Unfaltering, distasteful story of 20th century art

November 5, 2009

DG coverArt historians have a problem telling the story of 20th century art.

The tale gets a running start from Post-Impressionism, picks up speed with Cubism, then jogs through Abstract Expressionism on its way to Pop Art and Conceptual Art, but the story line peters out somewhere after about 1980.

Then the thread of the narrative vanishes into a welter of conflicting styles.

Post-modern art “cultivates the variety of incoherence,” Jonathan Fineberg stated in the textbook “Art Since 1940.”

After the 1980s, the art world split into fragments that “disintegrated, becoming the sluggish mishmash that has prevailed in art ever since,” New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote.

Now along comes economist David Galenson to offer a remedy for art historians’ problem. His alternative version of 20th century art has a beginning, a middle and – not an end, but a narrative thread that continues up to the present.

Galenson’s comprehensive and data-based account of modern art, set forth in his new book Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art might win acceptance from art critics and art historians.


But if so it would have to overcome their sharp distaste for how Galenson approaches the subject. He examines how the art market has influenced artists and their styles. He categorizes artists as either slow-moving experimental innovators or quick-changing — and now increasingly dominant — conceptual innovators. And he uses economic analysis to rank artists’ importance.

Each of those approaches yields insights into 20th century art, allowing for new understandings both of its early days and of its late “mishmash.”

Galenson’s history of the art market starts traditionally, in 1874, with the French Impressionists’ destruction of the Salon’s monopoly on acceptable art. Next comes Picasso’s cultivation of a handful of key gallery owners and art collectors who reward his stylistic innovations. Finally an open marketplace allows Andy Warhol and now Damien Hirst to grow rich by appealing to a mass audience.

The contemporary marketplace rewards the latest bright ideas from brilliant conceptual innovators, which leads to the proliferation of contemporary styles, Galenson says.

According to Galenson, who were the dominant artists during the last quarter of the 20th century? Perhaps not exactly whom you would guess, although Galenson’s numeric analysis is based simply on how often artists’ works appear in all art textbooks published from 2000 on. No. 1 is photographer Cindy Sherman, with 25 illustrations. She’s followed by Gerhard Richter, with 23; Jeff Koons, with 22; and Damien Hirst, just 19.

Galenson’s previous work has been scorned by art scholars, so he doesn’t try to win them over with honeyed words.

“I persevered in spite of their unfortunate lack of intellectual curiosity,” he writes. As a result, “I have learned fascinating things about modern art that art historians do not know.”

Perhaps they will be fascinated by this new book. More likely it will be greeted with silence.

If you’re interested in buying Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, click on the book title.


At long last, Malcolm Gladwell on innovation

October 17, 2008

Picasso and CezanneThe long-awaiting article by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell about David Galenson’s theory of innovation finally appeared in the magazine’s Oct. 20 edition and online.

The article focuses primarily on experimental innovators, who tend to do their best work later in their careers. The piece is called “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?”

Three excerpts contain lessons that Gladwell draws from Galenson’s discoveries:

Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life.

But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

Early in their careers, experimental innovators may be distinguishable from people who will never succeed, Gladwell says:

On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.

Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.)

Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

And in conclusion:

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.

Soon: Guides to art of conceptual and experimental innovators in Paris

September 6, 2007

Jackson Pollock

Coming soon: Short guides to the collections of the Musee d’Orsay and the Pompidou Center in Paris, viewed with an eye to which works were created by young geniuses and which by old masters. The pamphlets will tell museum goers which paintings were created at the high point of the artist’s career and which were part of an artistic slump. They’ll join a guide to the Musee de l’Orangerie, which is already available for download. All three will be downloadable from the “Arts of Innovation” Web site after I get back from a Paris trip and solve a pesky computer problem.

Here’s a preview from the Pompidou guide:

Jackson Pollock, United States (1912-1956) – experimental innovator and master of dripping paint

The car crash that killed America’s great drip painter eliminated his chances of becoming a true old master, but his career up to that point hewed closely to the typical pattern. Pollock’s most successful works came more than a decade into his career, when he found and then returned repeatedly to his favorite subject matter, his familiar splashes of flung and dribbled colors, which were his equivalent of Degas ballet dancers. The paintings that gained the greatest favor among buyers and curators are ones from his late 30s. As an experimental innovator, he stuck with that style from age 35 until shortly before his death at age 44.

The Pompidou’s Pollocks are both from age 36 (in 1948). Both are on display in Room 34, Level 5:

  • “Painting (Silver over Black, White, Yellow and Red)” (Pictured above)
  • “Number 26 A, Black and White”

Conceptual artist Gustave Courbet, plus Edouard Manet and Bob Dylan

August 8, 2007

L'Aterlier by Courbet

WIthout realizing it, Peter Schjeldahl describes French painter Gustave Courbet as a conceptual innovator in his recent New Yorker review of Petra Chu’s biography, “The Most Arrogant Man in France.”

Among Courbet’s characteristics that are typical of conceptual innovators:

  • Conceiving of pictures by predicting the shock they would create, rather than as an attempt to capture the essence of the world around him.
  • Basing paintings on theories about painting, such as his 1855 “Realist Manifesto.” It declared his intention “to translate the customs, the ideas, the aspect of my time as I conceive of them.” Further: “Hardly objective, Courbet’s realist works are fictive and rhetorical to the core—‘conceptual rather than perceptual,’ Chu affirms.”
  • Finding inspiration beyond the natural world. “The art historian Linda Nochlin, in her seminal book “Realism” (1971), characterized the movement’s idealism with an apt quote from Hegel: ‘Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world, on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to reclothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind.’ ”

Courbet became a painter at age 20 and produced his most frequently reproduced work, “The Studio of the Artist” (pictured), in 1855 at age 36 – relatively late for a conceptual innovator. Not long after that, he faded, as conceptual innovators typically do. As Schjeldaht writes:

“Already he had lost his edge. Already, in 1863, ‘Olympia,’ by his younger and smarter contemporary Édouard Manet [another conceptual innovator], had dramatized the female nude in ways, both realist and poetic, that beggared Courbet. (It was shown, to legendary furor, in the Salon of 1865.) Meanwhile, the Impressionists were making Courbet’s eclectic chiaroscuro styles—later ridiculed by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam as ‘molasses and bitumen’—look abruptly obsolete.”

Schjeldahl even compares conceptual Courbet to a conceptual innovator from the present – Bob Dylan. “Showily enigmatic, ‘The Studio of the Painter’ affected its immediate audiences with inchoate excitements—vaguely political, indistinctly visionary, unfathomably ironic—somewhat like those which attended the early hits of Bob Dylan in another epoch that violently revamped public roles and values in the arts.”


L’Orangerie tour guide is downloadable

July 26, 2007

My 12-page pamphlet on works of old masters Cezanne and Monet, young genius Picasso and aging genius Matisse in L’Orangerie in Paris is now downloadable from the “Arts of Innovation” Web site.

I’ve also added simple printing instructions (since the printing goes on both sides of the pages.)

Now ready — old masters tour, young genius tour of l’Orangerie

July 25, 2007

I’ve completed the selective guide to works in the Orangerie museum in Paris by old masters Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet, young genius Pablo Picasso, and aging genius Henri Matisse. It’s currently on a Web page of the Arts of Innovation site.

I also have it formatted as a computer-printable 12-page pamphlet. I’m working on setting up that version as a downloadable file from an FTP site.

People’s favorites — Gates, Hazen, cummings

July 9, 2007

Elizabeth HazenAmong the dozens of artists, writers, film makers and inventors whose stories are told on the “Arts of Innovation” Web site, the most popular among Internet searcher are a software mogul, a microbiologist and a poet: (1) Bill Gates, (2) Elizabeth Hazen (pictured) and (3) e e cummings.

The most popular pages are:

The quiz “Are you experimental or conceptual?”;

• The preliminary, still-incomplete discussion of experimental and conceptual film makers;

• The presentation of the basics of experimental and conceptual innovators; and

• The page on e e cummings.