Reshaping the Canon

Reshaping the Canon

The issue of discrimination in the art world is not uncommon. Traditionally, white male art historians like Ernst Gombrich (b.1909) plotted and dictated a Eurocentric chronology of historic artistic developments. Referencing the irrelevance of such frameworks in today’s globalised, increasingly accepting consciousness, Maura Reilly’s vital text Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (Thames & Hudson) re-examines the historic issue of under-representation, questioning why, in arguably the most liberal age to date, certain minorities are still excluded from the story of art.

As the curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum, one of the first spaces dedicated to uncovering and publicising the place of women within the narrative of creativity, Reilly continues her quest for an increasingly inclusive account of creativity. Out of the top 100 artists (based on cumulative auction value between 2011-2016) only five were women. Startling statistics such as these are embedded into Reilly’s radical rhetoric, not only highlighting disparity, but questioning why the western world substantially places value and interprets genius in male artists.

This recognition contributes to a wider conversation, asking readers to consider how the art world is constructed, and why certain individuals have excelled over others. In promoting institutions and audiences alike to discard outdated, hegemonic frameworks, the book draws on revolutionary dialogues shared by key feminist figures such as Linda Nochlin (b.1931) and Griselda Pollock (b.1949), exclaiming how a more “Wikipedia-like approach would enable innumerable voices to comment, debate, and shape tradition.” To support her argument, the books is divided up into four key stages for complete “curatorial activism”, moving through discussions of previous and current sexism, post-colonialism and heterocentrism, finally considering attempts which have been made to combat them.

Reilly states how gender, sexuality and race have become central to lesser-known shows including The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, The Studio Museum, New York, and Re.Act.Feminism #2 – A Performing Archive, shown globally, re-evaluating the model of canonical art. By establishing that new ideals of thinking about and viewing historic and contemporary painting, photography, performance and installation have begun to break through, an undertone of hope is evident. The detailed examination of these shows, placed alongside well-established critical and cultural theory, uncovers how disparities in previous curatorial practise as well as the relevance and desire for these varying expressions amongst the global population continues to grow.

Ending on a cautionary note, Reilly concludes how a need for permanent, safe spaces for females, artists of colour and those working out of the LGBTQ+ community continues to exist and that the need to widen awareness is as prevalent as ever. This is perhaps echoed by #5WomenArtists, an annual recognition and celebration of Women’s History Month. Presented by National Museum of Women’s Art, Washington, the challenge asks users to promote female creatives and their works on social media, positioning them in the mainstream. As part of critical reading surrounding International Womens’ Day and its wider thought campaigns, social media initiatives and Reilly’s publication note how, whilst there is still some disparity, there is an emergence of wider consciousness surrounding the issue as part of a positive reshaping of creative lineage.

Saffron Ward

Maura Reilly, Curatorial Activism: Towards an ethics of curating is now available from Thames & Hudson. Find out more here.

1.  Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #35, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 15 7/8 x 12 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.