Canonfire – by Joseph Bravo
Renoir – Odalisque
A Response to Gordon Fuglie’s Canon Conundrums
Gordon Fuglie makes some valid points and offers some useful information. Any additions he wishes to contribute are certainly welcome. The last two-thirds of his article proffer some relevant art history which I am not particularly inclined to dispute. My two essays on the canon may have provided the psychological impulse for Gordon’s own interesting article but as to whether his piece is a direct response to my own, that’s another matter. From what I can derive, it’s not clear whose argument he is trying to counter because it certainly isn’t mine. He takes my remarks out of context, misrepresents my position and essentially fights a straw man of convenience to suit his agenda. I don’t think Gordon and I disagree so much about substance but about priorities. Unsurprisingly, he places my priorities in opposition to his own because mine are not his. The reader might have been better edified and his case been more credible if Gordon had proffered it as an independent essay rather than a response to mine. By way of clarification for Gordon’s benefit and to set the record straight regarding the distinction between my actual position and the one Gordon attributes to me, I would proffer the following.
From day one, in my study in antiquities right through my tours of duty in Meso-American or Oceanic art history, and from my tenure as an art history/theory professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, I have been fascinated to the point of preoccupation with the issues related to the metaphysics of art and cultural context. So, no secular bias here, let alone anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant bigotry.
But I do have a healthy skepticism of the historical tendency of humanity to authoritarianism and have not observed an immunity to it among the pious, especially when secular power is at stake. Where great power is concentrated, there great epistemological and moral hazard can also be encountered, regardless of the theological or ideological proclivities of the group in which that power coalesces.
Regarding the role of the Protestant Reformation, I specifically stipulated that its reactionary tendency was “for a time” and that its inclination to radical iconoclasm was for a brief period and by implication was more political than theological in nature. Obviously, the rich Flemish tradition of the 17th-18th centuries occurred largely within a Dutch Reform Protestant context that was less iconoclastic than the more radical Scottish Calvinist sectarians. Even the iconoclasm within the German context was relatively brief and more politically motivated.
But an honest person might concede that the history of Protestant ecclesiastical decor has tended to be considerably less exuberant than its Roman Catholic neighbors. When someone refers to Roman Catholic or Byzantine art a pretty consistent image comes to mind. Whereas, when someone refers to Protestant art, Flemish examples notwithstanding, the consistency of the image that comes to mind is somewhat more opaque partially because Protestant theology is less dependent on the intercession of an extensive canon of saints and less inclined to votive imagery as an aspect of liturgy. So while Protestants might on occasion make some incredible art, as in the case of the Dutch, that art tends to be more secular and less overtly Protestant.
Indeed, the relationship between Protestantism and Dutch prosperity has been extensively noted and one might even hazard to assert that Protestantism tends to have a secularizing impact on society to the degree to which it might culturally privilege bourgeois prosperity and with it a tendency to more secular materialism. Protestantism’s prioritization of the individual conscience and personal volition has tended to foster a more liberal individualism and this has predictably had implications for the development of art canon particularly in Northern Europe and the United States. It could be argued that the cacophony of hyper-individualistic expression and antihistorical aesthetic heterodoxy of much of Modernist and Postmodernist art is perhaps the unintended legacy of the Protestant Reformation, though many secular Modernists and pious conservative evangelicals might be loathe to concede this point.
Obviously, canons are flexible over time but that flexibility is usually contingent on a regime change. Yes, Impressionism was ridiculed by the public at the salon in which it debuted, but that public’s opinion self-evidently changed over time as today (as well as for the last 75 years) perhaps no form of art has been so widely popular as that of the Impressionists. If one doubts this then just ask yourself if you would rather pocket 30% of the entrance fees for the next blockbuster Monet exhibition or 100% of the gate for the next Bouguereau retrospective?
This eventual and now enduring popular appeal of Impressionism can’t just be dismissed as the consequence of Nelson Rockefeller and his Modernist propagandists. Many people who didn’t drink the avant-garde Koolaid, who can’t make hide nor hair of a Duchamp and think Pollock preposterous, still love their Renoir Odalisques for reasons that are sentimental and sincere.
Regarding the Impressionists and the Modernist triumphalist narrative: the importance of Napoleon III’s decree to exhibit the unsanctioned Impressionists was not that he anticipated its eventual popularity or saw it as superior to the aesthetic canon of the French Academy. Far from it. His move to have the work exhibited was, in fact, a cynical ploy to humiliate the Impressionist artists by submitting them to anticipated ridicule from a bourgeois public. He did this for equally cynical political reasons.
We should not disregard the French political context of Napoleon III’s era. France was politically factionalized between the recent legacy of Louis Philippe Royalists who wanted aristocratic restoration and the radical proletariat Communards who inspired recollections of the excesses of the Reign of Terror and who had briefly seized power in the aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The Communards couldn’t sustain their hold on it yet remained restless in response to the fin de siècle economic circumstances. Then there was Napoleon III’s newly emergent faction who wanted to establish the restoration of empire and stability while giving lip service to bourgeois proclivities for Enlightenment-era ideas. As with the case of Nelson Rockefeller, Napoleon III’s personal tastes in art coincided with his political agenda. Rightly or wrongly, Napoleon III believed the Impressionists represented a destabilizing, immoral, impious rabble of the disgruntled proletariat and that they needed to be discredited as ridiculously transgressive. We should recall where the Impressionists socially congregated at the Butte Montmatre and note that on that site now sits the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur built between 1875 and 1914. This is no coincidence but was part of a politically calculated urban renewal strategy of gentrification. The Sacré-Cœur was purportedly erected as an act of nationalistic penance for France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War as well as for the ostensible moral decline that was allegedly the result of decades of radical anticlericalism. But the Butte Montmatre was also the site of the Paris Comune of 1871 crowning its most rebellious neighborhood, a fact whose significance was not lost on the French emperor. Through his decree, Napoleon III sought to use an emergent conservative bourgeois patriotic populism to counter a radical proletarian one thus solidifying his political base by throwing culture war red meat to the middle-class lions. Adolf Hitler would take note of this to similar purpose and effect.
By humiliating the avant-garde intellectuals and discrediting the proletariat disruption with which their Impressionistic aesthetic could be socially, politically and even geographically associated, Napoleon III could kill two birds with one stone. The fact that the Impressionists were not really that radical and, despite their low brow associates, were perhaps embarrassingly bourgeois themselves, didn’t really matter if they could be cynically disparaged in service of a political agenda. Napoleon III could also appear to be the defender of conservative French culture while co-opting the political auspices of the French Academy. Their imperialist/academic political and aesthetic interests coincided so the relationship was symbiotic. But while each initially benefitted from their alliance, both would eventually accrue guilt by association from that affiliation as the political and cultural situation changed.
The unintended consequence of Napoleon III’s decree was not immediately apparent. What he had unintentionally done was set a disruptive precedent in which populism was now socially and politically pertinent to establishing the cultural legitimacy of art canon. Throughout the next century, bourgeois populism would determine the authority and priorities of any canon. The bourgeois patrons like Rockefeller and Guggenheim would affiliate with the avant-garde and lend their economic might to privileging their aesthetic priorities. Shrewdly, and arguably cynically, these bourgeois art oligarchs would gain prophylaxis from political criticism via their co-opting of academic auspices much in the manner of Napoleon III. These capitalists could put the more Marxist inclined avant-garde academics and artists on the payroll and, in so doing, once again get two for the price of one. They could compromise the aesthetic and political agendas of the Left through creating patronage dependency while appearing to be philanthropic rather than predatory. The old saying goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer still, or better yet, put them on the payroll.” For these bourgeois patrons of Modernism, castrating Socialist Realism’s propaganda potency was a political priority and the resultant marginalization of skilled representational art in any narrative idiom was acceptable collateral damage.
It was not my intention to suggest that there were never any positive outcomes in having aesthetic arbitration of any kind. Obviously, having professional associations in which artists and scholars can come together to share their findings and proffer peer review has certain advantages. Such authoritative confraternities allow for the consolidation and sharing of knowledge as well as the constructive critique of fallacies. Or at least in theory they do, although when evaluating the degree to which this actually takes place in practice, a certain skepticism is prudent. The hazard arises when an ostensibly authoritative affiliation becomes an authoritarian social and political entity which can impose its priorities onto the society through sheer force of secular power at least as much as through epistemologically sound consensus. Anyone who would assert that such esteemed ostensibly academic associations are even plausibly apolitical is comically naive and certainly hasn’t spent much time at university art faculty assemblies or been eavesdropping on museum boardrooms during monthly meetings. If you think the proceedings of the College Art Association, the American Alliance of Museums or even a congregation of the Art Renewal Center is politically neutral then your sense of neutrality is probably a little off balance.
Far be it from me to discourage like-minded people from congregating to share ideas and priorities at gatherings like The Representational Art Conference. Indeed, I firmly believe such congregations are essential for the cross-pollination of ideas and for encouraging critical thought among artists, scholars and other stakeholders in aesthetics. I’m an unapologetically ardent advocate of TRAC, and an enthusiastic participant. But we should recognize the inherent hazard that any cohort has natural tendencies to become dogmatic in response to the political dynamics of the assembled group, or that emergent dogma might understandably become reactionary in response to prolonged group marginalization. The degree to which this presents disproportionate hazard is directly proportional to the degree to which such associations possess coercive secular or political power. An institutional certifying organization like AAM or a tenure enabling gatekeeper like the CAA can indeed wield politically compromised coercive power. Institutions like the French Academy, MoMA and the Whitney can also have far-reaching power as their status-granting priorities tend to trickle down like a torrent to 2nd and 3rd tier exhibiting institutions. Conversely, although university sponsored, a gathering like TRAC2019 has far less perniciously coercive potential so long as its power is not wielded in an authoritarian manner and its optics remain inclusive rather than exclusive. Regardless of its ideological orientations or even its purportedly benign intentions, we should be wary about granting epistemological authority to the pronouncements of any cohort simply because of the secular authority of its affiliations or because of our affinity for its biases.
The very idea of art gatekeepers generally presumes the existence of a structure that is predominantly a wall designed to exclude access as much as a gate to facilitate entry. Perhaps a better model is an arcade that facilitates entry from 360 degrees according to differing priorities at different entrances. A coliseum with a single ingress and egress is called a “firetrap” for a reason.
I share Gordon’s view that the canon requires expansion and that its historical optic is indeed constantly expanding, if not fast enough to suit the curious or the understandably impatient. While the canon does incrementally evolve over time, history would also indicate that it responds to revolutionary political circumstances. But the hazard for the reactionary is a Hegelian one. The more quickly the radical pulls back the pendulum and the more acute the angle to which they pull it, the greater the energy stored in that pendulum and the greater the momentum its inevitable counter-reaction will have. When reaching for power, be careful how much you grab and how violently you grab it, certain in the inevitability and endurance of your own triumph. History would indicate that those who didn’t prevail in the initial conflict will remember how they were treated and might be inclined to operate accordingly when the momentum eventually shifts. Providing more entrances to the citadel might ultimately be more prudent than jealously guarding a single portcullis.
It’s a good idea to add chapters to the survey tome and expand the canon, just like it might be advisable to keep adding wings onto the museum. But even this has a diminishing practical return. There’s only so many galleries a museum visitor can possibly peruse in a single day and both real estate and time are ultimately finite. Likewise, the survey text gets longer every year but the duration of the semester or even the number of hours a university administration can pragmatically require for a degree remains stubbornly consistent. This is why the culture wars are so contentious because at some point canon becomes a zero-sum game. The assent of any single set of priorities inherently comes at some cost to another set. History would also indicate which priorities are in ascension in any given season is as much the result of the dynamics of political power as of merit by any objective standard.
That said, the hierarchical models of the past in which various factions vie for secular political supremacy may not be as pertinent to the future as many might presume. Pearce’s description of emergent phenomena can be useful for conceiving how a less authoritarian, more polyvalent canon might emerge in the context of social multiculturalism, philosophic Postmodernism, democratization, market economics and the atomization of subcultural identities with a multiplicity of intersectionalities yielding a mass-customization of more idiosyncratic modes of aesthetic consumption. A solitary dominant triumphalist art historical narrative may no longer be practical or even desirable as each art viewer curates according to their own cultural priorities. This is not to imply that their mode of curating is necessarily irrational or even entirely subjective because individuals might be quite expert and objective in their areas of curatorial specialization.
A single volume encyclopedia is an incredulous proposition, regardless of the length of the volume, because an encyclopedia by definition is not conceived to be read in a single sitting or perhaps even in its entirety. It’s a resource to be selectively consulted according to need, for a particular area of pertinent knowledge in a given moment. The notion of the definitive art historical survey text or course may have to be abandoned and we might have to finally recognize that not everyone needs or even wants an identical knowledge base. Likewise, the ever-expanding museum may prove to be practically untenable and we may need a multiplicity of specialized institutions to establish sub-canons of need for various knowledge constituencies. Similarly, the notion of an art department teaching a universally standardized curriculum with only a handful of employees on staff trying to cover an encyclopedic multicultural optic sufficiently broad to serve an ever increasingly diverse community may ultimately prove to be either futile or impossibly hyper-political. Nobody yet knows where all this cultural atomization is going to lead but it probably won’t be to a universal consensus administered by a relatively small oligarchy of authoritarians. The base of authority and its administration will have to dynamically expand to more diverse epicenters which may not look like more traditional institutional structures but instead be more free associations among dynamically emerging and evolving affinity groups. Those emergent groups may not issue canonical edicts per se but primarily be information providers that supply data and social networking opportunities for members who make their own decisions and curate their own idiosyncratic canons according to their own needs.