Chapter Nine: Canons of Art
The record of success in the physical sciences is lodged in their ‘laws’, or similar mathematical formulations that describe inorganic patterns of Quality. In a field that does not lend itself to quantification, success is preserved in its canon of masterpieces. These are the art works that have been adopted by painters, writers, and other artists as starting points for their own work, so that by comparing the one with the other we can recognise the merit of both. New works that impress the next generation of artists are adopted and adapted in their turn, forming over time a canon of exemplary pieces. All works of art fall into this pattern: those that don’t are not recognised as works of art (see The Truth about Art, pp. 149–50).
Yet in some quarters the idea of a Western canon has fallen deeply out of favour. Over the last forty years advocates of literary theory, and of a New Art History, have viewed the established canon as promoting the interests of a dominant social class. In their view a canon is an insidious device that makes a system of control exercised by a social elite seem like the natural state of affairs.
This chapter reviews the opposing sides of this debate in literature and visual art. It considers Terry Eagleton’s attack on the canon of English literature in Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983), and its defence by Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, The Books and School of the Ages (1994). The case for value in visual art was made by Gombrich in 1973, in a lecture delivered at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford. There Gombrich referred to the painted ceiling above his head (Ch. 11, Truth, figs 11.1 & 11.2), which had been praised by a don in the 1670s in verses ending with the lines ‘That future ages must confess they owe/ To Streeter more than Michelangelo’. Standing beneath the painted ceiling, Gombrich advanced ‘the daring hypothesis that Robert Whitehall was wrong…’.