Partisan Canons

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Whether it is being studied or critiqued, the art canon is usually understood as an authoritative list of important works and artists. This collection breaks with the idea of a singular, transcendent canon. Through provocative case studies, it demonstrates that the content of any canon is both historically and culturally specific and dependent on who is responsible for the canon's production and maintenance. The contributors explore how, where, why, and by whom canons are formed; how they function under particular circumstances; how they are maintained; and why they may undergo change.

Focusing on various moments from the seventeenth century to the present, the contributors cover a broad geographic terrain, encompassing the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Taiwan, and South Africa. Among the essays are examinations of the working and reworking of a canon by an influential nineteenth-century French critic, the limitations placed on what was accepted as canonical in American textbooks produced during the Cold War, the failed attempt to define a canon of Rembrandt's works, and the difficulties of constructing an artistic canon in parts of the globe marked by colonialism and the imposition of Eurocentric ideas of artistic value. The essays highlight the diverse factors that affect the production of art canons: market forces, aesthetic and political positions, nationalism and ingrained ideas concerning the cultural superiority of particular groups, perceptions of gender and race, artists' efforts to negotiate their status within particular professional environments, and the dynamics of art history as an academic discipline and discourse. This volume is a call tohistoricize canons, acknowledging both their partisanship and its implications for the writing of art history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Anna Brzyski’s anthology Partisan Canons fills a long-recognized need in the literature on the history of art. The essays in this volume approach the canon of works of art on which the discipline is built from a variety of perspectives: how did it come about, on what principles is it built, does it have universal validity? These thoughtful and probing texts promise to afford art historians and others insight into one of the most deeply naturalized values of this profession.”—Keith Moxey, author of The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox and Power in Art History

“The subject of canons, a long-standing problem in literary studies, makes an impressive art historical debut in this authoritative collection of essays, which gathers together some of the most important critical voices in the contemporary study of the visual arts. Partisan Canons makes an important contribution to the discussion of values, power, and the social construction of artistic traditions.”—W. J. T. Mitchell, editor of Critical Inquiry and author of What Do Pictures Want?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341062
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Anna Brzyski is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky.

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Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4106-2

Chapter One

Measuring Canons: Reflections on Innovation and the Nineteenth-century Canon of European Art ROBERT JENSEN

The Canon and Its Discontents

Atruism: intellectual disciplines are dominated by acts of convention. Or, as Hayden White once put it, "Every discipline, I suppose, is, as Nietzsche saw most clearly, constituted by what it forbids its practitioners to do." This is no more or less true of art history. However, other disciplines, especially those outside the humanities, are better prepared by intellectual tradition to consider challenges to those conventions, to accept paradigm shifts where sufficient evidence makes opposition no longer feasible. Because the sciences especially employ the procedural model of hypothesis and verification, scientists (and many "hard" social scientists) have reasonably objective means to distinguish between personal values and tastes and what might be legitimate, if opposing, contributions to a field of inquiry.

Art historians, however, generally share in the recent humanist distrust of scientific methods and of the positivism they typically express. They assume that in culture all hypotheses or general statements are so ruled by contingency as to be ultimately unverifiable. Nowhere is this habit of mind more evident than in their general avoidance of quantitative methods, which proceed from evidence to interpretation. Faced with an approach fundamentally at odds with the normative procedures and assumptions of the discipline, their response has been either to marginalize the work (let sociologists and economists do it so long as it does not touch on issues perceived as core to the discipline) or to ignore it.

Art historians, of course, must generalize; however, they rarely pursue those generalizations in a systematic and ultimately verifiable way. The modus operandi in recent years has been to apply a theory or theories to a particular object of study, without seeking to examine the validity of the theory or theories in light of the evidence obtained. Rather, art historians often accept only such evidence as conforms to the assumptions upon which the applied theories are based. In this way, theories get treated as empirically valid findings rather than as descriptive models. Evidence contradictory to the hypothesis prima facie is either ignored or otherwise suppressed. Similarly, art historical interpretations, once established, are often treated as if they constituted factual knowledge. These parallel habits-the suspicion of generalization, the theorization that predetermines evidence, and the unexamined persistence of received interpretations-have been expressed so often in recent art history that it is now all too rare to find art historians generalizing about what they can factually demonstrate, but all too common to find them generalizing about what they believe. When, for example, art historians write about the "commodification of art" are they in fact submitting Marx's idea of commodity fetishism to serious critique or are they simply finding confirmation of Marx's perception in the material under study?

Nowhere are conventional beliefs and procedures more in evidence than in the discussion of canons. It is a subject as sensitive as a toothache, because the question of canons touches upon the biggest concerns the discipline now faces. Matters of race, gender, geographical location and cultural traditions, and so on are reshaping not only the objective field the discipline is working on, but also the attitudes and methods used to interpret the rapidly expanding arena of inquiry that some continue to call art and others "visual culture."

It is unfortunate, then, that art historians have tended to make of canons straw men, safeguarding outworn traditions, girded by privilege and by the force of capital, which are mechanisms of exclusion favoring the few at the expense of the many. Curiously joined to this oppressive view of canons is a long-standing conviction held by many art historians that canons are in fact highly mutable cultural institutions, matters of taste and changing fashions, and therefore subject to continual change and revision, truly made out of straw rather than oppressive marble. This alternating view of hegemony and instability arises from the discipline's insistence on approaching canons exclusively from the vantage of qualitative judgments. In the world of endlessly shifting perspective and uncertain standards of evidence, canons might naturally appear to be both impervious and gaseous.

It should be obvious, however, that individuals do not generate canons; whatever else they are, canons represent forms of consensus built up over time. In such cases, quantitative analysis is uniquely suited to understanding the collective perceptions of a discipline, where individual judgments are necessarily subordinate to what a discipline in toto holds to be most important.

In measuring canons, therefore, we should not be looking for "intrinsic qualities" possessed by an art object or for the "genius" possessed by the artist. The association of canons with quality is a monumental blind alley. Nothing cultural in the world possesses intrinsic value. Values must always be collectively conferred. Duchamp, for example, taught us that even beauty might not be an important criterion when judging the value of a work of art. This was a truly revolutionary perception. However, we should also understand that the revolution that is the ready-made lay dormant for almost half a century, until the problems it posed were taken up by artists during the 1960s. Before 1958, Duchamp was barely a participant in the modern canon and his 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was a far more likely candidate for serious art historical discussion than his 1917 Fountain. Since the 1960s, no twentieth-century artwork has been the object of more serious discussion, both art historical and philosophical, than the Fountain. Not only does the Fountain demonstrate how objects can acquire meaning and indeed fundamental importance over time, it also shows us a better way of thinking about "genius" as something other than a code word for someone who possesses an absolute and transcendent originality (another deeply problematic word). As the best literature on the artist argues, Duchamp recombined ideas and attitudes already widely circulating in early twentieth-century European culture and articulated them in a radically new way. Following Duchamp, let us strip "genius" of its connotation as a purveyor of ineffable and incommensurable values. Making art (and its makers) is neither more ineffable nor more incommensurable than other kinds of intellectual labor (and laborers). If we can measure the value of other forms of intellectual labor, which we can, then we can measure the values attached to art. The problem is not whether art can be measured, but in finding the best, most appropriate measures.

Approaching canons quantitatively, we should not look for their origins or measure their impact through the influence of a particular critic, curator, dealer, or art historian (or even government). Ernst Gombrich and Clement Greenberg, to take notable examples referred to elsewhere in this volume, did not make the reputations of Leonardo and Pollock respectively. At best, what they wrote enhanced those reputations and provided a clearer sense of the bases on which they rested. When we criticize these authors, therefore, what is at stake is not the artist's reputation but the specific arguments Gombrich and Greenberg made regarding how that reputation is to be viewed. We may, therefore, dismiss the analyses of Gombrich's and Greenberg's respective canons, as has often been done, for being too inflexible, too deterministic, and too teleological. However, we should be chary of confusing their arguments about a canon with the canon itself, especially if we hope to get closer to understanding the mechanisms of canon formation.

Undoubtedly, critics, art historians, and curators have played and will continue to play significant roles in explaining, refining, and transmitting canons. Yet why should we assume that art history's professionals are the most important players in the formation of canons and that artists are but the material with which they play? In all other intellectual disciplines, we would have no problem accepting the axiom that the discipline's practitioners define their fields. We would not say that historians of science made Isaac Newton canonical. Who would question that leading innovators in science, technology, medicine, philosophy, jurisprudence, and so on are all regarded as such first by the respective professionals in those fields? The greatness of their respective innovations has been and will continue to be measured by how and how much they altered the disciplines in which they worked. Professional art history has rarely been so generous to artists and less so today than ever before.


In his sadly neglected 1962 book The Shape of Time, George Kubler argued that it was precisely through the pattern of innovation and its dispersion that art and science most resembled each other. For Kubler, "The value of any rapprochement between the history of art and the history of science is the display of common traits of invention, change, and obsolescence that the material works of artists and scientists both share in time." A great work of art, in Kubler's sense, is very much like a new idea in physics. It arises from a complex stew of cultural material, including not only major scientific or artistic discoveries that precede the innovation, but also, among other elements, the contributions of lesser ideas and individuals. Kubler also argued that no matter how canonical an artist or a work of art may be, revolutions in art, like revolutions in science, are never the work of an isolated individual. However, within these collaborative environments, individual figures clearly play decisive roles.

For most art historians innovation is usually a word of only small compass, used to describe the specific achievements of a given artist or work of art, whereas originality is used to refer to a general, if widely contested, model of artistic creativity. Among economists, the reverse holds true. They invest originality, or what they would term invention, with little significance, while attaching enormous importance to innovation. For economists, what makes an invention significant is its use. An idea not applied is essentially worthless. To innovate, according to Webster's, is "to introduce new methods, devices, etc." Innovation means putting into practice a new idea, method, or technological discovery. Originality is a backward-looking concept, pointing toward an imaginary moment of origin and a single producer; innovation as a concept looks both forward and backward, embracing both novelty and tradition.

Artistic innovation must, however, be distinguished from either scientific or technological innovation in that art history is replete with examples of conscious reversals, in which artists have returned to older methods and styles as the source for new ideas. This does not mean that the achievements of any given era are permanently lost (although the craft skills necessary to achieve them may not be continuously available to subsequent generations of artists). If innovations are forward-looking, they are not directed toward some predetermined goal (as Greenberg argued). One might find a series of solutions to an artistic problem without any sense of a final endpoint. Indeed, one might easily value an early contribution to this set as much or more than that of the latest contributor. This is because no solution to a problem can ever be absolutely authoritative, resolving a question for all time. No one now believes the world is flat, but not even Picasso could forestall what was possible within the vocabulary of Cubism. Witness Juan Gris's subsequent contributions to Cubism. However, Picasso's stature is greater than Gris's because his work had the greater impact. The greater the resonance of an innovation the more important the contribution made by the particular artist or artwork. At the same time, innovation is not about absolute novelty (that is, originality), but the successful reorganization of ideas and practices already available.

We should also be careful to disentangle innovation from aesthetics; certainly innovations in art are most often formal, but again, as Duchamp demonstrated, form is only one of many possible criteria, not the exclusive one. Concepts, politics, identity, and pioneering techniques are among the many other factors that might lead to the identification of importance in a particular artist or work of art.

Artists' innovations have the power to reshape retrospectively art history's perception of past art. One could point as an example to the undoing by artists of Greenberg's influence on both contemporary art and art history, when, during the 1960s and 1970s artists refashioned what was possible in art. In the process, they rendered Greenberg's formalism and his endgame of pure abstraction irrelevant. New work may also endow past art with new relevance. As it has often been observed, there were numerous scholars in the first half of the twentieth century who wrote, like Meyer Schapiro, about both medieval and modern art. The freedom from representational illusionism in modern art provided the context for the wholesale reexamination of pre-Renaissance art in the West.

However, there are limits to the alteration of the canon once it is in place. Since the establishment of art history as an intellectual discipline during the nineteenth century, rediscoveries in art, in which forgotten "old master" artists become canonical, have become increasingly rare. Even among twentieth-century artists, we have seen little shifting in the relative reputations of artists working before 1970; we have also witnessed a general hardening of the reputations of artists who made their most significant contributions between 1970 and 1990. In addition, it just does not happen that an artist, having achieved the canon, may be subsequently removed from it. The labors of past art history are, as far as we can tell from all of the evidence currently available, irreversible. This does not preclude new works from being added to a canon; far from it, canons are continually expanding when they represent living traditions.

Counting the Canonical

I have made a number of claims about innovation's role in the formation of artistic canons, based on models offered by science and economics. The validity of this analysis I have supported with a handful of examples. I now want to reverse my approach by first establishing what and who belong to the canon under investigation-for this essay, nineteenth-century European art-and only then offering preliminary explanations for some of what may be discovered in these findings, and thus pointing the way to avenues for future research. The methods I used in measuring the nineteenth-century canon are simple and easily duplicated, while the results are readily verifiable. Much of what this work tells us the profession in a sense already knows. Yet, there is often considerable difference between what one knows intuitively and what one can demonstrate empirically. It is here that the clarity brought by quantitative work may have the largest benefit to scholarship. I am convinced, in any case, that any method has value if it allows one to examine old problems in new ways, can be duplicated and improved by others, and especially if it raises new questions.

Following the work of the economist David Galenson, I have found that the most convenient way to determine what is currently canonical in the visual arts is by conducting a textbook illustration survey. By using this simple quantitative method, it is possible to discover who are the most reproduced artists and what are the most frequently reproduced works of art. This method is similar to citation studies used in the social sciences to determine the most influential work within a discipline. Because art historians use textbooks to introduce students both to the material and to the methods of the discipline, these texts represent the consensus view of what has been considered important in the art surveyed. Art history survey textbooks have steadily evolved in scope and manner of presentation during the last seventy-five years as the body of art historical literature has continued to mature and new methods and subjects have appeared. Rarely has this expansion altered what art history considers the most important artists, although it has considerably refined what are considered the most important works of art.


Excerpted from PARTISAN CANONS Copyright © 2007 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Canons and Art History ANNA BRZYSKI....................1
1. Measuring Canons: Reflections on Innovation and the Nineteenth-century Canon of European Art ROBERT JENSEN....................27
2. Canon and Globalization in Art History JAMES ELKINS....................55
3. Mere Exposure, Reproduction, and the Impressionist Canon JAMES CUTTING....................79
4. Imitation and Authority: The Creation of the Academic Canon in French Art, 1648-1870 PAUL DURO....................95
5. Chinese Art, the National Palace Museum, and Cold War Politics JANE C. JU....................115
6. Masculine Reason or Feminine Spirit: Gender Battles in the Werkbund's Canonization of National Style DESPINA STRATIGAKOS....................135
7. Courbet, the Decorative, and the Canon: Rewriting and Rereading Meier-Graefe's Modern Art JENNY ANGER....................157
8. The Multiple Masculinities of Canonical Modernism: James Johnson Sweeney and Alfred H. Barr Jr. in the 1930s MARCIA BRENNAN....................179
9. "Gardner" Variety Formalism: Helen Gardner and Art through the Ages BARBARA JAFFEE....................203
10. The Rembrandt Research Project: Issues and Controversies Raised by a Canonical Oeuvre LINDA STONE-FERRIER....................225
11. Making Art in the Age of Art History, or How to Become a Canonical Artist ANNA BRZYSKI....................245
12. Kinkade and the Canon: Art History's (Ir)Relevance MONICA KJELLMAN-CHAPIN....................267
13. Canons Apart and Apartheid Canons: Interpellations beyond the Colonial in South African Art JULIE MCGEE....................289
14. Coda: Canons and Contemporaneity TERRY SMITH....................309
About the Contributors....................355
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