Pavillion des Sessions Louvre Museum interior shot

Canonicity Revisited, March 1-2, 2019

Art History, Wesleyan University

Symposium Description


The symposium “Canonicity Revisited” is envisioned as a critical interrogation of the problem of canons and canonicity in art history. This subject was a matter of intense debate in the mid 1990s, unfurling across the pages of a number of major publications in the field. By then, revisionist approaches had already begun to transform the discipline’s operating assumptions about what constitutes its canonical texts and artifacts, and about the very meaning and value of canonicity itself. Art history’s reevaluation has only increased in recent years thanks to the crucial work, now decades in the making, of feminist, postcolonial, and queer interventions, and to the development of visual and cultural studies. Nevertheless, it seems to us that canons and their variants in many ways still shape—or perhaps haunt—both the teaching and scholarship of art history. What accounts for their persistence? And how do they bear down on art historical thinking today?


What has been the role of canons and canonicity in the development of art history as a discipline, in relation to both Western and non-Western and pre-modern and modern art? In what ways has the discipline of art history been intellectually confined by the received constellations of major works that canons define? Conversely, in what ways do canons provide methodologically indispensable reference points upon which debate and understanding rely? What types of structures do canonical texts, textbooks, and surveys create for art historical practice? How does the category of the “canonical” relate to the concept of “high art”? What distinct pressures do canons exert on museum practices, and what role do museums play in canon formation and perpetuation? In projecting canonicity’s underlying concepts of originality, timelessness, individual authorship, and greatness back in time, and onto globally varied contexts, what historical inaccuracies or distortions does art history inadvertently produce? What would it take for canons to answer to the increasingly global context of contemporary art and culture? By what mechanisms do canons change? What is the role of political or religious ideology in canon formation and revision? Does canonicity in art history function in the same way that it does in music, literature, or other fields of cultural production?


Lawler Academy Interior Shot of Sculptures 1987