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The art historical canon and the marketfree

  • Joseph R. Givens

The origins of the term and concept of the “canon” can be traced to antiquity when the Greek word for “measuring stick,” or kanon, originated, but the meaning and connotations of the term canon has changed over the course of the history of art. In this context, the canon is a flexible construct used to identify exceptional artworks, selected by authority, against which all other artworks were to be judged. The idea became a central focus of western artistic production during the 18th and 19th centuries, when academic institutions, the center of power and influence in the art world, used rigid and hierarchical models to develop an “academic style” which valued, in form, a stoic realism and, in content, neoclassical themes. With the introduction of the avant-garde and modernism in the 20th century, the field of art became a more open system with artists and galleries challenging canonical norms. However, academic institutions maintained their defense of the art historical canon until the late 1950s.

The canon was a guiding principle in the earliest art history writings. Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, wrote one of the first detailed history of sculptors, painters, and architects in Natural History. In addition to documenting biographical details of artists and describing their works, he identified exceptional artworks and explained their significance as milestone creations. For Pliny, no artist was as praise worthy as 5th-century BCE Greek sculptor Polykleitos whose Spear Bearer became both an object of admiration and a model of quality for which other artworks were judged. Pliny’s writings formed the basis of the ancient canon of art history.

During the Italian Renaissance, scholars and artists alike looked to ancient art and literature as the model of excellence. Tuscan artist, writer, and historian, Giorgio Vasari took inspiration from Pliny the Elder’s writings when he wrote Vita, the most comprehensive biographical account of artists to that point in time. Vasari theorized that creative genius progresses through periods of growth and decline. He described what he believed to be the “rebirth” of art beginning in the 14th century as the culmination of humanity’s artistic progress, and he referred to Raphael and Michelangelo as the perfect ideal to which all other artworks were to be compared. Vasari’s canon was the basis for the patronage program of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who is credited with the dissemination of the Renaissance style.

From the 14th century through the 18th century the canon became an essential tool of valuation for rulers who leveraged the propaganda value of visual art by monopolizing the patronage and cultivation of the arts. Perhaps no ruler was as skilled in manipulating the canon as French king Louis XIV, who with the assistance of artist Charles Le Brun, exerted influence on all aspects of art production. He founded the institutions of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1664, the Académie de France in Rome in 1666, and Académie Royale d’Architecture in 1671.

By the turn of the 19th century, Enlightenment ideals fueled the emergence of a new institution, a state museum where cultural objects were preserved and displayed for the civic purpose of conservation and education. Even before the French Revolution, Louvre planner, Comte d’Angiviller, sought to introduce art and other objects of cultural prestige to a much broader public audience than the narrow circle of art lovers and connoisseurs who dominated the spaces of art. However, d’Angiviller’s ambitions were hastened when, on August 10, 1792, King Louis XVI was imprisoned and the royal collection, housed with the Louvre, was transferred to national ownership. One year later, the public was given free access to the collection three days a week. The Louvre embodied the Enlightenment principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and all were encouraged to experience the value of civic ownership. The dramatic transformation of the art space and viewing public required a reconsideration of the politicized role of the canon and how objects were classified, conserved, and displayed.

Modernism’s emphasis on novelty and innovation caused a crisis of the canon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Avant-garde artists were far less concerned with their relationship to the art historical past. Moreover, their embrace of low-art and popular culture sources over classical models further challenged the status quo of the classical canon. The canon retained relevance in the art museums, galleries, auctions, and spaces which required investments to be justified and new art to be contextualized. While writing one of the first books to cover Modern Art in 1936, Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized the discursive modernist styles into branches of a diagram resembling a family tree which roots were firmly grounded in 19th-century canon.

In the wave of growing skepticism of the value of an art historical canon, Sir E.H. Gombrich maintained that the canon should not be dismissed because of the valid concerns raised by critical theorists. He argued that art historians were capable of both criticizing the canon and recognizing a collective appreciation of art. His million-selling book The Story of Art and regular television appearances made him a household name. He argued that faith in the objective validity of the canon was not synonymous with elitism. Furthermore, he defended the concept of the canon while acknowledging that innumerable worthy masterpieces are excluded from the canon.

Gombrich’s theoretical work is founded on the principle of organized structure in the arts. He proposed that there is neither lesser nor greater artworks; rather every artwork is a unique product that is influenced by a set of variables, including those issue from the existing canon. According to this mode of thought, confidence in the canon can be compared to economic behavior, but instead of competing for money, artists compete for prestige and attention. For example, in a closed society, like in ancient Egypt, where art was institutionalized and ritualized, and individuality actively discouraged, artists rarely strayed from norms since there was virtually nothing to gain. Conversely, an open society, like that which generated the 20th-century avant-garde, was rife with a diversity of styles which competed in a game of “one-upmanship.” To succeed in this type of society, the artists were compelled to deviate from established norms which resulted in a wide variety of rapidly changing styles.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was one of the first academics to challenge the authenticity of the canon. Using methods from a variety of disciplines, Bourdieu arrived at the conclusion that the canon is non-objective because it exists as an ideology controlled by the dominant class. Bourdieu developed the theoretical model Cultural Capital Theory, which is used to examine the influence of intangible resources on the phenomena of social reproduction and social mobility. He described a society of competing classes, arranged in a hierarchy of prestige. Opposed to Kant’s philosophy of the disinterested aesthetic, Bourdieu believed that the value of art and the formation of the canon originate from outside the objects. Therefore, one’s taste in art is a result of a harmonious relationship between the intrinsic cultural capital of the person and the cultural artifact. For example, a person from a family of privilege may value abstract art because their educational background and contemplative leisure time allow for the understanding of the object. That same object would hold no value for a person with fewer capital resources. Although art can be exchanged for economic capital and acquired for prestige, it can only be consumed by one who empathizes with the cultural content of the work. The art market, being a field of cultural production, is an economy based on the exchange of cultural capital and economic capital.

In the 1980s, art historian Hans Belting wrote texts that proposed the end of art history and the decline of the canon. Belting’s prediction of the end of the canon focused more on the relationship between the artist and the art historian. Belting believed that the practice of art history was predicated on a set of principles, founded on traditional canonicity, shared by both art historians and artists. He suggested that modernism invalidated the canon, and that therefore artists no longer sought to adhere to the “rules” of the canon. Belting argued that the methodologies of art history no longer applied to contemporary art; in a parallel development, art historians began to drift away from the study of form and canonical works. Belting predicted that art history would adopt a new multi-disciplinary method, one in which aesthetic models would be replaced by theoretical models better suited to explore relativist topics informed by identity and social dynamics.

Nancy Salomon’s questioning of the reliability of both art history’s patriarch, Vasari, and of the authority of standard art history textbooks like H.W. Janson’s made her essay The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission emblematic for the new critical discourse that emerged in the 1990s. Salomon and other scholars were skeptical of the objectivity of aesthetic norms, and they explored issues of privilege, power, and identity in the phenomenon of canon formation.


  • Gombrich, E. H. Art and Illusion; a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1960.
  • Gombrich, E. H. “The Logic of Vanity Fair.” In Ideals and Idols: Essays on Values in History and in Art. Oxford: Phaidon, 1979.
  • Belting, Hans. The End of the History of Art? Translated by Christopher Wood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Danto, Arthur C. “Narratives of the End of Art.” Grand Street 8, no. 3 (1989): 166–181.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre, Darbel, Alain, and Schnapper, Dominique. The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Salomon, Nancy. “The Art Historical Canon Sins of Omission.” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by D. Preziosi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.