Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.
The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.
Like many ideas from literary studies, the idea of a canon has been imported over into film criticism: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind are part of the film canon – probably, it depends who you ask. It’s also gained traction in recent years with TV criticism, thanks to the rise of the prestige TV drama and the accompanied taking TV seriously as art, and to us having the facility to watch older television shows due to the rise of box sets and then streaming. The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad are part of the TV canon – I mean, probably, it depends who you ask. Like with the literary canon, these canons are criticised for being white and male, for their genre biases, for disguising their conservatism as a universal human truth. These criticisms are not only fair; they’re vital. Sometimes the stakes are high – Spike Lee has spoken about how at NYU they taught all about the technical innovations in Birth of a Nation, but never mentioned how it was used as a recruitment tool by the KKK – but more often it’s quiet and insidious, the intangible, often subconscious process of determining what serious, important art is and can be. I think all the time about how “the Great HBO/WB Schism of 1999” shaped Emily Nussbaum as a critic:
Every week, I watched The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that David Chase and Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama. Yet only one of the shows was being written about, seemingly on a near-daily basis, by the Times…
In part, this was because Buffy The Vampire Slayer had a silly name; in part, it was because it aired on the miniature “netlet” called the WB, and because it starred a teenaged girl and featured vampires. But a significant element of the disdain stemmed from how the show looked, which was in no way Scorsesesque or Fellinian. The werewolf costume looked like it was my great-aunt Ida’s coat.
It is important that any canon is criticised and expanded and constantly contested and changed. Buffy is just as important as Breaking Bad; it’s dumb that Mario Van Peebles and New Jack City get written out of the 1990s neo-noir revival; it’s absurd that The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off don’t get talked about as among the best films ever made, even though they so obviously are, just because they’re teen movies. My chief aim in life is to be the world’s foremost Weekend at Bernie’s scholar, I’m not some traditionalist clinging to the classic canon. But when people dispute the canon, frequently they’re disputing whether it should exist at all.
Canons are inherently arbitrary. No-one’s ever going to crack the case on which films are in fact Objectively The Best Ones, because that’s not how art works. This, combined with the particularly bad forms of arbitrariness that canons tend to propagate, means lots of people reject not just the contents of a particular canon but the idea of a canon outright. There’s a righteousness to this: it’s a gratifying kind of populism, sticking it to the big wigs who decided Saturday Night Fever was important and Dirty Dancing wasn’t. Lindsay Ellis comes basically this conclusion in her video on the literary canon: “It’s not to say that Moby-Dick or Les Miserables or War and Peace don’t contain universal truths or are not worth the time to visit… [but] I posit that what is ‘important’ is less what history tells you it is, but what inspires you to want to keep reading in the first place.”
But here’s the problem: “just read and watch whatever you want, the canon isn’t real!” doesn’t achieve anything. It’s a bizarrely individualist attitude, and one that ends up not taking art particularly seriously. It encourages us to stay in our little enclaves, far away from stuff that’s radically different from our own perspective, from anything challenging. Roughly a century ago, I saw a post on Tumblr that said something along the lines of, “people say you have to watch The Godfather because it’s a great film, but so is The Cheetah Girls and it passes the Bechdel test.” It’s burned into my brain, because that’s what “watch whatever you want! The canon isn’t real!” means in practice: someone denying themselves The Godfather because there are no real measures of a film’s quality, besides its most superficial politics. To paraphrase John Cassavetes, there is no high and low art, but there are good movies and bad movies. And, reader, The Cheetah Girls is not a good movie.
Implicit in the Godfather vs Cheetah Girls example is the particularly weird gender dynamics of the canon debate. Legitimate criticisms of the maleness of pretty much every canon are based in basic justice – i.e. that sexist bias plays a role in the exclusion of great art made by women, which also means cutting yourself off from the value and insight of different artistic perspectives. But a mutated version of this criticism argues that women readers and audiences are excluded, because, uh, we can only relate to stuff made by other women, I guess. It sounds silly when stated so baldly, but I had arguments in Shakespeare classes in college about whether women could relate to or connect to Hamlet, because Hamlet is a man. Me, a woman, saying that I relate to Hamlet (because he’s just a sad screwed-up kid) is for some reason never the silver bullet you’d think.
So you end up with endless takes about how men should stop trying to get women to care about some list of films that I can guarantee you I love more than any man I’ve ever met. This version, by Miles Klee, is especially amusing because it includes a gay movie directed by a woman (Point Break), a film beloved of literally everyone’s mam (The Shawshank Redemption), and a film about a little girl playing baseball (Bad News Bears). But generally, there’s a huge overlap between what films get the “only straight white men like this” treatment and the canon: “Area Girlfriend Still Hasn’t Seen Apocalypse Now” is a timeless Onion article, the body of which adds Full Metal Jacket, Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange to the list of films the girlfriend won’t watch or doesn’t like. (For the record: you should watch all of these films.) These takes, Jessica Ritchey writes, “completely erase the voices of female critics, critics of color and fans who don’t fit neatly into binaries of who ‘should’ like/dislike something… Assuming women only like certain kinds of films is as limiting as saying our voices about film don’t matter.”
I don’t like or understand Hitchcock or Shakespeare or Breaking Bad any less because of my gender. My gender does not dispose me to enjoy The Cheetah Girls more than The Godfather. Efforts to expose the falseness of the canon by saying “well, women don’t like this stuff” isn’t feminism, and it has next to nothing to say about art. It’s just a lie.
The problem is that The Godfather and Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver and Vertigo and Citizen Kane are all really, really great, and everyone should watch them. Ultimately, all a canon is is a list of recommendations: here’s the stuff you should watch or read if you want to know important stuff about the medium, that stuff that’s lasted and the stuff that’s “important” – not because I’ve decided it’s important, but because of its relationship to the culture. All art is in conversation with everything that’s come before it, and the canon is the stuff that comes up the most often in that conversation. And because that conversation is so often on a wavelength you can’t hear if you’re not tuned into it, you need somebody – or hopefully, many different somebodies – to point the way.
I saw Casablanca when I was thirteen because I saw it on a list of the best films of all time, and I am an immeasurably different person because of it. And somebody declaring that you don’t need to watch Casablanca because “watch whatever you want, the canon isn’t real!” doesn’t just break my heart, it makes me angry. Because if I’d followed that rule, why would I watch some old black-and-white propaganda film? Some romance about boring grown-ups? Why would I watch anything older than myself? Why would I watch westerns or horror movies or anything subtitled? Just watch whatever you want, and never for a moment think about what you ought to want, never wonder if those might be just shadows on the cave wall and not the whole world.
There’s no single canon. There’s canons for different genres and nations and eras, compiled by different people and organisations. But if you throw out canon altogether, you reduce art to a type of consumerist hedonism, where individual choices are beyond reproach even if in reality individuals have little choice at all. It’s important to fight the curators, to point out their bullshit and demand better, to tear down and build anew. But our tastes are not at the purest when unmediated. They are at their purest when armed with knowledge and history and a critical eye, and the canon is a crash course in acquiring those things.