Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 7, 2000
Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. Academies, Museums and Canons of Art Yale University Press, 1999. 272 pp.; 48 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300077416)

In the preface, Gill Perry poses the questions, “Who decides which artists and works of art will be more highly valued than others? What political, economic and historical factors might govern those decisions?” (15) and "What are some of the “aesthetic, cultural and political beliefs which underpin canonical values?” (258) These questions are not asked with the intention of finding final answers. This book neither attempts to rewrite the history of Western art under the consideration of its canonical formation, nor advocate the elimination of the canon altogether. Its primary goals, more didactic than academically groundbreaking, are first, to alert students to a supposedly set value system, i.e. the canon, in art history and to encourage questioning of the nature and the origin of this canon, and its process of formation and maintenance; second, to show that the art object does not possess an intrinsic quality that goes beyond social values and political realities; and finally, to give students the tools to study art by describing, analyzing, and independently assessing it.

Since the Western canon is the status quo in art history today, the book is an integral part of the ongoing efforts of many art history departments in North America to rewrite or expand the canon, and to revise their introductory courses accordingly. Academies, Museums and Canons of Art should be required reading for anyone who teaches art history in college. Despite its conception as a textbook, it is a valuable addition to revisions of the canon, both from the Western and the non-Western perspective. It also contributes to the growing interest in, and literature on, the formation of public and private art collections and the relationship between art production, distribution and display.

Using case studies, the book explores three broad areas: the role of classical art and classicism, the influence of academies and education upon the canon, and the canon’s relationship to museums and monuments in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and France. The authors take the classical Greco-Roman tradition as a point of departure, without reasserting its aesthetic supremacy in a Winckelmannian or Woelfflinian sense. Instead, the first two essays concern art history’s affirmation of “the ‘classical’ as canonical” (21). Nicolas Poussin, Emma Barker argues, received canonical status even during his lifetime by developing a style of painting, especially apparent in the Arcadian Shepherds, which began the post-Renaissance movement of “neo-classical art.” She demonstrates that his work was admired for its return to the much-admired past as well as for its relative originality within the academy. The Pantheon relief sculptures, now in the British Museum, are the subject of the second study by Colin Cunningham, demonstrating that the individuals and institutions who brought the sculptures to England and exhibited them as national treasures were instrumental in their canonization.

Part two focuses on the role of art academies and their value systems in the development and maintenance of the canon. In the third case study, Linda Walsh examines Arnold Hauser’s assumptions, nearly canonical in their own right, about the French painter and academy director Charles Le Brun. In Hauser’s view, Le Brun suppressed individual artistic expression by establishing “universal laws” for the creation of art. Walsh demonstrates convincingly that the prevailing political and cultural conditions of seventeenth-century France— that is, the court-dominated system of patronage—encouraged the canonization of particular works of art “and the principles they embodied” (120). It was through aesthetic discourse and exchange in the academies, not unilateral decision making, that the classicist tradition came to be celebrated.

In the fourth case study, Gill Perry analyzes the establishment of the canon in mid-eighteenth- century Britain by looking at the “shifting status of portraiture” (126) and its relationship to the academic tradition. She is particularly interested in William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, and their relationship to the institutional framework within which they worked. She concludes that the institutionalization of art, with active or passive royal support, was crucial in creating a culture of professionalism in art and establishing the canon.

The role of art historiography in defining the canon is the subject of the fifth case study, again by Barker. The nineteenth-century artists William Turner and Frederic Leighton are her subjects. Since Turner’s work anticipated the spontaneous and self-expressive traits of modernism, modernist art historians elevated him to the pedestal of British art-making, while they relegated the more academic Leighton to the laughingstock of contemporary criticism. By turning to Leighton’s and Turner’s lifestyles and public reception, Barker demonstrates that the positions these two artists now occupy in art history—Turner within the canon and Leighton without—are exclusively a function of the modernist values underlying the current canon of art.

Until this point in the book, the authors were mainly, but not exclusively, concerned with aesthetic standards which led to the inclusion or exclusion of art from the canon. Part Three, in contrast, is concerned with the politics and ideology responsible for shaping the canon. Its three case studies describe the way in which art was collected, presented, displayed and consumed in nineteenth-century Britain. The Albert Memorial, “the most significant piece of public sculpture in mid-19th century Britain” (190), is the subject of the sixth case study, again by Cunningham. What, he asks, is the memorial’s relationship to the Western canon? He leads the reader through a careful reading of the monument’s style, iconography, and meaning, and concludes that the memorial’s significance as a mid-Victorian monument, its contemporary status, the number of artists involved, cost and technical virtuosity are political and ideological factors which led to its inclusion in the canon.

The next case study, about the first fifty years of the National Gallery in London, by Anabel Thomas, shows how institutional politics influenced the museum’s mission and its collection. Museums play a crucial role in defining the Western canon, and there is no better example of how the size and quality of museum collections depends on the art market, donations and availability than London’s National Gallery. For this reason, the concluding case study by Barker and Cunningham about the development of provincial collections in Britain, and the “consumption of art” (238) in the second half of the nineteenth century by the institutions and their audience, stands in such interesting contrast to the previous one. In a short history of the Manchester City Art Gallery, the authors lay out the complex role of the museum in the social and economic matrix of the city. Especially in a provincial institution, where funds were tight and audiences diverse, the function of the art museum was one of education, integration, and civic pride. The fact that most of the provincial collections were unable to acquire major works of the Western canon was only secondary; thus regional museums tended to support local national artists rather than international ones, and their goal was to address a mass audience rather than an elite one.

While it hints at controversial questions, the book concludes by reinforcing the canon’s existence, without critically examining the influence of centuries of colonialism and European artistic domination. Historical facts are underemphasized in favor of objectivity; for example, Cunningham discusses the history of the Parthenon marbles from their discovery to their exhibition today, but he fails to discuss the colonial policies of England toward Greece. On the other hand, an extensive and critical discussion of the French and English cultural and economic policies might surpass the requirements of a largely didactic, survey-course textbook enterprise. Furthermore, while the book claims to be about academies and museums in Britain and France, the emphasis is on Britain. The authors might be forgiven, as the beauty of the study lies in the excellent choice of cases: they should be understood as test cases while carrying important implications for other, similar examples beyond British borders. And finally, one has to ask in the spirit of Linda Nochlin’s canonical article of 1971: “Why have there been no great women artists in the canon?”

Academies, Museums and the Canon of Art attests that there is a growing need to place art and the construction of its histories under close scrutiny, raising issues which will, we can hope, lead to further investigations of the canon. For example, how did twentieth-century artists like Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol receive canonical status, and how did social, political and economic reality impact their canonization? Academies, Museums and the Canon of Art makes it all the more obvious that we need to be self-conscious about the process of art-historical analysis, to regard the canon not as an objective law but as a subjective system, influenced by the dynamics of history.

Isabel Balzer
Webster University