The current canon’s origin originates from Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 book Le Vite De’ più eccellenti Architetti, Pittori et Scultori Italiani, a biased survey of what Vasari viewed as important works of art.  This precursor to today’s canon highlights the works of High Renaissance artists was well as placing Vasari’s home-city, Florence, as the center of art’s history.  Texts written since then have stuck to the structure as well as the content of Vasari’s selection of art work.  The works of art largely focuses on white European males, who were selected based upon a “genius” factor.  The genius nature of the artists ultimately separates the viewer and the artists.  Despite this, the actual structure of Vasari’s work does embody the elements of a canon.  As stated by Nanette Salomon, it contains “individual contributions, fixes the terms of a generational and stylistic development of the history of an art, and provides standards for aesthetic judgments along classical lines.”  The criterions for these aesthetic judgments are based on the analysis of an objects separation from consideration of its economic or religious significance.

The problem with the present canon is that it still closely follows that set by Vasari.  Today the world has become a smaller, and the availability too look at images and learn about the culture of different places it much more accessible.  There is a need for art historians, especially in a globalized culture, need to place “non-Western” work into the canon, rather than a canon dominated by  Vasari’s emphasis on white male European artists.  Issues with the limitations of other artists have frustrated both feminist as well as those concerned with “non-Western” works.  As stated by Saloman, “this omission of whole categories of art and artist has resulted in an unrepresentative and distorting notion of who as contributed to the ‘universal’ ideas expressed through creativity and aesthetic effort.”  Additionally, by omitting works by artists who do not fit into the mold, that is overall, followed today creates a hierarchical structure in the world of art.  For the canon highlights not what is included but rather what is excluded.  Those works that are not accepted are reduced to a lower status of art and therefore inferior works of art.  Thus the ultimate problem with the canon lies in its inability to include works of art that encompass all aspects of aesthetic values from different times and places.

A reevaluation should be less concerned with what should be expunged from the canon rather there should be a consideration of what needs to be added. A watercolor painting by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) depicts a domesticated camel at the end of a journey.  Its head is laid on the ground as it prepares to lay the rest of its body upon a pile of rocks and the harness and packs are still attached to its back.  The camel is situated in the desert with an orange-brown ground and a burnt-orange sky indicates that the camel truly is at the end of its journey, for the colors are those of a setting sun.   The watercolor is titled A Journey’s End however the date of its creation is unknown.

The subject matter is a well known subject in India, where camels and this image are well known.  The color palette notably of the orange and brown reflect the colors typically seen within the daily lives of Indian peoples at sunset.  Tagore’s desire to promote Indian nationalism is evident in both his subject matter as well as his choice for colors.

The importance of this piece rests not only it its aesthetic beauty, but the context in which it was created.  Tagore was a prominent artist of the Bengal school, which during the early twentieth-century was an influential style in India that was associated with Indian nationalism, but was also promoted and supported by many British arts administrators.  Furthermore, he was a major promoter of swadeshi values in Indian art.  By following swadeshi or self-sufficiency a movement known as the Swadeshi movement came into fruition.  Its goal was to remove the British Empire from power and improve economic conditions in India.

Although this is only one example of a piece that should be considered to being added into the canon, it is an important piece in regards to the context in which the piece was created and more importantly the place in which it was created.  Before the canon considers works of art from far lands such as China, Korea and Japan it needs to evaluate the work of India.  As stated by John Onians, “India [is] a central keystone, recipient, and source of many influences.”  If the canon is to increase its range and quantity of work in the world it needs to not only look at the completely foreign and exotic art works.  Lastly, when studying and incorporating “non-Western” art the interpretation and evaluation should not be done solely from a “Westerners” perspective.  A voice of opinion should be given to every prominent side and should even include a cross-cultural examination from of different artistic approaches from different region.

The Journey’s End

Abanindranath Tagore

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