April 11, 2003
On the how and the why of canons

Here is what may be another of those feeble Brian's Culture Blog postings that I warned you about. A quota fulfiller, as I've long been calling such postings on my Education Blog.

In my film list piece, I touched on the Posterity thing. How does stuff make it into the "canon"? This, after all, is why it matters if something is considered to be Art or not. If it is deemed to be art, more people will be told about it in future decades.

Well, I don't now have anything profound to add, but meanwhile, this, from Aaron Haspel, is good stuff, in answer to Michael Blowhard's original question:

Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It's subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of "metaphysical" poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne's "difficulty" when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a "classic," and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is "metaphysical." Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne's actual merits.

The problem with art that is addressed by having a canon is how long it can take to get acquainted with it.

Profound thought. It is much, much easier to get a rough idea of a painting, and of how much you like it, from one minute's acquaintance, than it is to make a similar judgement of a novel, or even a longer poem. Not necessarily easy, but easier. So the relative power of the literature canon-arbiters is likely to be bigger than that of their confreres in the visual arts, a state of affairs that will only be reinforced when just about all paintings of any merit are available for view in decent repros on the Internet, which is surely not the case yet, but equally surely soon will be.

That's one of the advantages that Michael Blowhard has over me, besides being cleverer and more knowledgeable and everything about these things than I am. He likes pictures, and he can show them in a form that gives us a very good idea indeed of what he's talking about. I can do the same with architecture, once I get the aesthetics of this blog semi-organised.

But one of my biggest cultural enthusiasms is classical music, and although I can say that the Brahms Violin Concerto is very nice, I can't show it to you for twenty seconds confident that you will immediately get, at a glance, that it has a longish first movement, a delightful shorter slow movement with a famously prominent oboe part, and a nice upbeat gypsy-style finale. I can tell you all that, of course, but what have I really told you? Not much, frankly.

Thus, we can expect the classical music canon to remain more solidly in place, alongside the literary canon, for a while yet and maybe for ever, and at any rate compared to the paintings canon.

Or maybe, the paintings canon is going to get a lot, lot bigger, and a lot more blurry at the edges, to the point where time also becomes a consideration, the time it takes you to glance at that many pictures. And what Michael is doing is throwing a few thousand more pictures into the canon at this technologically opportune moment. He probably says that somewhere.

Gotta rush now. Tonight I'm giving a talk, about "culture" – wouldn't you know? - and I have to, er, get it ready. So apologies if any typos (and worse) take a bit of a while to get cleaned up.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:32 PM
Category: LiteraturePaintingTheatreThis and that