How Do We Collectively Define Art?: Exploring Alternatives to "Canon"

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

From the ArtsBoston Blog...

From the stage to the halls of museums, art institutions contribute to a collective cultural consciousness based on the kinds of art they bring to the public. Every choice to showcase an artist’s work ultimately makes an impact on how a community defines art for themselves. What’s more, art is a record of people’s stories and lives. In learning art history, we get glimpses of what societies were like in distant times, or in other parts of the world. Eventually, certain stories hold the tests of time and remain influential beyond their years. What remains in our collective memory is what is often called canon.

The Oxford Dictionary defines canon as “a generally accepted rule, standard, or principle by which something is judged.” However, mainstream artistic canon has a history of leaving out certain artists that may not have been deemed “legitimate” by those in power at art institutions during those times. It’s a dangerous practice that has left some believing that artists of diverse backgrounds genuinely didn’t exist during certain periods of art history. That simply isn’t the case.

Now, arts organizations carry the responsibility of making sure artists from all backgrounds are represented and welcomed into the body of work that they put forward. When artists from underrepresented communities are missing from artistic programming, that creates a narrative that the artists worthy of being shared with the public are largely white, cis, and male. In 2019, William Shakespeare was the most-produced playwright in the United States. What is it about his work that remains so important to produce so often? As Madeline Sayet says in her piece that we reference below, “He is one voice from one time period, and his existence should not render anyone else’s voice, language, or culture as lesser than. It is likely there are many other playwrights who, given the same positionality, would have been equally prolific.”

We encourage you to stay tuned in to conversations about how canon is being re-definied across all kinds of mediums. Below are some essays and documents that can help unpack how you define art and how your version of “canon” can be influenced by implicit biases. THEATRE INTERROGATING THE SHAKESPEARE SYSTEM by Madeline Sayet, HowlRound “If [Shakespeare’s] plays are going to continue to be done, it’s important that Shakespeareans spend as much time learning about the world we are in today and how we got here. Honestly, if Shakespeare were still a person—if he were still a playwright, as opposed to a system—that’s probably what he would do…”

ALTERNATIVE CANON by Various Artists This living document organizes and catalogs Non-Western plays, plays by Black, Indigenous, people of color, by women and by queer writers from before 1945.

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