The Art History Canon: Which Canon Are We Talking About, And Who Said So? is the text of an illustrated paper presented by Eileen Manning Michels at a session about the art history introductory course at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in San Antonio in 1995.

The statement in the call for papers for this session that a "standard group of Western European and American masterpieces has lately been questioned or rejected by scholars and teachers from a variety of perspectives" implies that there has been agreement through the years about what constitutes that canon. A dictionary definition of a canon is: "sacred writings admitted to the catalog according to the rule." Implicit in this definition is the concept of differentiation, some writings out of many are by consensus accorded a special place. The analogy of an art history canon is that through the years a consensus has arisen that certain works of art are especially meaningful in our collective culture. They have acquired lasting status that transcends transitory or faddish intellectual, political and pedagogical preoccupations. The concept of differentiation prevails here also in that only some works of art out of many -- we usually think of them as masterpieces -- have been accorded special places. Their omission in a survey course presumably would be unthinkable. At this point, I will note that despite this conventional wisdom, I can not recall ever having seen a list of the specific works that constitute this supposedly sacrosanct art history canon.

In recent years an opposing view has arisen that the putative canon is not a transmitter of cultural patrimony meaningful to all, but rather is an instrument of repression, merely an outdated fixed catalog of Eurocentric works compiled long ago by Eurocentric males, and it is largely irrelevant today in the context of cultural diversity so avidly sought in individual courses and indeed in an entire curriculum. The articulated, and pejorative, corollary of this view is that through the years this practice of Eurocentrism, in order to perpetuate itself, has deliberately excluded the art of non-Western cultures, women and other groups that now are seeking identification and inclusion. Those who see deliberate exclusion from the canon are angry about perceived injustice, and want changes made to reflect their particular cause -- be it gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, class, political view, etc. If it is necessary to drop differentiating criteria or concepts such as masterpiece, special or overriding quality, distinctions between so-called high art and popular culture, and so on, in order to achieve goals that basically are political and demographic, so be it. Demolishing perceived injustice by rectifying perceived rigidity of the canon is deemed an appropriate pedagogical goal.

The acrimony and suspicion that surround this debate suggest to me that it is, at least in part, a manifestation of a profound misunderstanding of the very nature of history, historians and the historical process. With the hope of trying to defuse some of the rancor and misunderstanding, I propose placing this debate about the canon, which I have just crudely summarized, in the context of the historiography of art history. In doing so, it also will be helpful to ponder the fundamental nature of history and its practice.

The history of art history reveals that, contrary to widespread belief, the content of the putative canon has not been static but instead has changed steadily through the years. On the one hand some of the changes have reflected broad, generally apolitical, cultural shifts that resulted in permanent additions to the canon. The new works have taken their place beside the ones already there. On the other hand, some of the changes have been relatively narrowly based and politically or ideologically motivated. This also has resulted in the addition of new things, but usually only with an accompanying temporary displacement of certain other things.

Let me draw a few examples from personal experience. As an undergraduate and also a new graduate student in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I learned from several distinguished professors that Roman sculpture was inconsequential because it was largely a degeneration of Greek sculpture, and that most Early Christian figurative art was largely degenerate Roman, doubly damned as it were. Since I had not yet traveled to see many of these things with my own eyes, and since few art history books were then available to American students, I had little reason to doubt this imparted wisdom. The scant bibliography of art history a few decades ago is hard to imagine given the glut of publications today.

In a number of courses students relied on the seventeen volumes of the Propylaen Kunstgeschichte published in Berlin between 1923 and 1929. Each volume consisted of a short introduction, in German, followed by about three hundred pages of black and white illustrations with basic identification but no further individual commentary. Fourteen of the volumes addressed standard chronological segments of European art, but given the theme of this session and paper, let it be noted that three of them, or seventeen percent of the entire publication, presented non-Eurocentric art, that is the art of Africa, Oceania, India, China, Japan and Islam.

Back to Roman and Early Christian art. A few decades ago, the scholarly world turned for a variety of reasons too complex to go into here, and Roman art and Early Christian figurative art assumed lasting positions of critical worth in the canon alongside of, but not in place of, Greek art. In other instances, new items assumed a position not alongside of part of the existing canon, but rather in place of part of it. I refer here to the impact of modern art in this country after World War II. Since my special interest is nineteenth and twentieth century architecture, I will draw a few examples from that area. I was taught to dismiss or ignore a number of things, such as American Victorian architecture except for some of the work of Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis Sullivan; Beaux-Arts architecture, which previously had been an established part of the American architectural canon; contemporaneous historicizing architecture now often referred to as Period Revival; Art Deco -- anything in other words that did not fit the stringent formal, intellectual, ideological and even political demands of International Style modernism largely defined between World War I and World War II by Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and LeCorbusier. Their concepts and designs were packaged by Sigfried Gideion in 1941 in his seminally important but highly selective book, Space, Time and Architecture. This was a book that, coupled with radical changes in American  architectural education after World War II, shaped the outlook of American architects and architectural historians for more than twenty years. As students we lapped it up. Anything that did not fall within those narrowly defined parameters of architectural modernism was deemed hopelessly outdated, aesthetically and intellectually bankrupt and socially debased. Today Space, Time and Architecture is read, if at all, mostly as an historical artifact.

True, some of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, ever marching to his own non-International Style beat, became part of the canon of modern architecture because of its sheer creative force. But there tended to be qualifiers in explaining his stylistically unique presence in the company of Gropius, Mies, LeCorbusier and a few lesser like-minded luminaries. For example, in 1932 a brash twenty-six-year-old Philip Johnson, then busily proselytizing the cause of International Style modernism as the curator of architecture at the new Museum of Modern Art, and then as now also a quipster, partly finessed the issue of what to do about the undoctrinaire Wright by cheekily calling him the greatest American architect of the nineteenth century. Wright, although then in his seventies, of course was far from finished and would go on before his death twenty-seven years later to design the canonical Fallingwater, Taliesin West, the Guggenheim Museum and more than two hundred Usonian houses.

After the proselytizing dust settled, the historical world once again turned. Today there are little armies of researchers in all of those architectural fields temporarily displaced from the canon a few decades ago. The Beaux-Arts was recanonized --  witness the exhibition of Beaux-Arts architecture twenty years ago at, of all places, the Museum of Modern Art. There have been hundreds of publications about Victorian, Period Revival and Art Deco architects and architecture. With increased access to the riches of the Wright archives there has been an explosion of scholarly interest in Wright, and again I would point to last year's Museum of Modern Art exhibition and a spate of significant, recent groundbreaking publications about him. On the other hand, International Style modernism has now fallen from critical grace, and Gropius bashing, Mies bashing and LeCorbusier bashing are not at the moment unusual. The implicit debate, which is far from over, about which aspect of this century's architecture will finally claim pride of place in the canon seems locked in a stance of either/or rather than both. That says to me that the debate has been fueled more by cause and advocacy than good history.

My venerable collegiate dictionary defines history as being "a continuous, systematic written narrative, in order of time, of past events relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etcetera." A newer dictionary defines history as "an account of what has happened in the life or development of a people, country, institution, etcetera; or a systematic account of this, usually in chronological order with an analysis and explanation." Half a century separates the two definitions and their wording differs around the edges, but both are in fundamental agreement that, boiled down to its essentials, history is a continuous chronological narrative. History is not theory, rhetoric, attitude, indoctrination, demography, or political advocacy or correctness. It is not dialectical discourse on fairness and justness per se. It is simply the sequential story, as best it can be determined at any given point, of what has happened in a given collective cultural life over a given period of years.

Some years ago, in a paper whose purpose was to ameliorate some of the rancor that then existed between the keepers of the vast Frank Lloyd Wright archives and the scholarly community, which wanted to move beyond the Wrightian hagiography then insisted upon by those keepers, I turned to a short but insightful book about history and historians called Doing History by Jack H. Hexter, a distinguished professor of English Renaissance history at Yale. He was helpful as a neutral third party without the slightest professional interest in Wright or the scholarly controversy then engulfing study of his work. I believe that Hexter's book might be equally helpful in the discussion at hand, because i think that many of us have lost sight of what history really is and what historians really do -- or should be doing.

One of Hexter's observations is that historians are interested in everything about their subject, yet no one possibly can know or understand everything about it at any one time. We are creatures of our time saddled with all of the intellectual shortsightedness that realization implies. That Greek sculpture would have been presented sympathetically to American students five decades ago while Roman was glossed over should not, upon reflection, surprise us. Art history was then one of the newest and smallest kids on the American academic block. When I called to inquire, the College Art Association office could not supply me with exact information about the size of its membership during my undergraduate years, but we guessed that it would have been counted in the hundreds rather than in the thousands. Now, for the record, it is just under 14,000. Five and four decades ago most of our teachers were German expatriates or had been trained in Germany or here by the expatriates. Art history, as I hope most of you know, began in Germany in the eighteenth century when Johann Winckelmann differentiated Greek from Roman art, differentiated sequential phases of the former and, heavily indebted to prevailing aesthetic theory, designated the Hellenistic period as the finest part of Greek sculpture. The Neo-Classical age was largely immune to the beauties of the formal abstractions of preclassical Greek art, and others followed his lead. In due time, at the turn of the twentieth century, when all of the Western arts were seeking new forms, Alois Reigel and others turned sympathetic attention to preclassical Greek sculpture, and it was added to the canon. Did Winckelmann and the others have base motives in mind in initially excluding Roman and preclassical Greek sculpture from their canon? I think not. They were merely intellectual creatures of their own day.

Have women artists, to summon a final example,  for contemptible reasons deliberately been mainly excluded from the canon until quite recently? I have come not to think so. My continual reading of the continuous chronological narrative of the past, of  history that is, says to me that exclusion of women from the cultural mainstream has been widespread and real, although arguably not total. The present anger about the perceived injustice of deliberate exclusion of women from art history survey texts and courses is in some quarters no less real. But what actually happened in history can not be changed by the pedagogical charge of the present. My private ruminations about the historiography of art history along with personal experience, often demeaning, as a woman attempting to function professionally during the past four decades, lead me to conclude that, until very recently anything but exclusion of women from the art history canon would have been unexpected. Art, as has been said, is the camp follower of history.

That leads to another useful point Hexter makes, which is history is a collaborative effort, and no matter how impeccably reasoned at the moment of its presentation, no history is good for all time. Inevitably it is going to be subjected to refinement or revision through, these days, discovery of new works or facts, publications, reviews, discussion and rethinking. The best that the historian can do, and that would include the art historian, is to say that, based on everything I know because of all of the evidence I have been able to assemble, this is the way it looks to me. Given the volume of art history publication today, good and bad side by side, that is no easy task. Inevitably the conclusions of today will be challenged tomorrow. Having provided all of the evidence, the historian need not be embarrassed, annoyed or angry when someone else later amplifies, corrects, challenges, revises and overturns it --  provided that the revision is done with, as Hexter puts it, grace and generosity. Grace and generosity -- quaint concepts in some quarter these days.

The last matter I want to touch upon concerns the statement in the call for papers that refers to "those who would substitute quite different standards for the choice of study materials." My instantaneous reaction was that the primary issue is not one of new standards to be defined vis a vis individual works, but rather the issue is what a historian is, as differentiated from a polemicist or advocate, and how the historian works.

Once again Hexter offers insight. He separates amateur history, which is largely anecdotal, from professional history, which is dependent on rigorous and inclusive methodology. He notes that competence in a historian is not merely a function of dedication or devotion to a particular subject. Quite the contrary I would say. Occasionally when we become deeply involved intellectually in a particular subject we also may find ourselves emotionally involved to the point that we are in danger of abandoning rigorous methodology. We want things to turn out in a certain way that proves our point. But Hexter would say that rigor must prevail. I would add that if it does not prevail, then we most likely will speak as advocates or polemicists rather than as historians. In 1932 Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote primarily as advocates in their book, The International Style, as did Gideion in Space, Time and Architecture.  Their overriding commitment was to change in similarly narrowly defined ways the perceived architectural status quo Simply put, out with the old, in with the new. Today both of those books are viewed as intellectually flawed period pieces.

Maybe it is time to lower our voices and reflect upon the idea that history itself is a constantly changing entity, an imperfect human endeavor. It has been shaped and modified by multitudes of people, facts and perceptions. Inclusion and exclusion in the art history canon has been and no doubt always will be a changeable thing. Hindsight arguably reveals that exclusion of certain work or works at a given time may have been culturally short-sighted, but i doubt that it was usually purposely and wickedly deliberate.

What specific changes should occur right now in the putative canon? I have intentionally avoided this question, because it is not the basic issue. The real issue, and the hard part, is how we are going to proceed in making the the changes now perceived as necessary in our art history course or courses or for that matter in our curriculum as a whole. In practical terms, textbooks can get longer and heavier, but the number of class hours in a given quarter or semester or year can not. Are we going to permanently add to what now exists or are we going to replace whole chunks of it with something else? Are we going to apportion class time according to a demographic formula? Are we going to function as advocates advancing a particular political cause or as historians wanting to do good history, that is to add to the continuous chronological narrative as accurately and as truly as possible, and to present it in that way to our students? As individuals we can of course do whatever we want, but the historical process itself has had its own way of ultimately taking care of the oversights, misjudgments and mistakes that have been made in the past.

© Eileen Manning Michels 2010