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.