This discussion comes to us from regular EphBlog commentator Parent ’12


From the introduction for CGCL VI:

“Williams is about to start its first new presidency in a decade.  What does the past tell us about the future?”

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Can a Canon be a Crystal Ball?

What are your associations to the word, canon   … ecclesiastical laws?  … a body of knowledge?  …. music?

When I hear the word, canon, given my past, I first think of a round, like “Row, row, row your boat,” then I think of other contrapuntal music, like a Bach fugue… at some point, “dead, dead, dead white men” will come to mind.

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In December, here on EphBlog, (EB) a discussion started in response to a change in the Art Studio major.  The discussion had been prompted by an essay, “Challenging the Canon,” in the Record (Dec. 9, 2009).   Shelley Williamson, a senior, majoring in French and art studio, wrote

The much-lauded ARTH 101-102 course is no longer the only art history course required to finish the art studio major; instead, any two art history courses will be accepted. Although this modification may seem miniscule to many, it is in fact an incredibly progressive step for the department, one I believe will strengthen the quality of Williams’ art students ten-fold.

You may be asking yourself why anyone would find this problematic enough to deem it a controversy; the truth is that I simply couldn’t tell you. I am a senior art studio major and I absolutely loved my semesters with E.J. Johnson and Eva Grudin, both of whom are amazing professors. In spite of this, I think that the changed requirements will provide art studio students with a great new opportunity for dialogue. ARTH 101-102 is a survey of the Western canon, also known as the Holy Grail of art history. However, in order to think critically about the canon, there must be an understanding of non-canonical art as well. For example, an understanding of Cubism is incomplete without recognizing the influence of African masks on Picasso.

Without a counterpoint, the canon cannot exist. In identifying the Western tradition as the standard, there is also the acknowledgement that another convention should also be present for comparison. As art studio majors, shouldn’t we be able to choose to study the history of the work that most inspires our practice?

Various reactions to the change were expressed in the EphBlog discussion.   They seemed to reflect how a canon, be it a set of tenets, images, or texts, might influence one’s present and future perspective–  how one sees the world and possibly how one wants the world to be.

In response to the change in the art studio major, those who held firmly to the importance of taking Art History 101-102 seemed to believe that one had to have a common body of knowledge, which had to be Western Art, and that one’s understanding of all art was seen through this particular lens.  A less dogmatic position, as far as whether studio majors should be required to take ArtH 101-102, was that Western artists will naturally be aware of Western Art because of their cultural origins.

Another issue raised in the EB discussion  was the relationship between creativity and a canon:  Can innovation or progress occur without exposure to a canon?

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Is the art history canon only Western Art?  Or, must it be Western Art because of the culture of the college, as opposed to the student’s culture?  (Remember, all Williams students do not share the same Western culture.)

And, to provide counterpoint to extend the discussion and return to this year’s CGCL theme of looking to the future-

How far has the canon in art and other fields expanded beyond  “dead white men” to include others?

Knowing what you know now, what changes would you make to the requirements for your major?

If a canon is a crystal ball, is it searching for dead souls, or gazing into the future?

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