By the time Beyoncé released “Lemonade” — a sprawling film-and-album contending with the difficulties in her marriage to Jay-Z, and more collectively, generations of black American women’s trauma — she had already won 20 Grammys, performed with Prince and Tina Turner, and upended the music industry with the surprise release of her 2013 self-titled album. But “Lemonade” was something different.
The visuals evoked Southern Gothicism and Yoruba culture, with black women dressed in billowing white dresses, climbing giant, mossy trees, communing along the beach and in the water. The songs — of heartbreak, rage, vulnerability, braggadocio, reconciliation — were mined from country, blues, R&B, rock, bounce.
“Lemonade” was instantly dissected, analyzed and praised. At the end of 2016 it topped multiple lists as an album and found its place as a film on lists alongside “Moonlight” and “Toni Erdmann.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
In his 2006 essay “Canon Fodder,” the filmmaker and critic Paul Schrader riffed on T.S. Eliot’s and Mr. Bloom’s assertions that no individual work exists in a vacuum — that to appreciate and evaluate art, one must put it in dialogue with the works that came before it. “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,” Mr. Schrader wrote.
“Daughters of the Dust” didn’t need “Lemonade” to assert its place in the canon — the film was added in 2004 to the National Film Registry, a collection of films selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” — but Beyoncé’s homage a quarter of a century later reinforced its staying power and demonstrated just how influential the movie has been.
The same could be said for The Notorious B.I.G., who served as one of many reference points in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit “Hamilton.” The rapper’s premature demise in 1997 — he recorded just two studio albums, both critically acclaimed, before his death at 24 — has long contributed to his looming legend as one of the greatest rappers of all time. But to see his mark on a hit Broadway show emphasized how far-reaching his influence continues to be two decades later.
It could also be said for ball and drag culture, which saw increased visibility with the rise of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” and “Pose.” These art forms had thrived in urban L.G.B.T.Q. communities for decades, but queer people were too often relegated to the background, becoming a source of inspiration — and profit — for more “mainstream” artists. In the 2010s, though, millions of others came to appreciate drag culture and understand the foundations that black and brown queer communities in the ’80s and ’90s laid for everything from Madonna’s “Vogue” to Lady Gaga’s entire career.
Yet the 2010s also delivered a reckoning. The #MeToo movement revealed a long list of careers and dreams deferred, and canonical movies with troubled histories. Mr. Bloom — who himself was accused of sexual assault by a former student, the writer Naomi Wolf — would argue that “politics” has no place in assessing the canon. But most critics ignored this throughout the past decade: The works of Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Louis C.K. and other creative minds came under intense scrutiny as past controversies resurfaced.
Debates raged over whether they should continue to be revered. Woody Allen movies that had long been held up as proof of his genius — “Manhattan,” “Play It Again, Sam” — suddenly took on a sinister light in the face of renewed allegations that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow when she was a child. R. Kelly’s decades-long oeuvre, made up of songs both incredibly explicit and cheesily wholesome in nature, was scrutinized and cast aside in the wake of a docuseries detailing numerous allegations of sexual and emotional abuse against young girls and women.
But in many cases, the work itself hasn’t necessarily plummeted in esteem. Some may still choose not to play “Billie Jean” at their events, but its standing as one of the greatest and most influential pop songs of all time seems unlikely to budge. The film director Jordan Peele has spoken often of how Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” influenced his feature debut — “Get Out,” one of the most highly regarded films of the past decade — despite the fact that Mr. Polanski has been a fugitive from the United States for more than 40 years after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. Likewise, that legacy did not stop Mr. Polanski’s film from receiving positive retrospectives in 2018 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its release.
It’s not so much that canons have been completely obliterated, as Mr. Bloom and others feared — in any given collection, the old guard and their descendants have remained. But canons have continued to evolve, and new ones have sprung up alongside them.
When Mr. Bloom died in October, Joe Karaganis and David McClure of the nonprofit research organization Open Syllabus wondered, in an Op-Ed in The Times, whether he or Toni Morrison, a proponent of more inclusive canonization, won the literary canon wars. Their examination of millions of college syllabuses found that both had won, in a way. Students are still being taught Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but now they are being read along with Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Walker.
Mr. Karaganis and Mr. McClure were looking only at literature taught in colleges, but their findings seem consistent across other art forms, from film to music. And I can envision this being the case as we head into the 2020s, too. Years from now, “Daughters of the Dust” and “Lemonade” will together inspire other artists, as will Polanski and Peele, Biggie and “Hamilton.” Many of those future works are unlikely to rise to the achievements of their predecessors. But even then, they will prove how singular and exemplary those achievements are — and that the canon is no longer limited by lack of imagination.
Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) is a staff editor and writer in the Opinion section, where she covers culture and society.
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