Canon (Art) – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Theory Glossary

What is Canon (Art)?

Canon in art refers to a set of rules or criteria that determine what is considered to be of high value or significance in a particular artistic tradition. It is a term used to describe the accepted or authoritative works within a specific genre or period.

Canon can also refer to the body of works that are considered to be representative of a particular artist, movement, or culture. These works are often seen as exemplifying the highest standards of artistic achievement and are frequently studied and emulated by artists and scholars.

History of Canon in Art

The concept of canon in art has its roots in ancient Greece, where certain works of art and literature were considered to be of such high quality that they were deemed to be worthy of preservation and study. These works became the foundation of what would later be known as the Western canon.

During the Renaissance, artists and scholars began to codify the canon of art, identifying key works and artists that were seen as exemplars of artistic excellence. This process continued through the centuries, with different movements and periods adding their own contributions to the canon.

Criticisms of Canon in Art

One of the main criticisms of canon in art is that it can be exclusionary and elitist, privileging certain works and artists over others based on arbitrary criteria. This can lead to the marginalization of artists from underrepresented groups and the perpetuation of narrow, Eurocentric views of art history.

Another criticism is that canon can be restrictive and stifling, discouraging experimentation and innovation in art. By focusing on a limited set of works and artists, canon can limit the diversity of artistic expression and prevent new voices from being heard.

Canon vs. Non-Canon Art

Canon art refers to works that are considered to be of high value and significance within a particular artistic tradition, while non-canon art refers to works that fall outside of these established criteria. Non-canon art may include works by marginalized artists, experimental works, or works that challenge traditional notions of art.

While canon art is often celebrated and studied for its historical and aesthetic value, non-canon art can offer new perspectives and challenge established norms. Both canon and non-canon art play important roles in shaping the cultural landscape and expanding our understanding of art.

Contemporary Perspectives on Canon in Art

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the limitations of canon in art and a push for greater inclusivity and diversity in art historical narratives. Scholars and curators are increasingly seeking to expand the canon to include works by women, artists of color, and LGBTQ artists, among others.

Contemporary artists are also challenging the idea of canon by creating works that defy traditional categorization and blur the boundaries between different artistic genres. This has led to a more fluid and dynamic understanding of art that embraces a wider range of voices and perspectives.

Impact of Canon on Art History

The concept of canon has had a significant impact on art history, shaping the way we understand and interpret works of art from different periods and cultures. By identifying key works and artists as canonical, art historians have been able to trace the development of artistic movements and styles over time.

However, the influence of canon in art history has also been criticized for its narrow focus and exclusionary practices. By privileging certain works and artists over others, canon has perpetuated a limited and often biased view of art history that fails to fully represent the diversity of artistic expression throughout the ages.