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The Death of Canon and the Remaking of the World [director's cut]
The decline of monoculture is a boon to niches but what will become of the ‘canon’?
This piece originally appeared in Dirt on January 23rd, 2023, in a better-edited form. This is the director’s cut which means it’s a little too long and meandering, but so it goes. Support Dirt for great stuff 5 days a week.
“Consider submerging yourself in the canon of great works. Read the finest literature, watch the masterpieces of cinema, get up close to the most influential paintings, visit architectural landmarks, there’s no standard list, no one has the same standard of greatness, the canon is continually changing across time and space…” - Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way Of Being
Since 2021, I’ve been ruminating on the concept of “canon” a good deal. With the shared disruption of time, subsequent fracture of shared pop cultural landmarks, and the continued push towards ever faster and deeper cultural bubbles, there is undoubtedly a schism in our shared values. So the next obvious question: What is ‘canon?’
Looking for clues on where the canon is going, I wanted to reinvestigate what the term meant. Mat Dryhurst, an art history nerd, put it on his and Holly Herndon’s Interdependence podcast, canon describes canon as a “kind of guide rail” of what we consider important culturally, which is reinforced by the work of institutions, universities, and auction houses, press, etc. Artist Simon Denny gives us a definitive definition in the same episode:
“[Canon is] an agreed-upon consensus around what's important historically, in a certain genre or lineage of making artwork.”
But what is the canon now, really? And what will it become?
While canon is often used to describe high or fine art, it is also used as an aesthetic or moral due north that also applies to popular culture. The idea of canon implies that the awareness of certain things is passed down as a norm, in that we talk about certain works of art as rites of passage in our education.
So for example, we agreed, as a culture, that Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans (1961-1962) is both a seminal work of art and serves as a bedrock for the entire Pop Art movement, making the work something worth teaching and passing on. That’s canon.
The way things are canonized follows no certain path. Indeed many canonical artists and works don't achieve this state upon arrival and often are met with derision for their newness, unfamiliarity, and innovation. And yet canon has also favored the “winners” in culture, which has led to a myopic view of that which is esteemed (consider the phrase “the Western canon”).
You need a wide spread of adoption or awareness to be canon cause if no one knows what you are talking about, there’s no center. That’s why so few things achieve it these days and things that feel like popular canon like superhero films are actually just the reinforced storytelling of Intellectual property over 50 years. Most of these characters languished in the niches of comics including the tent pole heroes until the global machine was right both technologically and culturally for mass adoption of these characters. Look up ‘70s marvel movies if you need further proof.
There have been considerable attempts to upend the canon over the past 10 or so years. Sometimes this upending is moral, around the content of works, or the allegations and sad truths around the artists themselves. Oftentimes the need to reassess the canon’s historical inclusion of predominantly white male artists has been crucial. (A positive example in the experimental music canon is the rediscovery of the late Black composer Julius Eastman, whose work was largely forgotten in comparison to his downtown NYC peers, and has now found greater success in death than in life.)
So why should we be thinking about canon at all? Won’t it take care of itself? The collective time melt (uh, “vibe shift”) has led to an increased distrust in institutions, which means commonly held beliefs have potentially been upended. It’s important to know where things stand to understand where they go next if we can at all.
Neomania and its charms
In the 2022 book Status and Culture, writer W. David Marx posits that contemporary culture is defined by “Neomania,” or our obsession with the new, which has led to what could be described as a “weightless” age, largely devoid of historical connotation, fixated only on recent culture. For a small example found in language, the use of the term “-core” has been a key divider card for all forms of musical and visual culture. The suffix has become so overused that we’ve recently arrived at the murky “corecore,” or a form of handmade TikTok edit videos that suggest a closing of sorts.
The late English writer and cultural/political theorist Mark Fisher signaled a “slow cancellation of the future” which predicted this malaise, as an inevitable horizon line for the imagination, which we see in constant remakes and IP-rehashing. This finds us stuck between Fisher’s pal, the writer Simon Reynolds, and his concept of “Retromania,” or being beholden to the values and aesthetics of the rose-tinted glory days, and Neomania’s own morbidity, which carries a whiff of corporate nihilism and a sense that we may not have much time left.
I previously had misperceived Neomania as a form of unintended ignorance of the past due to the flood of information available to us. But now I understand it to be an intentional maneuver or a middle finger to an all-consuming history (including our own accruing digital baggage) that weighs us down, or maybe just moves too slowly to represent the current experience of living.
Art Basel Miami Beach is both art fair and a spectacle. But perhaps its last major stunt (yes, more interesting than an ATM that reveals and ranks your account balance) was 2019’s “Comedian” from known scoundrel, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. The work consists of a banana duct taped to a wall, and became an Instagram sensation. The taped banana (an edition of three), which boasted dubious origins itself, seemed to encapsulate what was happening in culture and the art market better than most anything else. In true contemporary fashion, it both fetched major cash and needed to be removed as it so disrupted its environs, with attendees jockeying for pictures. “Comedian” both literally (December 2019) and figuratively feels like the forebear of COVID-age art, capturing both dim humor, pop spectacle, and major market speculation in one moment.
“Comedian” is also a sort of an End Of Line to the canonical halo of Duchamp’s and Warhol’s lineage, that of the “magical” transformation of banal objects into art. The other week, I watched a robot of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama paint the inside of a 5th Avenue shop window for a crowd on the street. The looming metaphor is the artist both replaced by a facsimile and trapped inside the confines of consumption and not, say, spray painting its exterior.
With the banana, Cattelan pushes the Duchamp gesture into something more intentionally and joyfully crass, revealing the magician’s trick; or like the monkey in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, hurtling the idea into the atmosphere, not knowing where it’ll come down. The artist can no longer merely transform the work alone, it needs mass adulation. Magic has been brought “in-house.”
With the art market a parody to many, democratic insurgent forms (NFTs, AI, etc) dominating headlines, and art institutions themselves under fire for both the makeup of their funding and governing boards, art institutions continue on as a world stage for protest.
The main art image of 2022 was the plethora of defaced canvases in climate change protests, spurring from the original event, in which young activists from Just Stop Oil threw a can of soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1887). Regardless of your thoughts on their efficacy, the protests both serve to reinforce the canon, as well as take it down a peg. The content of the painting has been discussed less than the use or make of the soup, but these works now have an added aura in their interaction. In the current sphere, mass art has moved from a medium used to demand change to a forum for others to work upon. In 2023, the viewer, buyer, poster, and commenter hold more power than the artist.
The new cool and remaking of taste
In a recent New York Times feature Brendan Babenzien, former Supreme Creative Director, now Noah founder, and J. Crew Creative Director recently said “Everything is cool now, so nothing is cool…what’s more interesting to me is being comfortable being yourself.” As Gen Z has dropped hustle and -boss culture eschewing the posturing of previous generations, with both underground posturing out the window as well as startup individualism, the arch positioning of cool continues to move. The most well-paid YouTube influencer looks like a random kid in your class. Maybe “kill yr idols” was right.
Historically it is the job of youth to fight against the recent past and upend the dominant standards of taste and morality. We were used to a more slow and more steady push of taste upheaval (punk, hip-hop, skate), but new generations have remade the world by focusing on ethics more than creativity. Unlike previous generations, which moved “outwards” from culture, eschewing the suit and tie trad world (think hippie and slacker archetypes), newer generations perhaps are looking to reform culture with a higher moral standard and collectivity than their elders, who have been viewed as absconding from global responsibility. Who has time for nuance when the world is literally on fire?
Previously, if the canon was the guard rail of the monoculture, capital T “Taste” was the differentiator, including rarefied knowledge and hard-won intel, which was used to elevate oneself in a pre-social media context. But from W. David Marx’s book, and the art protests, I remembered that the knowledge of history is not always about pleasure or flexing, but about combat too:
“Certainly the previous generations didn’t always explore history as a virtuous preservation of human knowledge. When culture centered around canons, radical artists learned history in order to know the enemy.”
As the “front end” of culture is removed, with platforms taking precedence over old school filters (shopkeepers, record labels, magazines) the value of many curators or gatekeepers is in question too.
If mass impressions were a vestige of monoculture, or a place where we could gather, colonized by pop, the alternative is memes, as both a dominant and democratic form. Memes draw communal value from visual recognizability but are textually nuanced, the best of both worlds. Memeification is also the closest thing we have to a dominant trans-generational style. With AI tools, these may fall by the wayside, as we have been given the power to create hyper-expressive and individual forms, not just alter existing images. We will look back on the original memes with awe like early TV.
The Aura Machine
Canon-making is also rearing its head from groups keen to alter, amend, or obscure the past and present through book banning. As an attrition-based attempt at remaking canon, from both the political left and right, this is unfortunate, but the great misstep always made by well-meaning (or belligerent adults is that to attempt to censor something is only to set it ablaze in the minds of eager youth. I remain optimistic that this will result in a similar outcome.
A similar concern is that algorithms and AI will, or already have, robbed us of curation and the joy of creation as a whole. There is pushback afoot and I remain convinced that there will always be an alternative to the algorithmic hand, in that we seem to come back to storytelling, flawed (or AI-driven) as it may become. There is also the sense that the algo is actually democratic in that it gives us what we think we want and is enabling individualized discovery without mass media. Similarly, at the time of this writing AI is currently the simulacrum of our shared collective historical works shipped back to us, indiscriminate, though I expect it to take on more of a spiritual dimension soon.
Great works of art have “aura” and a lot of that aura often comes with story. Rothkos carry Big Aura, especially when viewed in the death trip of his life’s story. Warhol’s Shot Marilyns (1964) paintings (which were mostly pierced by a bullet) have been record-setters at auction because they combine the aforementioned Warhol touch with a dash of the religious (pop as royalty), and our lust for American violence into a complete whole. If art is indeed the relationship between a work and its viewer, Shot Marilyn is the perfect tryst.
On a recent episode of podcast, The Buntzcast, art critic Dean Kissick remarked that Mona Lisa (1503) while already beloved ages ago, achieved its necessary aura only after it was stolen from the Louvre (and later returned). The activation is a gateway to canon.
Have we reached the end of the future? Probably not, we are just in a lull. If the obsession with newness had led us to achieve a technical perfection of sorts, in Tiktok or OnlyFans parlance that leads us to an exact replica of one’s bedroom. The goal for tech companies will be to push us further into “presence” or the marketing of the “metaverse” which is the idea of being there even when you clearly are not. I don’t think this will cure the loneliness of the age.
Canon in the Age of Shuffle
So how will art be plucked out of the ether and chosen as canon? I don’t think monetary value will create it, as records seem to fly by every week. Similar to the Mona Lisa, canon will emerge from hiccups in time, some intentional, some algorithmic, and some simply bizarre.
In music, sync licensing and composition (or putting songs into tv, films, video games, etc.) has long been a source of canon making (the films of John Hughes, John Williams scores), with Kate Bush re-entering the conversation in 2022 with the key placement of her 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill” in Stranger Things. TikTok has been the latest driver responsible for these surges, which may seem planned but often are classic cases of enthusiasm on steroids. You may not need to go on a Bohemian Rhapsody-level bio pic campaign to be (re-) appreciated, but you also may not be heard at all amidst the noise.
The visual metaphor I see when I think of when I imagine canon making is just two decks of cards being shuffled; one hand being algorithmic and one hand driven by fan demand or user-generated content, and of course, the whims of chance in between, or what some may say is spiritual or luck. What will come to be “the top” of the deck with each shuffle will have the potential to be crowned canon. For how long, no one can say.
This arbitrariness is offensive to the old order, which valued having a firm grip on the wheel of culture. But it may actually lead to a more compelling and democratic future.