thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Canon to the right of them…

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Seventh in a series beginning with Art in the family.

Art is not just a response. It is also something responded to.

We talked last time about self-reference and recursion in art – not that there’s any law that says an individual work of art has to be self-referential or recursive. But art as an overall phenomenon also tends to be recursive. It creates and moulds culture, history, consciousness. Each artwork adds to the sum-total of social and cultural reality. It makes a difference and changes the world from what it was before, and therefore cannot but feed back into the generation of further artworks.

Bronze Age Weapons

Bronze Age Weapons: no string quartets

Imagine if Beethoven’s music had been around in the Bronze Age. We could of course speculate that Beethoven’s music could not possibly have existed then because it depended for its very nature on what had gone before. But if by some quirk of fate Beethoven’s music really had been there, would Bronze Age people have heard it as we do, or as just noise? Did the ‘Beethoven phenomenon’ depend on the ‘Bach phenomenon’ in respect of either the artist or his audience – or perhaps both?

A word that often crops up in this sort of talk is ‘canon’. It is a term with intriguing nuances of meaning. At a fairly pedestrian level it means a rule or principle – or body of rules or principles – which are taken as valid and fundamental in, say, art or literature or religion. It can also refer to a set of artefacts or other entities which are accepted as valid and/or valuable and/or fundamental. A rule or set of rules accepted or imposed by a religion can be called a ‘canon’, and so can a set of books selected as authoritative – for example the books of the Christian New Testament or Old Testament.

By extension a related set of art works can also be a ‘canon’. To qualify as a ‘canon’ the art works must be accepted and selected as important and/or foundational and/or valuable and/or influential. In music for example the ‘Classical’ canon generally covers the works of Johann Sebastian Bach through to Beethoven. The preceding ‘Baroque’ canon might include Vivaldi, Lully, Corelli, Monteverdi, Rameau and Purcell – plus perhaps Johann Sebastian Bach at the join between the two. In literature FR Leavis’s ‘Great Tradition’ (of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and – he finally conceded – Charles Dickens) could also be a ‘canon’ (or one critic’s proposed canon).

FR Leavis

FR Leavis

The point about a canon is that a person or group of people with the authority to do so have decided on it as a canon. So in theory the idea of a canon is ‘arbitrary’ and/or ‘subjective’. There may be reasons why people thought X and Y should be included and Z should be excluded, but those reasons will not be ultimately conclusive. Different people – eg different literary critics (plus of course different people who are not literary critics) – will have different views as to what and who the canon should include. Even the attempt to pool a host of views to come up with what ‘most people’ or ‘most authorities’ would regard as an artistic or literary ‘Western canon’ is fraught with controversy.

We have a conundrum. On the one hand an artistic canon is as flimsy as the emperor’s new clothes – only there because people say it is there. On the other hand it is rock-solid. Western culture is a huge and irremovable component of the world we all inhabit, with a large part of why our world is the way it is being due to the ‘Western canon’, or at least to an inter-related set of Western canons. If the canon or canons had been different, our world would have been different and so would we.

Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (from Ovid's Metamorphoses)

Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (from Ovid's Metamorphoses)

Canons create canons. A classic example (no pun intended) is the influence of the Greco-Roman canon (Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid etc) on Mediaeval, Islamic and Renaissance culture, and just about every culture since. (Obviously in the case of Greek and Latin literature pure physical survival mattered as much as critical selection. But survival and selection are hardly independent: other things being equal, what survives is what people think important enough to preserve.)

For a specific example of how the Greco-Roman canon moulded a later canon, there is the adoption (and adaptation) of classical hexameters and pentameters in later poetic forms in German, French, English and other languages. Another familiar example is the various structural features of Greek tragedy (eg in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) which Aristotle analysed in his Poetics and were again adopted and adapted by Neo-classical tragedians like Corneille and Racine.

So canons are powerful things. Powerful but not impregnable. An accepted norm or form will not stay accepted for all time. It may decay because it has lost its inner energy and/or external relevance, and be replaced or transmuted when another more relevant, more vibrant, more flexible, or less stagnated approach comes along. Hence Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’ as a deliberate rejection of ‘Aristotelian theatre’.

In music the word ‘canon’ has another more specific use. It can refer to a contrapuntal form in which one melody line (the leader) spawns one or more other melody lines (followers) played at the same time. Different types of canons are differentiated by different ways in which the followers differ from the leader. In a round like Frère Jacques the follower is identical to the leader but starts later. In other canons the follower is the mirror image of the leader; or the follower melody follows the same notes as the leader but in reverse order; or the followers relate harmonically to the leader.

Frère Jacques

Frère Jacques

The canon as musical form therefore almost serves as an image of a cultural canon. There is the idea of a deliberately selected artefact (the ‘leader’) laid down as a rule or principle, and then ‘followed’ – in the sense of directing or influencing what arises from it. Copying is only one way of following. Modulation, inversion, rejection and demolition are others. Brecht’s epic theatre works at least in part by explicit rejection or transcendence of Aristotelian norms. If Aristotelian theatre had not existed, there would have been no Brechtian epic theatre – or at least it, or its effect, would have been very different.

True to canonical form our theme now needs development. Which we will leave to next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

2 April 2010 at 3:43 pm

One Response

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  1. A canon as validation! yes, of course. And a canon itself, like scientific fact, can be examined for its source, its scope, its permanence, its influence, its accuracy, its alternatives.

    I’m eagerly looking forward to your next thoughts on the subject. Thank you for your insights so far. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    3 April 2010 at 5:13 pm


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