How Do We Collectively Define Art? Exploring Alternatives to “Canon”

From the stage to the halls of museums, art institutions contribute to a collective cultural consciousness based on the kinds of art they bring to the public. Every choice to showcase an artist’s work ultimately makes an impact on how a community defines art for themselves. What’s more, art is a record of people’s stories and lives. In learning art history, we get glimpses of what societies were like in distant times, or in other parts of the world. Eventually, certain stories hold the tests of time and remain influential beyond their years. What remains in our collective memory is what is often called canon.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines canon as “a generally accepted rule, standard, or principle by which something is judged.” However, mainstream artistic canon has a history of leaving out certain artists that may not have been deemed “legitimate” by those in power at art institutions during those times. It’s a dangerous practice that has left some believing that artists of diverse backgrounds genuinely didn’t exist during certain periods of art history. That simply isn’t the case.

Now, arts organizations carry the responsibility of making sure artists from all backgrounds are represented and welcomed into the body of work that they put forward.  When artists from underrepresented communities are missing from artistic programming, that creates a narrative that the artists worthy of being shared with the public are largely white, cis, and male. In 2019, William Shakespeare was the most-produced playwright in the United States. What is it about his work that remains so important to produce so often? As Madeline Sayet says in her piece that we reference below, “He is one voice from one time period, and his existence should not render anyone else’s voice, language, or culture as lesser than. It is likely there are many other playwrights who, given the same positionality, would have been equally prolific.”

We encourage you to stay tuned in to conversations about how canon is being re-definied across all kinds of mediums. Below are some essays and documents that can help unpack how you define art and how your version of “canon” can be influenced by implicit biases.


Interrogating the Shakespeare System

by Madeline Sayet, HowlRound

“If [Shakespeare’s] plays are going to continue to be done, it’s important that Shakespeareans spend as much time learning about the world we are in today and how we got here. Honestly, if Shakespeare were still a person—if he were still a playwright, as opposed to a system—that’s probably what he would do…”

Alternative Canon

by Various Artists

This living document organizes and catalogs Non-Western plays, plays by Black, Indigenous, people of color, by women and by queer writers from before 1945. 

The Other Canon: 10 Centuries of Plays by Women

by Susan Jonas, American Theatre Magazine

“When we are trained to read through the filter of a canonic imprimatur, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Would we think Waiting for Godot or The Crucible or Miss Julie were great if we had not been guided by that expectation? Have we not had our fill of well-trod masterpieces? Don’t we crave a more expansive repertory? Are we not curious, at least, about how the other half lived?”


The Majority of College Dance Programs Focus on Western Techniques—and It’s Shortchanging Students’ Artistry

by Shannon Woods, Dance Magazine

“What would it look like if ballet or modern dancers consistently diversified their training with bharatanatyam or traditional West African dance? ‘I don’t think we fully understand what the benefits are, because we haven’t given students the opportunity to expand in those ways,’ Nyama McCarthy-Brown, assistant professor of community engagement through dance pedagogy at Ohio State University.”

Queer Dance: Performing the Capacity to Desire Differently

by Charmian Wells, The Brooklyn Rail

“Croft’s objective is not to create a new queer canon of dance, but to experiment with promiscuous mixings and unorthodox juxtapositions. What is queer, she offers, is what happens in-between, what new forms of relation can materialize.”


New music theory course takes global perspective

by Marisol Carty, Yale Daily News 

“Recently, the music department has diversified the repertoire used in music theory courses, but most of the repertoire remains within the Western classical canon. MUSI 100 uses repertoire from South Indian classical music, Jewish Torah cantillation, Gregorian chant, and songs from 19th-century Appalachia such as ‘Amazing Grace.'”

Editor’s Picks: 2019 Contemporary Classical Albums

by Amanda Cook, I Care if You Listen

This selection of contemporary classical music was created with the conscious decision in mind to use the space to advocate for racial and gender equity and to create a platform for those who have been historically marginalized in classical music.

Resources for Diversity in Early Music Repertoire

Compiled by the Early Music America’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Taskforce

This resource list includes information on countless early music artists to expand your catalog or repertoire, including a list of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) composers active before 1850.

How We Can Support the World’s Rich Musical Diversity

By Huib Schippers, Smithsonian Magazine

“Just as we can access music from inner Mongolia and the Amazonian rain forest, people in those regions are listening to Christian hymns, military band tunes and Western pop music, often pushed with considerable force by missionaries, colonial powers, and the—now effectively collapsed—international music industry that has for more than a century largely determined what we listen to.”


Questioning the Canon

Google Arts and Culture

This resource dissects work by contemporary African American artists at the Baltimore Museum of art, complete with easy-to-digest notes that illuminate discoveries about each piece’s importance in the canon of American art history.

Boston’s ‘Man Of Murals’ On The Legacy Of Street Art

From Open Studio with Jared Bowen, WGBH

In this segment from Open Studio with Jared Bowen, Jared speaks with Boston artist and Artists for Humanity Co-Founder, Rob “Problak” Gibbs’ and learns about his new mural in his “Breathe Life” series.

The Canon Explodes: The Museum World Aims for Diversity

By Carol Strickland, The Clyde Fitch Report

“In more than a dozen interviews, curators, consultants, academics and museum directors expressed enthusiasm for overturning the prior focus on white, male “geniuses.” The current political tumult, they said, makes highlighting contributions by women and artists of color a necessary, urgent reform.”

Photo courtesy of Nothing But New England.

Elena Morris (she/her/hers) is ArtsBoston’s Community Outreach and Marketing Manager. She is a dramaturg and arts administrator passionate about forward thinking in the arts. Elena holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University, focusing her studies on dramatic literature and movement. twitter-4-512 @elena_pearl
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