We often hear about The Canon, a presumed-monolithic entity of classics from Western literature and art that is in opposition to literatures from outside the west, different art forms, and different ways of conceiving classical works. There is also much good debate about the canon as we know it, what should be included in it and what should be discarded so that we can make way for works that are more relevant and reflective of our modern society and perceptions. However, we can also ask ourselves about our own tastes and preferences, and create our own personal canon. What are the books, paintings, pieces of music, works of art that inspire us personally?
As I wrote in an earlier post, many years ago I saw a photo exhibit by Patti Smith at the Detroit Institute of Arts. What was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive, aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind; she also knows which body of work inspires her. Inspiration is a word that is thrown around loosely, in clever memes on Instagram, on wooden cubes for home decor. On a deeper level, it is something that we cannot live without. Different artists speak to us in different ways–some appeal to our “shadow” or dark side, some uplift us, others challenge us, motivate us, see things in a different way than we do, etc. etc.
When we create our own personal canon, it does not necessarily mean we have to make a list or a Pinterest board to define it in a formal way. Naturally, we will gravitate to certain types of works or artists and over time, we get a sense of what we like. Emulation is part of the process: maybe we paint like X, write like Y, or dress like Z. And then we start developing our own voice, using elements of X, Y, or Z, and eventually our voice becomes our own. For those who aren’t artists, a personal canon will simply be a body of work and artists whom one always want to see more of. A person working in finance who has no aptitude for music may always want to follow the latest from Björk, or a scientist may have regular tickets to the symphony. What matters, in any case, is that we know who or what inspires us and ignites our soul. I argue in favor of following the artists we love best, the trajectory of their creativity, knowing the body of their work. Don’t we love talking with people who have a passion for a particular artist in depth?
We can choose whatever elements we want for our own personal canon. Who’s to say that someone can’t mix Rihanna with Balkan folk dancing with Latin American magical realist authors? Think of your canon as a special box in which you put your favorite, most precious objects. Each of these objects is like a different stone: one might be precious, one might be common but look nice, another one might be unusual. There is no right or wrong here; all that matters is that you choose what you love, knowing that it reflects a part of you that is your deepest soul.