Annotated by the Author: ‘The Cultural Canon Is Better Than Ever’

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Annotated by the Author: ‘The Cultural Canon Is Better Than Ever’

It also forced people to discover — or rediscover — Julie Dash’s film “Daughters of the Dust,” just in time for its 25th anniversary. A sweeping, nonlinear meditation on the Great Migration as seen through three generations of Gullah women, “Daughters” became the first feature film directed by a black woman to have a wide theatrical release in the United States. Many were quick to observe the striking visual similarities between Beyoncé’s opus and its critically acclaimed predecessor, and Ms. Dash herself would go on to describe being “enthralled” the first time she viewed “Lemonade.”

Part of my research in preparation for writing this piece involved reacquainting myself intimately with many of the tenets and critiques of artistic canons by the old guard, which I hadn’t really done since I was in undergrad. I came across the filmmaker Paul Schrader’s own musings on the film canon in a 2006 Film Comment essay, in which he builds on the thoughts of T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom and declares, “The greatness of a film or filmmaker must be judged not only on its own terms but by its place in the evolution of film.” (I use this quote directly later in the piece.) This leapt out to me, and helped explain part of what makes “Lemonade” so great: It’s inspiration from “Daughters of the Dust.”

Yet unlike “Lemonade,” Ms. Dash’s film was not widely seen at the time of its release. For years it was difficult to track down, available only on DVD in an out-of-print edition. Almost 30 years later, “Daughters of the Dust” remains Ms. Dash’s only narrative feature to date, thanks to an industry that has long overlooked black women.

Which of these works deserves to be considered part of the “canon,” that divisive, elusive — and, traditionally, elitist — list of ostensibly foundational, exemplary art works? Well, both of them.

Initially, the structure of the entire introduction was slightly different. The original version of these couple of paragraphs in particular was less succinct, and included this: “If there exists a pop culture canon, or canons, for the 2010s, “Lemonade” is in it. How do you talk about the ongoing evolution of the music video and the autobiographical album without holding up “Lemonade” as an exemplar of both forms?”

My editor rightly slimmed down and refocused the points I was trying to make here.

In the past 10 years, the canon has been democratized. We’ve been able to observe this happening in real time: More mass art and culture has been created than perhaps in any other period, and by a greater diversity of artists. The rise of YouTube made it relatively easy for anyone with a small budget and a vision to make their own shows. (This helped Issa Rae transform from “Awkward Black Girl” to “Insecure” on HBO.) Netflix caught the ball and ran with it, venturing into original programming, eventually at warp speed; now Amazon, Hulu and other streaming platforms have followed suit. SoundCloud birthed an entire generation of rap stars.

Simultaneously, a wider range of critics and consumers are contributing to the conversation around these works than ever before, particularly through social media and digital publications. No longer do we have to take the word of the gatekeepers as a given.

In my first draft, it took me a bit longer to get to this point, but my editor suggested it would make more sense to briefly lay out the reason for this shift in the canon — the forces at work.

For centuries, the cultivating and maintenance of artistic canons — in literature, fine arts, even pop music — has been the province almost exclusively of white men. There was the 16th-century artist Giorgio Vasari and his collection of Italian biographies, “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” The English writer Joseph Addison, who in 1694 published “An Account of the Greatest English Poets.” The editors of the respected French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, who began putting out an annual best-of list in 1951. And Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic who died in October, who became one of the most prominent modern-day defenders of a Western canon that at its most permissive was allowed to include the likes of Emily Dickinson.

The cultural canon has typically included people and works that can be summed up as the usual suspects: Molière, Shakespeare, the “Mona Lisa,” the Beatles, “Citizen Kane.” It has also been rightly challenged by the likes of Toni Morrison and Barbara Herrnstein Smith for its Western, white and male biases and for dismissing the voices of women and people of color.

The framing of this section came as a suggestion from my editor, who wrote to me via email that I should follow the following arc (note that TK, in journalism-speak, means “to come”): “Here’s what the canon has historically been — a pantheon of white men from Beethoven to Roman Polanski. [Then work in some of the more definitional stuff here.] It’s been rightly critiqued for being conservative, because who wants to be told by gatekeepers that they have to appreciate TK TK in order to make art.”

Calls for a more inclusive canon were not well received by Mr. Bloom and others. In 1994, the literary scholar Peter Shaw tore apart the idea in his article “The Assault on the Canon”: When you remove a Shakespeare play from a class syllabus to make room for, say, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” he wrote, it presents “the specific issue of which of two works is superior.”

“Canon assaulters are reluctant to engage in such a confrontation for obvious reasons,” he added. Yet in the same essay, Mr. Shaw acknowledged that the canon is “regarded as imperfect at any particular point in time” and “in need of constant reform” and “revision.”

It was kind of wild, if unsurprising, to see how perfectly Mr. Shaw’s essay maps onto the many critiques that have been made against “woke” politics in the present, including of #OscarsSoWhite. He opens it with the rather dismissive sentence, “The debate over whether the classics of Western literature deserve their canonical status is a political rather than intellectual phenomenon.”

“Lemonade” and “Daughters of the Dust” were affirmed and reaffirmed as required viewing. Beyoncé’s film made its way onto college syllabuses, and “Daughters of the Dust” was restored, given a theatrical rerelease and finally became widely accessible to audiences once it landed on Netflix in 2017.

It’s hard to prove concretely, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the arrival of “Daughters of the Dust” on Netflix is very much linked to the renewed interest brought on by “Lemonade.”