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  • Amy Neville

The Journey Towards Global Art Theory

The art canon, intended to be the guide to the greatest artists and artworks, is notoriously a western male dominated collection. This impenetrable structure is the foundation of art history and fine arts - the great masters meant to inspire us. The art world exists as an ever-continuing journey, where the canon is simply the record of previous stops along the way. But some new theorists are aspiring to start a new journey, to worlds under explored and incorrectly mapped. This is global art theory.

Global Art Theory, is simpler terms, is the theory that the art world needs to expand beyond the Euro-centricities of the past and acknowledge works from non-western artists. In the current UWA curriculum for Art History, there are 17 general art history classes, another 14 based in Europe, and only 4 based elsewhere. Every student chooses which areas they would like to specific in, but all must take the course ‘Great Moments in Art’, which intends to introduce students to the art canon. This unit establishes the basic knowledge that art historians, and indeed, all art enthusiasts, should know. The key movements of modernism, the renaissance, surrealism, and romanticism. Artist like Michelangelo, Warhol, and Turner. Here, a pattern emerges. White male western artists, mostly from western Europe specifically. Only two or three weeks are spent on non-western artworks. What this establishes to young art historians is that art is fundamentally western. The creation, the terminology, the foundational artworks, and the key players. All white, western figures.

Some might find this frustrating; others don’t notice the missing pages of our history. Our art galleries and museums only serve to reinforce this divide, relegating entire the entire continents of Africa and Asia to single rooms but gleefully displaying wings full of Florentine masters. Some would claim this was due to the accessibility of European artworks, but the theft and destruction of African and Southern American art and culture suggests otherwise. The art canon has been adapted to create a hierarchy, an aesthetic system by which we value artworks. Things such as realism, contrast, details, perspective, and composition are prized and a common feature amongst the canon. These traits, whilst common in European art, are far rare in non-western works, leading to artworks suffering within a system they were never meant to exist within. But recent research has suggested a deeper problem within the art history discipline.

The terms ‘art history’ and ‘fine arts’ conjure images of grand galleries, oil paintings, and ancient catalogues of the great master’s oeuvres. This discipline is inherently a research based, academic department, with small classes and incredible niche topics, some covering merely 20 years of a single artist’s work. But the discipline itself, outside of Europe and North America, is underfunded, and understudied, with North America featuring more departments than the entirety of Africa. How then, could an African scholar study their own art history, when the very terminology, the foundational teachings, and even the majority of the artifacts, reside elsewhere. Great galleries in England, here unnamed to deny them exposure they certainly don’t deserve, may claim their collection of African artworks is best situated for greater exposure to a wider audience, but how could it, at the cost of denying these works to their cultural owners? Furthermore, are all of these ‘artworks’ even intended to be art? In our western traditions, we ascribe the labels of ‘art’ or ‘artifact’ based on an object’s aesthetic values, and how these match to existing art and artifacts. But this creates the problem wherein objects with a purpose, an intention and function beyond aesthetics, are robbed of it and displayed as art, and art objects not meeting this unyielding aesthetic are delegated as artifacts, often with the tag ‘for unknown purposes’.

The art canon, the language by which we define an artwork, and the traditions by which these gallery spaces function, were never designed to accommodate non-western artworks. Even if an artwork should, by some chance, be correctly identified as an artwork, it will more often than not be seen as a primitive and lesser step in the evolution of art for failing to adhere to an aesthetic standard it was never meant to meet. How then, can the art canon continue to function with such a built-in fault? The short answer is – it can’t.

Many artist have tried, with few successes, to slip into the canon, hiding under the covers of a familiar aesthetic. But it isn’t enough – it cannot be enough – for artist to have to be forced and deformed into the strict box of ‘acceptable art’ to be recognised in this canonical structure. There is, however, a growing hope, a new world cresting over the horizon, of a community abandoning the canon, leaving it into the past and stepping forwards on this journey together towards a new – global - art theory.

~article first published by Pelican Magazine September 2020~

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