Painting by numbers?

October 27, 1994

Controversy over the existence of a canon of great works has long divided the world of literature, yet a similar if less public dispute bisects the world of art. In an attempt to open up this debate, The THES asked a number of artists and art historians:`Does a canon of ten great works or artists exist and should be studied?'.

Dodgy territory this -- I'm really putting my neck on the block." The mixed media artist, Michael Craig-Martin was providing a list of artists, seemingly against his better judgement, which he believed could form a canon in the study of the history of art.

The response to The THES's was guarded, angst-ridden, thin on the ground, if not downright non-compliant. In an age which embraces shortlists and prizes for both artists and writers alongside militant decanonisation, a confused and tentative response was not perhaps surprising.

This is an age when museums and galleries are packed to bursting, when exhibitions and major retrospectives have never been so popular, when works are being re-evaluated and categorised all the time, not least by the sale rooms. Sale rooms need track records and the track record of fine art is art history. However, many artists and art historians are resistant to the hierarchies established through a linear account of art history.

The idea of a canon which holds for all time is certainly anathema to many young contemporary artists who are working in the provocative, conceptual area of how you define art (what is art and what is not). They are antipathetic to the idea of a canon. But a lack of consensus on the historical context of works of art is dangerous, according to others. Robert Hopper, director of the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust, said that without a consensus, "you come down to the banality of what it is that I like and that is the philosophy of philistines".

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