The big question: is there a Global Canon?

Author:Fredrick, Yaffa

Good poets borrow; great poets steal

--T.S. Eliot

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.

--James Joyce

All art is theft.

--Pablo Picasso

Our world is increasingly interconnected, and artistic theft has never been easier. There were lines once, rooted in Europe, that delineated and informed the creation of a canon of great works. Those lines are now blurred, or have disappeared altogether. Artists collaborate across countries and continents, inspiring their brethren, prompting further acts of thievery. Art, literature and music live in a world without borders, where national identities can mean everything or nothing. These recent, ongoing developments have called into question the very notion, and relevance, of a Western Canon. Is a Global Canon emerging? A panel of experts, assembled by World Policy Journal, weighs in.


When I attended school, the classics consisted of 100 great books subsidized by the Swedish government. Unfortunately, almost all of them were written by dead white men--and there was a slight problem of representation--none from Australia, or Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East. In response, the reference group that I am currently a member of has been asked by the Swedish government to add 50 new titles to create an updated canon of 150 books that will be subsidized in schools and hopefully read and spread throughout Sweden. Even in the home of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this has been controversial, with some conservatives fearing we'd delete Strindberg and Ibsen from the Canon (the horror!). In actuality, though, we are just adding books, and the best part is that we are able to offer schools wonderful works by writers like Chinua Achebe, Juan Rulfo, Forough Farrokzhad, Janet Frame and Naguib Mahfouz.

But at the same time we continually need to question what makes a novel African or Japanese or Brazilian. How many geishas or cherry blossoms to call a novel Japanese? How many stereotypes for our geographical aspirations to be fulfilled? We must focus on the best texts. We included Yukio Mishima's "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea," not because of its "Japanese-ness," but because it is a wonderfully-composed novel that should continue to find new readers and influence them in new ways in the future. And that's exactly what the Global Canon should do. No matter when or where each component was written.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri is an award-winning Swedish playwright and novelist.


There has always been a Global Canon of artists, although the established Western Canon does not recognize their names. More often than not, notions of worthy or unworthy in art refer back to the Western Canon. Subscribers to the Western Canon accept a basic assumption that some official body of artistic judgment is able to place value on every art-making endeavor equally, and with the appropriate tools.

In reality, this process is limited by the personal experience and cultural perspective of...

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