Reload the Western Canon

Reload the Western Canon

Whenever I ask students to list as many artists as they can, usually they give me the highlights from the western canon of art history.  Their lists usually include Michelangelo, Leonardo, Picasso, Warhol, and, if I’m lucky, Monet. Now, one thing you’ll notice about that list is that all those people are white, male, and dead.  Now, I have no problem with dead white males; heck, I will be one someday. But when our students are only presented examples of genius that are white and male and dead, it sends a bit of a subconscious message.  Female students and students of color are shown a world that they don’t quite fit into. And that’s a problem. All students should get the message that they too can be the genius which history one day celebrates.  

The first thing we must address is that the western canon is a lie of omission.  Women and people of color were actively participating in art all throughout history; they were just left out of the historical streamlining that happens when the chaos of current events becomes the narrative of the past.  Just one example is Berthe Morisot. She was one of the most celebrated and successful of all the Impressionists at the time. She exhibited in almost every Impressionist exhibition and sold more paintings than most of her fellow Impressionists.  But most history books treat her like Manet’s groupie and model. I could go on and on about all the great artists who have been swept under the rug in favor of their white male contemporaries, but I trust that you are already aware of the problem, so let’s talk steps we can take to fix it.

Recently, I was presenting portrait painting to my level three students, and I wanted them to feel comfortable moving away from realism to more expressive work.  To do that, I created a sliding scale of portraiture with realism at one end and expressive or stylized portraiture on the other. I challenged myself to make this scale with the bare minimum of white males.  I also decided to use some regional artists who are currently living and working in Texas. I was surprised as to how easy it was to highlight the same concepts without relying heavily on the western canon. My list is as follows:

Kahinde Wiley

Kerry James Marshall

Charles White

Frida Kahlo

Diego Rivera

Liu Xiaodong

Alice Neel

Rosa Rolinda

Pablo Picasso

Camille Rose Garcia

Cruz Ortiz

Trenton Doyle Hancock

Os Gemeos

Nicole Eisenman

The Clayton Brothers

Jean Michel Basquiat

Carlos Donjuan

Richardo Oviedo

So here’s my question: can we as educators craft lessons and lectures using artists that reflect the faces that are in our classrooms?  I challenge you as an educator to take every opportunity to reinsert the identities that have been edited out of the story. If you’re unsure as how to do that, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art is a great book to start your research.  Also, contemporary art reflects a much wider range of identities than is visible from the past. By increasing the amount of contemporary art that is taught in our classrooms, we can easier give every student an exemplar of success that resembles their identity.

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