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Partisan Canons

by Anna Brzyski, Editor
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2007
370pp. Trade, 58; paper, 14
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4085-0; ISBN: 978-0-8223-4106-2.

Reviewed by Jennifer Ferng
Department of Architecture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Self-selecting, problematic, and yet, encompassing and remarkably discriminate at the same time, the canon, or a long-standing compilation of artworks revered as benchmarks of connoisseurship as well as public appreciation, remains a thorny issue that deeply divides scholars in the field of art history. Why and how often are students consistently shown the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne as exemplary models of art? This inquiry is inevitably linked to issues of authority, institutionalization, legitimacy, and orthodoxy that arise when selecting standards of what is considered good art, an objective that is not without its pedagogical impediments or biased social judgments. Edited by Anna Brzyski, this anthology includes discursive essays ranging from South African contemporary art and apartheid, the nationalist politics behind the Taiwanese Palace Museum, to the popularity of French Impressionism and the longevity of survey textbooks such as Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Gathered together as a series of loosely bound viewpoints from many educators and art historians, they introduce a wide variety of complex and unsettled issues associated with the canon to the general reader at large.

Starting with Brzyski’s introduction, the universalized standards of the canon are deeply ingrained into art history, and yet it has become a normative practice to question deputized works and why specified artists were intentionally or unintentionally left out of the picture. This quandary brings to mind some of the polemical statements brought forth by critics such as Linda Nochlin, who has demanded "Why have there been no great female artists?" and Kobena Mercer, who has argued for better representation of the African diasporic visual arts. There is, however, a partial consensus among scholars that that there are, and perhaps have always been, multiple canons, each with their own trajectory through the history of art, broadened, of course, by contemporary interests in globalization and countries that have been historically omitted from the Western European modernist tradition. The operations of the canon itself are often contradictory, a "mechanism of oppression, a guardian of privilege, a vehicle of exclusion, and a structure for class, gender, and racial interests." [1] The Western canon to this day monopolizes the cultural appraisal and reception of other forms of art. Brzyski introduces the thesis that a singular canon alone cannot possibly account for the diversity of individual artists, groups, and institutions that begin and end in heterogeneous geographic regions and time periods. The necessity for multiple canons thus becomes apparent; by considering each sub-field and historical context as its own canon and the deliberate motivations of artists themselves, the so-called grand narrative of the history of art can be revised to a greater degree.

Brzyski’s tenaciousness in revealing the mechanisms of canons is admirable, to uncover what Henry Louis Gates called the "veiled logic" behind tradition [2]. The structure of canons and their contents are often at odds with one another, and the act of choosing one work of art over another implies the automatic formation of a canon. With the demise of old-fashioned slides and the more frequent use of digital images, in university collections or on the Internet, Brzyski states the canon could become reinstated through the ARTstor database’s survey collection and argues that with its operations of metadiscourse, self-maintenance, and perpetuation, it is equally connected to the question of the archive. The visibility of the archive is tied to hierarchies employed to name what is valuable and worthy of preservation, according to given criteria or "specific regularities." There also lies the danger of tautological analysis, where works of art are often criticized by the very same systems that produced them. It is worth restating as Brzyski mentions that "art’s history is not affected by art historic discourse." [3] She suggests that the visual mapping of complex data sets may be a constructive means of imagining the interrelated networks of relationships that exist in a canon. While this may provide a possible image of the canon, this tangential part of her argument steers the premise of the book away from supplemental questions of social and cultural discourse that may not be included in a condensed networked diagram. Her somewhat awkward use of "nonequilibrium history," a term familiar to architects who have read the philosophy of Manuel de Landa, to describe this new type of diachronic, synchronic canon seems incompatible with the socially-infused, culturally-rich phenomena she is addressing in the field of art history.

The rest of the book is balanced between several essays that are based on somewhat quantitative studies that take statistics about paintings in the canon as their foundation and a few that emphasize the rhetoric behind the practices of inclusion/exclusion. While there is not enough room in this review to do justice to all of the varying essays presented in this anthology, each essay, in its own way, encourages further research into examining the claims at stake and how each case study relates to the robust discourse on the canon. Robert Jensen in "Measuring Canons" employs a straightforward empirical approach by collecting detailed citation studies on how often an image by a canonical artist appears in a given textbook. His analysis proposes that a market environment and changes in an economy has a dramatic effect on the success or failure of important works of art. While James Elkins uses a similar technique in identifying the global dispersion of art history departments, his meta-methods are quite exhausted by the end of his essay (as he himself notes), proving that numbers may only go so far. He stresses, nevertheless, that an honest form of multicultural, polymorphous art history may be out of reach, a clear insight not underscored enough by the other authors of the anthology. Writing from the field of psychology, James Cutting proposes the concept of "mere exposure" to illustrate why images that are the most reproduced are often the ones that are the most liked, and in turn, become natural canonical images. In Paul Duro’s essay "Imitation and Authority," the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres submits to his audience that he is "a conservator of good doctrine, but not an innovator, nor am I as my detractors pretend, a servile imitator," an apt phrase for the theme of this book. [4] Contested standards of modernist taste and emulation permeate Despina Stratigakos’ essay on the tensions between masculine reason and feminine spirit in the Werkbund as well as Marcia Brennan’s essay on the artistic genealogies outlined by Alfred H. Barr Jr. and James Johnson Sweeney at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s. Some of the other essays occasionally lack larger intellectual or theoretical arguments for a specific stance on how canons should function; for example, the case studies on the Rembrandt Research Project, where dissident members of the organization re-categorize seventeenth-century Rembrandt paintings according to present-day standards, and Thomas Kinkade, who anoints trainees to hand-highlight his kitschy canvases, operate as individual yet obvious monographs, rather than demonstrating how each artist would fit into more unlikely corners of the canon.

The volume, nonetheless, concludes with a stimulating coda written by Terry Smith who is the author of The Architecture of Aftermath and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Smith contends that the modern is often equated with the historical, and similarly, contemporaneity and the modern are often conflated with one another. He suspects that contemporary art sometimes is not conjoined to contemporaneity, the condition of being of, with, or in time. The quality of "presentness" in a work of art is difficult to measure; Smith uses Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s Passage (2001) as an example of art that "locates itself at the emotional core of a culture that seems to have nothing that is contemporary about it, yet persists in our time." [5] For Smith, contemporary art is about fashioning modern ways of re-presenting aesthetic beauty that signifies human experience, and while aesthetics may still thrive alongside the lack of certainty in our post-postmodern world, one now can no longer be sure of what can be called or classified as art of the present.

[1] Anna Brzyski, ed., "Introduction: Canons and Art History," in Partisan Canons, 1.
[2] Ibid, 4.
[3] Ibid, 18.
[4] Paul Duro, "Imitation and Authority: The Creation of the Academic Canon in French Art, 1648-1870," in Partisan Canons, 106.
[5] Terry Smith, "Coda: Canons and Contemporaneity," in Partisan Canons, 321.



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