Apr 10th 2014

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

by David W. Galenson

Dr. 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). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.

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 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"