Cult and culture of canons

Views of Difference - Contemporary Cultures of Display - The Changing Status of the Artist - Academies, Museums and Canons of Art - Gender and Art - The Challenge of the Avant-Garde - Art and its Histories
February 25, 2000

From Leonardo to Tracey Emin - Gill Perry considers a set of texts that will benefit budding art historians

In May of last year, the Tate Gallery hosted a launch of the new Open University course, Art and its Histories, with a special viewing of the Jackson Pollock show. More than 2,300 students have taken the course in its first year. The queues were spilling out onto the Embankment. Looking out from the Tate lobby it seemed like the last day of a crowd-puller such as the recent Cézanne exhibition.

The Tate and its regional satellites in Liverpool and St Ives are themselves objects of scrutiny in the Open University course - a complication not lost on the organisers of the event. Art and its Histories explores the relationship between art, art history and the so-called canon of art. It encourages students to explore such complications, to study the different positions and the debates that have characterised the production and consumption of art from the classical period onwards.

Conceived as an introductory second-level course, it deliberately eschews a conventional chronological survey. The course consists of six books co-published with Yale University Press, each of which engages with a theme of special interest to today''s art historians. The books are multi-authored, and use edited case studies to provide in-depth studies of issues central to the organising themes. For example, book one, Academies, Museums and Canons of Art , explores the shifting and problematic nature of the western canon of art through studies of the Parthenon marbles, French and British academies of art in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Albert Memorial and the National Gallery of Art in London.

Each of the other five books continues this exploration, while engaging critically with an issue or theme that has been prominent in recent art history. Book two, The Changing Status of the Artist , unpacks some pervasive assumptions about the artist as "genius". With a series of case studies on Italian and northern European art, it examines the widely held view that the later 15th century and the 16th century witnessed the emergence of the modern idea of the artist. Gender and Art , the third book, critically analyses European art, architecture and design from the 16th century to the present, including the work of women artists, to ask how gender influences visual representation. Book four, The Challenge of the Avant-Garde , focuses on a shorter historical period, the early to mid-19th century, going on to examine the evolving concept of avant-gardism in the early 20th century and its eventual incorporation into the modern canon. By the time students read the fifth book, Views of Difference: Different Views of Art , they should be equipped to critique some of the cultural assumptions behind the evolution of the western canon. This volume therefore looks both at the creation and criticisms of western histories of art, and at the idea of cultural difference implied in the concept of non-western art. There are case studies on Indian, African and Chinese art, and reviews of various approaches to non-western and European colonial art, encouraging students to critique and reflect upon western viewpoints.

This brings us to the final book in the series, Contemporary Cultures of Display , about the ways in which our understanding of art is constructed and informed by museums, galleries and art-teaching institutions. It considers the claim that art is dominated today by a commercialised culture of "spectacle", and asks students whether this notion is true of contemporary blockbuster exhibitions and the much-publicised annual Turner prize. The fact that 1999''s Turner prize shortlist, especially the work of Tracey Emin, has filled endless newspaper columns, is precisely the sort of debate (some might call it voyeuristic hysteria) our students are invited to investigate.

The six books are supplemented by eight network television programmes, videos, audio tapes, Open University handbooks and a course anthology, Art and its Histories: A Reader . This last book contains primary and secondary texts by artists, critics and art historians relevant to the six course books, with introductions concerning the problematic notion of an artistic canon. Although all the publications are free-standing and accessible to the general reader, they are designed to form an integrated teaching package.

The ideal student who works through them should have developed some wide-ranging skills of visual and textual analysis. The overall aim is to enthuse students to visit museums and galleries with a critical mind. We want them not only to go and look at Emin''s notorious bed, but also to ponder the reasons why it has been displayed in our leading gallery of modern art.

Gill Perry is chair of the course Art and its Historiesat the Open University.

Views of Difference: Different Views of Art

Editor - Catherine King
ISBN - 0 300 07763 7 and 07764 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00 and £16.95
Pages - 2

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