Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

10

HOW CANONS DISAPPEAR

The case of Henri Regnault

Marc Gotlieb

In recent years, new concerns have emerged regarding how canons in the visual arts are made. Rather than attending to questions of artistic judgment, to the historical genesis of masterpieces, or to variations in taste, we have come to think of canons as embodying values. And far from treating those values as neutral or impartial, we hold them to incorporate interests. To cite the case of French art of the late nineteenth century, new attention has fallen to the social instruments of canonicity - specifically, to the converging network of collecting, exhibition, and promotional forces that propelled and sustained the rise of Modernism. New attention, similarly, has fallen to our continuing complicity in that canon, specifically to the ideological, institutional, and gendered interests that seemingly nourished on the cultural capital Modernism supplies. For all the rewards of those new perspectives, we know rather less about the inverse condition - about how canons disappear. We have paid relatively little attention to the crumbling of reputations, to the process by which once famous works failed to compel conviction, to the gradual dismantling of institutional, economic, and other forms of support. 1

If speed is any measure, the so-called pompiers, or academic masters of the late nineteenth century, offer a spectacular example of such decline. Within only a few decades, and after centuries of international leadership, an entire school of painting seemed almost to vanish from the horizon of European cultural accomplishment. The luminaries who once dominated the artistic landscape would be accused of perpetrating a gigantic aesthetic error, attributable in part to their very loyalty to the tradition and institutions they were charged with upholding. Of course, the ascendancy of Modernism forms part and parcel of this transformation, from the emergence of the artist-dealer system to the cementing of pictorial concerns that largely discarded longstanding academic protocols and the pedagogical routines that sustained them. It's worth adding, too, that in the present day the battle lines no longer appear so clearly drawn. Leading masters once swept aside have begun to attract new attention, not least of all as the genesis of Modernism has itself come under intensive scrutiny. Nevertheless, the pompiers remain in thorough disrepute. This is not the place to detail the reasons for their continuing disfavor, although it's tempting to speculate: in his

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