Arts and diversity: time to rewrite the canon?

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 1-3Arts and culture

The notion of a ‘canon’ – from the Ancient Greek for ‘rod’ or ‘standard’ – has been around for almost two millennia. Which works in art, music and literature deserve the epithet of ‘canonical’ or ‘classic’ is a perennial debate. In recent years, however, the notion of a ‘Western canon’ has increasingly been called into question, and is often seen as embarrassingly white and male. For example, earlier this year, the charity Youth Music urged the Department for Education to focus music teaching on modern artists rather than classical composers, on the basis that school pupils were more likely to identify with the likes of Stormzy than with Mozart.

The absence from the Western canon of works by women and people of colour is seen by some critics as the result of white, male chauvinism. In recent years, museums have sought to address the absence of diversity in their collections, while universities have sought to rewrite the canon to take the focus off dead, white, male, European writers. Indeed, a successful campaign by A-level students in 2015 forced the exam board Edexcel to include more female composers in the curriculum.

But the desire to diversify the canon extends right across society. In 2015, when the BBC produced an update to Kenneth Clark’s celebrated 1969 series Civilisation, it tellingly named it Civilisations plural, including non-Western traditions. In 2016, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) partnered with Beyond the Canon, an organisation committed to increasing the visibility and accessibility of ground-breaking yet lesser-known British and international culturally diverse playwrights. Last year, the Baltimore Museum of Art even announced it would sell off seven works from its collection by white men like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to fund the acquisition of art specifically by women and artists of colour.

By definition, a canon involves inclusion and exclusion, but if social and demographic inclusion is prioritised, does it mean downplaying aesthetic value? Or perhaps many great works of art have been excluded and neglected historically because they were produced by marginalised groups – and so broadening the canon means increasing the number of great works? But some suggest that there is no getting around the uneasy fact that the relative privileges afforded to white men in the past mean that most of the great art and sublime music historically was made by them. Does the focus on who made the art detract from our ability to appreciate it simply as what it is – great art? Or does the very idea of ‘aesthetic judgement’ embed socially exclusionary assumptions? If so, what is art for? Ultimately, before rewriting the canon, shouldn’t we first discuss what art is?