm.  

Recently, the movement of multiple large museums selling off their “masterpieces” or “blue chip” artworks to fund purchases of lesser-known, contemporary, minority artists is just one example of the dismissal of the canon. Museums, particularly, have come under scrutiny as they remove the works of art from their context, whether political or religious, placing them on sterile, white walls to promote contemplation and severing them from their original meaning. Where once Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism were ridiculed, today they are revered for pushing the boundaries of art and leading it in new directions. Hindsight has shown that the hierarchy of the canon changes as works decrease and increase in significance and influence, and, also, value.   

A nude woman with curly hair, face turned to the right, crosses one arm across her chest. The pattern in the back appears to be flowers.
Women were not permitted to draw humans from life, i.e., from a nude figure, which is how all art programs began. Therefore, they were automatically excluded from an arts education. Martha Mayer Erlebacher, American, 1937-2013. Brocade. Color lithograph, 1985. Gift of William F. and Joan B. McNagny, 1991.23. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The influencers of the art world have changed over time, as mentioned above, and museums have slowly begun to incorporate more diverse works into their collections, but the study of the canon has largely remained intact. Why? The canon makes studying art history easier. In selecting those who best contributed to the advancement of art, and thereby automatically excluding others, it makes it possible to “survey” art history. Without the canon, a professor would be drowning in artists, and their students would be inundated with more names, dates, and works than they could possibly manage. By diluting the history to a recognized canon, and within it the masterpieces of the selected artists, a survey of art history is possible.  

Is the canon a true survey of art history? Of course not. In its exclusivity it is automatically selective, and as the canon focuses on Western art, it automatically excludes art from everywhere else. It is, therefore, important to remember that the canon is the preeminent art of the Western, and by Western we mean European, world. It is imperative not just to consider the homogeneity, but the decontextualization and neutralized state of the canon as well. No art is created in a bubble, outside the experience of the artist and the social, political, and economic influences driving their time period. Though the canon is seen as independent of time and place, it is the effect of time and place, and the artists response to it, that gain them entry, no matter their gender, race, or media.

Perhaps still a worthy starting place for those looking to delve into the history of art without becoming overwhelmed, the canon does not include every “great artist” that has ever painted the world, and there are many other starting points, such as Katy Hessel’s Great Women Artists podcast.

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