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.