Escaping the canon

Speech Acts, an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, asks us to consider how what we see in museums shapes our perception of which artworks and artists matter. These are questions that are important for all cultural forms to examine, says Eliza Williams

We are all trapped in the cultural canon. The allure of the famous artist or designer can be both irresistible and lucrative: if you want to create a blockbuster exhibition or need people to attend your festival, then an established creative star is your man. And he likely will be a man, and more than likely a white one.

Therein lies the problem with the canon – we require those within it to keep the coffers of our galleries and our festivals full, yet while those on the inside grow ever-more famous, others get sidelined or written out of history. The creative industries wring their hands about this, and about the lack of diversity among those entering their worlds, and yet still the problem endures.

It can be difficult to challenge these established systems. In January this year, as part of an event staged by the artist Sonia Boyce, John William Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs was removed from the walls of the Manchester Art Gallery, and a storm of Twitter commentary and newspaper think pieces was set loose. Boyce and the gallery were met with vitriolic cries of censorship and the curators were compared with Nazis.


London, EC3R


Guildford, Surrey