The Other Canon – by Joseph Bravo
William-Adolphe Bouguereau – The Queen of the Angels (detail)
Canon is commonly understood as a body of rules or works generally established as valid and fundamental in a field of art or philosophy. The word has from its inception carried an authoritarian connotation. In the religious context, canon refers to official dogma and the certification of certain scriptures as trustworthy as well as a means of decertification of texts or concepts deemed by religious authorities to be of dubious validity. Once a text or dogma is deemed canonical then to question its veracity is a form of heresy. The heretic is then declared unorthodox and pronounced excommunicate, or outside the body of the faithful, someone to be shunned and ostracized, someone whose very existence represents a fundamental threat to the integrity of the truth. The violation of canon has grave consequences and its inquisitors are invariably fundamentalists who possess extraordinary power.
In the context of European fine art, the term canon is derived from the rules established by the Church. Canonical authorities dictated which imagery was permissible to depict. These rules were incredibly specific and carried the weight of law. Their violation could result in extreme sanctions including death. With the advent of the Reformation came a challenge to papal authority but also a wave of iconoclasm as, for a time, the depiction of the human figure became heterodox within Protestant culture. The perhaps unintended consequence of the Reformation was what is commonly called the Enlightenment, as there was prioritization of reason and increased freedom of expression.
But nature abhors a vacuum and, in the absence of papal hegemony, other totalitarians would emerge who would appropriate authoritarian aegis. Initially, a guild system would be formed as a mechanism for the regulation and restraint of trade. Eventually, fine art academies would proliferate throughout Europe and these professional societies would form a similar function. They would establish the rules by which art could be created and indoctrinate crafts-persons with their academic dogmas. Without membership in the academy, an artist was essentially deemed excommunicate and was the professional equivalent of an aesthetic heretic.
The Paris Salon was jointly sponsored by the academy of fine arts and the French government. Hence, membership had its privileges and those who were excluded felt professional consequences. But in 1863, Napoleon III made an extraordinary decision. In response to protests from the artists who were excluded from the salon, the emperor, who was sensitive to public opinion and the relative tenuousness of his regime, announced, “His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.” And so, the notorious Salon des refusés was established, changing the course of art history and initially undermining the heretofore unquestioned authority of the French academy. The notion that the public possessed the democratic authority to judge fine art was revolutionary.
This development had the consequence of unleashing the contents of Pandora’s aesthetic box. Suddenly artists were free to create whatever they liked in whatever manner or style they chose and it was the prerogative of the bourgeoisie to decide which art gained commercial market dominance and with it cultural resonance. Initially, this new populism allowed for the relatively benign heterodoxy of the Impressionists to gain traction but in short order, other artists would begin to test the limits of public tolerance. After the Impressionists came the Fauves or the “Wild Beasts,” and this term of derision would prove to be prophetic in its implications. Shortly afterward the Surrealists would emerge, and for André Breton the idea of the Sauvage would become seminal to the development of 20th century art canon.
Breton would mount an exhibition of Surrealist works interspersed with ethnographic material to demonstrate an alleged affinity between the works created by the so-called Primitives and those artworks created by dissident European Modernists. While the Surrealists rhetorically gave lip service to anti-colonialist critiques, they too appropriated these ethnographic artworks to serve their own purposes. The Surrealists were creating imagery that was extremely socially as well as aesthetically transgressive according to the standards of their era. One of the dominant critiques of this Surrealist work was that it had completely abandoned the dogmas of the European art canon and that therefore it lacked the auspices of historical precedent. In an attempt to establish a historicity which these European transgressive artworks lacked, Breton and others would associate these pieces with African, Oceanic, Meso-American and other indigenous traditions including archaic European artworks. The implication of these associations was that somehow the artworks created by these dissident European artists were in some way equivalent to the imagery created by non-Western cultures.
Heretofore, this archeological and ethnographic material had been considered outside the canon. It was definitively heterodox in terms of Western canons of any kind and was proffered as alleged evidence of the superiority of Eurocentric culture. But while the Surrealists had appropriated the aegis of these non-Western cultural artifacts they had done so in a manner in which the objects in question were stripped entirely of their original cultural contexts and in which their semiotic was completely ineffable. Since in the absence of original context that semiotic was unknowable, it was presumed nonexistent or irrational. It was the very absence of available meaning that made its appropriation desirable for a Modernistic optic in which the epistemology of reason itself was to come into question within a European milieu. It seemed that the Age of Reason might be coming to an end.
But the absence of the hegemony of a French academy, which sent a shockwave through the hegemony of reason itself, left the populist art canon with an epistemological conundrum. Whose populist canon would come to have cultural resonance? Or more accurately, whose populist canon would come to have dominance, that of the proletariat or that of the bourgeoisie? The dynamics of canon have always mirrored the dynamics of power and if the French emperor’s decree had initially had a democratizing effect on the creation of art canon, the Modernist genie it had unleashed would soon enough have some pretty elitist implications. For the Western proletariat, realistically rendered genre and history painting, as well as relatively conservative portraiture, were the aspirational aesthetic. But for the more educated bourgeois cohort, there was an emerging aspirational chasm on the horizon.
The tastes of the bourgeoisie were less bound to historicism and futurism was the priority of the monied oligarchs of the Gilded Age. In a hide-bound Europe, one’s social authority was determined as much by the auspices of inherited legacy as by personal initiative. But with the industrial revolution, it was the prescient who had the upper hand. The future bore no obligation to the past and change was to be embraced as indicative of progress. Hence, creative destruction entered the zeitgeist and revolutions toppling established orders of all kinds were in the offing. But as always, nature abhors a vacuum and no sooner was one hegemony dismantled than another authoritarian order replaced it.
In the case of the French academy, this authority came to be supplanted by the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim followed by other exhibiting institutions and eventually by universities. These new inquisitors would establish their art canon according to the priorities of the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, the de Menils and others. It was now, as always, the collector who had the deepest pockets who could afford to dictate canon. But in the Modern era, this was no longer the prerogative of the Church or the emperor but of the economic oligarch. For this cohort, the future would be determined by that which bore the least resemblance to the past. Innovation would be equated with progress and heterodoxy would become the new orthodoxy. The power of the purse and the press would de facto determine the priorities of the 20th century art canon.
At mid-century, the Old World orders were contested and Modernism’s priorities came to dominate a New World Order. The progressive aesthetic momentum would enter a period of escalation of hostilities until cultural transgression became a reductio ad absurdum. By the 1980s, a Jackson Pollock painting appeared conservatively nostalgic and the legacy of a simpler more formalistic age, more aesthetically akin to a Rembrandt than a scatological Postmodernist performance piece.
Though aesthetic epistemology may have descended into chaos the hierarchical dynamics of institutional power remained. That power came into question as cultural relativism became more self-evident. Despite the democratic largess of a conservative French emperor, the Régime Moderne wasn’t any less inclined to hegemonic authoritarianism than the Ancien Régime. For the regime of the Moderns and early Postmoderns, the optics were still transparently Eurocentric, despite its professed cosmopolitanism. Academics started talking about decolonizing the canon.
In the 1980s, Thomas McEvilley would author his seminal critique Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief in which he would begin to examine the idea of otherness and question some long-cherished chestnuts of the Modernist narrative and its alleged affinity with the art of non-Western cultures. As McEvilley astutely observed, any alleged affinity was superficial, of questionable intellectual and moral veracity and entirely self-serving in terms of dominant cultural priorities. He pointed out that so-called “Primitive Art” was a misapprehension in the absence of aboriginal context and that the identities of its creators had been negated in the process of its appropriation in service of a Modernist narrative agenda. In its anthropological context, indigenous artistic production had been exhibited in allegedly scientific museums principally to proffer a racist doctrine of the superiority of traditional European culture. But in the exhibition of this aesthetic material in the context of the Modernist affinity-narrative, this non-European artwork had likewise been appropriated to proffer the superiority of a Eurocentric set of priorities. The Modernists hadn’t been so interested in its original cultural context but in how this material could be used to serve the interest of establishing the aesthetic hegemony of the Modernist Eurocentric agenda. The alleged elevation of ethnographic material to the context of highbrow culture was a form of cultural colonization, this time camouflaged in the progressive wool of noble savage theory.
The ostensible canonization of the so-called Primitive had merely been a rhetorical tactic to make the European traditional representational canon appear anachronistic and hence, paradoxically, primitive. Again, somewhat paradoxically, those with more proletarian populist aesthetic priorities, those conservatives who lagged behind the various Modernists and Postmodernist revolutions, ie. those who preferred a more Western traditional canonical aesthetic with its concomitant reverence for historicism, were utterly marginalized by institutional powers in the museums and the universities. This more conservative art had been primitivized by the privileging of Modernism and had become one of many arts of the relatively disenfranchised subcultural others.
Modernism had branded itself as the definitive international style and hence was oblivious to its own cultural myopia. Like the French academy before it, the institutional aesthetic of the common era has taken its entitled hegemony for granted. It hasn’t generally perceived itself as a monoculture of dominance but as the obvious heir of canonical authority. But with the end of the Cold War, the demonization of skilled representational art as the “art of the enemy” is no longer politically pertinent. Modernism’s formalism has begun to give way to Postmodernism’s cacophony and is under the social and political pressure of multiculturalism. The premise of a solitary artistic canon overwhelmingly produced by and for a relatively privileged cohort of European and American men is no longer either intellectually or socially tenable nor is it politically correct.
In a globally connected world, the conceptual model of a single hegemonic canon is perhaps obsolete especially in the absence of any uncontested authority. Michael Pearce’s metaphor of the bubble bath is quite likely a more useful model for conceiving of a doctrine of Emergence. In Pearce’s model, various cultural cohorts and affinity groups dynamically vie for relative cultural resonance within a hyper-complex algorithm of social equilibrium across an almost infinitely diverse range of variables from ethnicity to gender, race to class, highbrow to low brow, populist to elite, realist to abstractionist, object-oriented to conceptual, absolutist to relativist, etc. Within each bubble is its own dynamic surface tension which temporarily defines its cultural and aesthetic parameters until it interacts with its agencies alternately uniting and subdividing according to intersectionalities and social physics.
In this type of Postmodern rubric, aesthetic hegemony is transitory and more a reflection of relative cultural power rather than some innate intellectual authority. Emergence tends to view art canon as more of an aesthetic ecosystem than a hierarchy. Within such a hyper-complex taxonomy, each aesthetic has its organic niche and apex predators are no more or less essential than the amoeba. But within each species and subspecies, there are more or less fit examples. All lions are not created equal and neither are all water buffalos, gazelles or praying mantises. Regardless of their aesthetic priorities, neither are all artists equally competent nor are all artworks of equivalent cultural relevance.
From this one might hypothesize the existence of a meta-canon of sorts, one which is dynamic and multicultural. But within each sub-canon of the meta-canon, one would have to be a bona fide cultural initiate in order to recognize the properties that would constitute cultural authenticity and competence according to its aesthetic parameters. Hence, it is entirely unlikely that any individual or socially elite cohort would possess sufficient omniscience to determine the parameters of a hypothetical and correspondingly hyper-complex meta-canon. To postulate the meta-canon is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the art of the other without having to negate one’s own aesthetic priorities. It is indeed possible to recognize the other’s agency to determine its own aesthetic identity without sacrificing one’s own integrity of worldview so long as one is willing to relinquish the desire for hegemony.
In a world of terrifying cacophonous quandaries, recognizing Emergence can be an incredibly liberating experience that enables us to imagine the other canon.