Conceptual art vs. craftsmanship

October 17, 2009

In a New York Times op-ed piece, author Denis Dutton contrasts the relatively recent conceptual approach to art with ancient traditions of craftsmanship, which he admires.

Dutton’s thinking about conceptual-vs.-crafted artistry differs from David Galenson’s conceptual-vs.-experimental approach, but the two approaches have some similarities. Like Galenson, Dutton has an eye on the art market.

Galenson thinks that the success of conceptually innovative art is based on the structure of the modern art market, while Dutton expects conceptual art will lose its appeal. Dutton writes:

”The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art … on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons.

Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets.

Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

Denis Dutton is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He wrote “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.”


Renewal by refocusing — how David Hockney did it

July 12, 2008

Hockney's 1967 "A Bigger Splash"

Conceptual innovator David Hockney won fame as an artist at age 26, then achieved new success in his 60s by plunging into art history. As such, he’s a prime example of a conceptual innovator achieving renewal through a change of focus.

For economist David Galenson, Hockney is “a wonderful example of a young genius conceptual artist,” who had his first show at age 27 and produced his most valued work at age 30.

“Throughout his career, Hockney has made a series of abrupt changes of style, often associated with a change of materials or medium.”

Hockney’s works that are most frequently included in retrospective exhibitions are his splashy paintings from his late 20s, just after he moved to LA. He made a shift in his 40s, into photo collages (below). The ones he did in his late 40s are No. 2 in frequency in retrospectives.

“David Hockney obviously challenged himself, first moving into photography and now into art history. Many people were pissed off, but he didn’t care,” Galenson says.

In his 60s, Hockney developed the radical idea that several masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, including Raphael and Giorgione, painted with the help of newly invented optical lenses and mirrors. Hockney’s theory led to a book that challenged the art history establishment.

Hockneys Pearblossom Highway photo collage, 1986

Hockney's "Pearblossom Highway" photo collage, 1986

Monet painting from age 79 is worth $80m? That’s typical.

July 12, 2008
“Le Bassin aux Nymphéas,” sold for $80.4 million

“Le Bassin aux Nymphéas,” sold for $80.4 million

Congratulations to experimental innovator Claude Monet for last month’s $80.4 million sale of the painting “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” which he completed at age 79 in 1919.

That was the highest auction price ever paid for a Monet, topping May’s $41.5 million for “Le Pont du Chemin de Fer a Argenteuil.” That painting dates from 1874, when the painter was 33.

The $80 million sale of the water lily painting — the second-most expensive painting sold at a European auction — moves Monet closer to the typical pattern for experimental innovators, who usually achieve their greatest successes later in life after repeated, incrementally varied work on the same subject.

As the most prominent artist in the group that founded Impressionism, Monet earned his reputation with works from his late 20s and early 30s. At least until the latest sale, the masterpieces from around age 30 made that period the most highly valued by art buyers, as well as the decade most frequently represented in art history books.

Later in life, he became an old master. He was age 54 when he repeatedly painted Rouen Cathedral in 1984, the most frequently represented year for Monet paintings in art books.

His renowned studies of water lilies date from his late 50s to his death at age 94.

Like most successful experimental innovators, Monet’s popularity doesn’t depend on any one particular work that stands out from the rest.

Monet is No. 5 on the list of French painters whose works appear most frequently in art histories, but he has no individual painting in the Top 10.

For more on experimental and conceptual innovators, see other posts in this blog and the Arts of Innovation Web site.

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.