Challenging the canon

A few weeks ago, the art department made a very important but controversial change to the requirements for art studio students: The much-lauded ARTH 101-102 course is no longer the only art history course required to finish the art studio major; instead, any two art history courses will be accepted. Although this modification may seem miniscule to many, it is in fact an incredibly progressive step for the department, one I believe will strengthen the quality of Williams’ art students ten-fold.

You may be asking yourself why anyone would find this problematic enough to deem it a controversy; the truth is that I simply couldn’t tell you. I am a senior art studio major and I absolutely loved my semesters with E.J. Johnson and Eva Grudin, both of whom are amazing professors. In spite of this, I think that the changed requirements will provide art studio students with a great new opportunity for dialogue. ARTH 101-102 is a survey of the Western canon, also known as the Holy Grail of art history. However, in order to think critically about the canon, there must be an understanding of non-canonical art as well. For example, an understanding of Cubism is incomplete without recognizing the influence of African masks on Picasso.

Without a counterpoint, the canon cannot exist. In identifying the Western tradition as the standard, there is also the acknowledgement that another convention should also be present for comparison. As art studio majors, shouldn’t we be able to choose to study the history of the work that most inspires our practice? As children, we were artists long before we had heard of Botticelli or Monet. We used our artwork as a means of communication, from images expressing our love of family and friends to colorful and expressive drawings of the playground or the neighbor’s cat. An art student who believes that studying Asian art and Islamic architecture will be more valuable to his or her work than Renaissance oil painting and architecture should not have to spend two semesters taking Western art. In my senior year, I now realize that the value of two courses is not insignificant. I often find myself looking back to those few misguided choices from freshman year that I would love to have the opportunity to redo – hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty.

In many ways we are already used to challenging canons. While I could draw upon any number of academic experiences in my three-and-a-half years at Williams as a means of demonstrating this point, I can think of no more tangential yet accurate example than my ongoing battle with my former entrymate, Bekzod Akramov ’10, concerning our shared passion: professional basketball. Bekzod has an unapologetic love for the Lakers, while I am a staunch Celtics fan. Because of our opposing views, he never allows me to become complacent in my perspectives of the game; he constantly forces me to defend my position, to reevaluate my thoughts and to challenge my own reasoning. Despite the headaches they may cause, my conversations with Bekzod affirm that when I say that I am a Celtics fan, it is not just out of loyalty or habit, but out of a well-educated perspective.

This is our responsibility as Williams students – to constantly reevaluate the truth of what is presented to us as a means of resisting complacency. This initiative will do little if nothing to denigrate ARTH 101-102. The two courses will undoubtedly remain the most widely beloved on campus. Nor will it hugely affect the art students who choose not to take them, as important canonical artists and terms are in any case such a central part of the study of techniques in media such as drawing and painting. The truth of this case, in short, is that art students will gain a broader knowledge and resource base by way of their peers with diverse art history backgrounds, and Western oil painting and sculpture will in no way be at risk of becoming an endangered species.

As a senior I won’t see the effect of the changes of the art department as they come to fruition, but I can only hope that the program is strengthened by the eclectic bases of art history knowledge that the new requirements will create. Challenging canons, even if only our personal canons, is crucial; without reexamining our positions, we will never know the tests they can withstand. Perhaps ARTH 101-102 will prove to be the most useful courses for art studio students. Only time will tell. Until then, I hope that we can embrace the notion of our peers as resources and continue to challenge ideals so that when we are able to identify the work that most inspires our practice, it will not just be out of loyalty or habit, but out of a well-educated perspective.

Shelley Williamson ’10 is a French and art studio major from Pittsfield, Mass.