Why Twentieth-Century Art is So Different from All Earlier Art

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). 10.04.2014

In the introduction to his excellent history of modern art, George Heard Hamilton observed that:

In the half-century between 1886, the date of the last Impressionist exhibition, and the beginning of the Second World War, a change took place in the theory and practice of art which was as radical and momentous as any that had occurred in human history. It was based on the belief that works of art need not imitate or represent natural objects and events.

Hamilton remarked that the most radical element of this change was Cubism, which “embodied for the first time in Western art the principle that a work of art…need not be restricted to the phenomenal appearance of the object for which it stands.”

In view of the vast importance of the change Hamilton described, we might assume that art scholars would have devoted extensive study to its timing. Surprisingly, however, few art scholars have even raised this question. And those who have raised it have not produced impressive results. The critic Arthur Danto, for example, confessed that why this change began in the nineteenth century “I have no clear idea, any more than I have a clear idea of why, in the early fourteenth century, the Vasarian conquest of visual appearances, should have begun.” Remarkably, Danto thus contended that an event that occurred barely 100 years ago was as incomprehensible as one that had occurred fully five centuries earlier. The claim is startling, for we know dramatically more about the art world of Paris in 1900 than about that of Florence in 1400. And in fact Danto’s conclusion is wrong, for what we know is sufficient to explain the timing of the transformation of modern art quite precisely.

The failure of Danto and other art scholars to explain why a revolution occurred in modern art at the turn of the twentieth century stems not from a lack of evidence, but rather from their inability to understand the role of markets in transforming modern art. The relevant facts are well known to art scholars, and the relevant analysis is familiar to even freshman students of economics.

For most of the twentieth century, Paris’ market for fine art was dominated by the government. The central institution of control was the Salon, an annual or biennial exhibition that effectively monopolized the ability to present fine art in a setting that critics and collectors would accept as legitimate. In 1874, frustrated by their lack of success in having their paintings accepted by the Salon, Claude Monet and a group of his friends held an independent exhibition. Far beyond the intentions of the Impressionists, this began a new era, in which important artists would no longer make their reputations in the official Salon. The conservative jury of the Salon would no longer have the power to determine whether an aspiring artist could have a successful career. During a transitional period, the Impressionist group exhibitions and other, new independent group shows became the most important places for artists to exhibit. And during this period, more private galleries successfully began to sell the work of artists who had never exhibited in the official Salon.

The first artist to rise to prominence by exhibiting in galleries rather than group shows was the ambitious young Spaniard, Pablo Picasso. During his first two decades in Paris, Picasso shrewdly used his art to create a competitive market for his work: one element of this was his execution of more portraits of dealers than any artist had ever made, which remain today as visual evidence of the birth of a new regime in the history of art markets. When the Italian painter Umberto Boccioni visited Paris in 1911, he reported to a friend that “the young man ruling the roost here is now Picasso…the painter scarcely finishes a work before it is carted off and paid for by the dealers in competition with each other.”

From the Renaissance on, virtually all artists were constrained in the extent to which they could innovate by the need to satisfy powerful individual or institutional patrons. The overthrow of the Salon monopoly of Paris’ art market started a process that led to a competitive market for advanced art.  With the constraint of patronage removed, artists had a new freedom to innovate. Dealers and collectors soon recognized that the most innovative art would become the most valuable. In a market setting that rewarded innovation, conceptual artists – who could innovate more rapidly and conspicuously – gained a decisive advantage over their experimental counterparts. Here too Picasso, the archetypal young conceptual genius, led the way.

Picasso initiated the most important stylistic innovation of the twentieth century in 1907, when he produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.jpg

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

which announced the arrival of Cubism. He shocked the art world again in 1912 when he created a new genre, collage. Many other conceptual artists followed his lead, violating conventions of painting and sculpture to devise their own new art forms: during the twentieth century, more than four dozen new artistic genres were invented and named. Before long, Picasso had again shocked the art world by pioneering the practice of stylistic versatility.

Other conceptual revolutions followed Picasso’s example. Picasso’s friend Georges Braque initiated one by using letters and words in paintings; the role of language in painting grew steadily thereafter. Marcel Duchamp made works that forced observers to ponder the question of whether his art was serious or a joke; his followers in the role of artistic trickster have prominently included Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst. A series of artists, including Yves Klein, Warhol, and Hirst, have become executives, designing work that is made entirely by others. Pairs of artists have followed Gilbert and George by coauthoring all their work. Following Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, a series of artists, among them Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, and Tracey Emin, have drawn their motifs exclusively from their own lives. And artists have openly embraced the market, breaking an art world taboo by openly declaring that they wanted to be as wealthy as possible: Warhol, Klein, Hirst, and Murakami are leaders in this practice.

There have been great experimental artists in the past century. Yet as sketched above, a succession of conceptual innovators have demonstrated that more radical forms and practices could be developed much more quickly by formulating new ideas that violated traditional conventions. It is above all their work, and play, that made the art of the last century completely different from that of all earlier times.

In 2001, Arthur Danto declared that “We are living in a conceptual art world.” The observation was accurate, but tardy. The conceptual art world of the late twentieth century developed directly from the earlier conceptual innovations of Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, and their many heirs. The competitive market for advanced art that was initiated in the late nineteenth century gave artists of the twentieth century a new freedom, and a succession of brash, iconoclastic young innovators responded by creating forms that would not even have been recognized as art in any earlier era.

The story of the development of art in the past century is largely one of conceptual artists making conspicuous and transgressive innovations early in their careers, then giving way to the next cohort of conceptual young geniuses. The structure of the market for art made this possible, as ever larger numbers of dealers competed to find purchasers for their work. Trotsky’s dream of permanent revolution proved impractical in politics, but a highly competitive market made it a reality in art. Today the freedom for artists is so great that it is virtually impossible to define any real boundaries for advanced art. Thus one of contemporary art’s most successful practitioners, Damien Hirst, recently declared that “Art is invention, exciting and fantastic,” and added: “When someone tells me I can’t do something, so far I’ve always found out that I can.”


Huffington Post link: “The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity,” October 11, 2010 

Rate this essay

Click the stars to rate

Recent Essays