And Now for Something Completely Different

by David W. Galenson David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). 22.03.2014

In the modern era, conceptual innovators have radically transformed the function and role of style in the arts. Traditionally, style was the artist’s signature or trademark, the unique and distinctive means by which he expressed his ideas or perceptions. Style was nurtured painstakingly: Cézanne reflected that “style does not develop from the slavish imitation of the old masters; it develops from the artist’s personal manner of feeling and expression.” A personal style was the distinguishing characteristic of a true artist: Frank Lloyd Wright angrily declared that “The style of the thing…will be the man – it is his. Let his forms alone.”


La Vie (1903). Image courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio by Pablo Picasso.

The break with this traditional conception was pioneered by Picasso, who was known from early in his career for his abrupt and frequent changes of style. Experimental artists and critics puzzled over Picasso’s versatility, which they perceived as arbitrary and insincere, but in a celebrated interview in 1923 Picasso explained that his shifts and alternations of styles were a product of his conceptual approach to art: “Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression.” Picasso would later reflect that he perhaps had no style: “I’m never fixed and that’s why I have no style.”


Family of Saltimbanques (1905). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In Picasso’s radical new conception, style was no longer a unique expression of personality, but merely a convenient means of expression, like a language, to be taken up or put aside depending on the particular idea to be represented. This new approach spread rapidly throughout the world of advanced art. Marcel Duchamp was among the early practitioners of stylistic versatility. Setting out to undermine the rigidity of the art world, and reasoning that taste was a product of habit, he determined to avoid repetition, and once declared that “I’ve had thirty-three ideas; I‘ve made thirty-three paintings.” In 1943, Duchamp paid tribute to Picasso’s innovation, writing that his “main contribution to art” was his ability, in each of the many phases of his career, “to keep free from preceding achievements,” without any “repetition in his uninterrupted flow of masterpieces.”


Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Duchamp’s friend Francis Picabia shared his attitude toward style; Picabia declared that “If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.” Picabia’s refusal to follow any fixed formula earned him Duchamp’s praise as “the greatest exponent of freedom in art.” Another friend of both Duchamp and Picabia, the painter and photographer Man Ray, also deliberately avoided a fixed style: he explained that “each new approach demanded its particular technique which had to be invented on the spot.”


Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910). Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois.

Whether directly or through the intermediation of Duchamp, Picasso’s novel approach to style spread widely among conceptual painters in the following generations. Robert Rauschenberg, who admired Duchamp so much he tried to steal a marble cube from Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze? on a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explained that whenever he began to work, he tried to clear his mind of all he knew: “Everything I can remember, and everything I know, I have probably done, or somebody else has.” In 1960, David Hockney felt liberated by seeing a large exhibition of Picasso’s work, because it showed him that “style is something you can use, and you can be a magpie, just taking what you want.” Two years later, Hockney’s entry in London’s Royal College of Art student exhibition comprised four paintings, collectively titled Demonstrations of Versatility.    In a 1963 interview, Andy Warhol asked, “How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.” In 1984, Gerhard Richter explained that changing styles gave him “the freedom to do what I like…not to become an artist-painter who is tied down to a single trick.” He recognized that “historically speaking, changeable artists are a growing phenomenon. Picasso, for instance, or Duchamp and Picabia – and the number is certainly increasing all the time.” Seeing a Man Ray retrospective inspired the young Bruce Nauman: “What I liked was that there appeared to be no consistency to his thinking, no one style.” Nauman subsequently avoided predictability: “it’s never going to be the same, there is no method.” Damien Hirst prides himself on heterogeneity: “I curate my own work as if I were a group of artists.” He deliberately avoids repetition: “I mean, I don’t want to make ‘Damien Hirsts.’”


Olga in an Armchair (1917-18). Image courtesy of Musée Picasso, Paris.

John Berger observed in 1965 that Picasso’s stylistic practice had no precedent: “In the life work of no other artist is each group of works so independent of those which have just gone before, or so irrelevant to those which are to follow.” And at the close of the 20th century, David Sylvester reflected that Picasso’s behavior would not have been possible earlier: “Picasso is a kind of artist who couldn’t have existed before this century, since his art is a celebration of this century’s introduction of a totally promiscuous eclecticism into the practice of art.” What even Berger and Sylvester failed to understand, however, was the underlying change that allowed Picasso to pioneer this practice. Unlike in virtually all earlier times, when artists were subject to the demands of specific individual or institutional patrons, in the first decade of the 20th century Picasso effectively completed the process, that had begun in 1874 with the Impressionists’ challenge to the official Salon, of transforming a monopolistic art market into an atomistic and competitive one. Instead of having to submit his work for the approval of a powerful individual patron or a conservative academic jury, Picasso had a number of independent dealers competing for the right to buy his paintings, and to find purchasers for them. This gave him a freedom in making his art that had almost no precedent in the entire history of Western art. The radical innovation of stylistic versatility was just one of the bold and imaginative responses Picasso made to this situation, as he successfully attained his goal of becoming the most innovative artist of his time, and of ranking among the greatest of any time.


Two Women Running on the Beach (1922). Image courtesy of Musée Picasso, Paris.

Picasso’s novel approach to style spread widely among painters, but only among those who were conceptual. Stylistic versatility has remained anathema to experimental artists, who almost universally regard the painstaking construction of a unique personal style as a necessary condition for the creation of sincere and truthful art. But for conceptual artists interested in expressing ideas, the flexibility of changing styles was a powerful and liberating innovation. As Picasso explained, “style is often something which locks the painter into the same vision…sometimes during one’s whole lifetime…I myself thrash around too much.” In language that would echo through generations of brash young conceptual innovators, Picasso declared that “In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find, is the thing…When I paint my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for.”


Girl before a Mirror (1932). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Previous article by David Galenson:

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by David W. GalensonAdded 10.03.2014
Fortunately, Derek Walcott didn't study psychology. So he never had to read Harvey Lehman's claim that he was supposed to peak early -- "the golden decade for the writing of secular poetry occurs not later than the '20s" -- or Howard Gardner's...

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